An opportunity lost at the World Social Forum

BY das gupta| IN Media Practice | 27/03/2004
An opportunity lost at the World Social Forum


A comparison of the coverage by the English and the language press in Karnataka state reveals that the real constituency of the WSF never got to hear about its proceedings.


Shangon Das Gupta 

‘Another world is possible’………………For five days in January this year, a humungous mass of people met at Mumbai to protest against free trade, structural adjustment and express their dissent on the growing income disparities and social conflict.  With over 1,00,000 people converging to reiterate the need for another world, the Mumbai experience highlighted a progressive increase in numbers from the previous 20,000 to 50,0000 participants in the meets held at Purto Alegre (Brazil).   

The WSF at Mumbai emerged as a "growing global movement against trade liberalization and privatization, held together by grassroots groups, trade unions, NGOs and artistes."  As former President Dr. K.R.Narayan put it on the closing day, "The end of the WSF is the beginning of a new form of world." 

The five day fare

Over one lakh people, 130 organisations, 130 countries, 1200 workshops, 600 exhibitions stalls spread over 150 seminar halls, five conference halls, seven performance stages for cultural events, films,   (the numbers are not exact, but are only indicative of the scale) came together in a spirit of voluntary participation to raise their concerns, dissent and even protest.   Exhibitions, seminars, panel discussions, conferences, rallies, morchas, street plays, film screenings, protests, exhibitions and sales filled the five days with an unprecedented colour and energy.   

Issues  as wide-ranging as mobility access, to sexual rights to anti-war movements and the ruling orthodoxy in the economic world, found their space at the WSF.  Experiences were discussed, ideas exchanged, and alternatives identified.  Gandhians, free thinkers, anarchists, socialists, anti-imperialists, peaceniks, feminists, human right workers, disability groups, sexual right activists, and social workers - they were all there to celebrate the pluralism of a democratic world.   

At the end of five days, the groups wend their way homewards, tired yet exhilarated, to start their work towards building ‘another world’.  The once-in-a lifetime  experience of solidarity absorbed by those who were able to make it to Mumbai ……. members of civil society who were able to put their lives on hold as they joined shoulders with others to voice their concern, protest, dissent and celebrate. 

As expected, the mainstream press reported on the WSF meetings.  About 3000 media personnel were present to cover the event and report back to their constituencies on the mood of the world’s greatest show of dissent.  Some stationed full-time reporters, correspondents and photographers. Though two-third of this number were from the ‘alternate media’, the fact that major publications positioned dedicated correspondents at the specially erected media centre was significant.   

Sobering facts

So then, what did the media do?  A random look at the newspaper coverage reveals that the media regarded the WSF as an annual feature of global dissent on the political calender.  The writings were mostly news reports, sometimes bordering on curiosity, and at other times patronising towards a group of well-meaning mavericks who had to be indulged for the sake of political correctness.  Nonconformists, perhaps even anarchists and deviants who demanded attention.  Contrary to this, those present at the WSF strongly aver that the event was not made up of reactionaries who used the forum to promote anarchist methods against the Northern rich.   

We, at CDL(Communication for Development and Learning),  undertook a compilation of the news coverage of the event in Karnataka over the five-day period (16.1.04 - 23-1.04).   Four language dailies were scanned and the same number of English newspapers.  All the English newspapers were multi-city editions, except for one (DH) which was a state-based newspaper.  The break-up of the nature of coverage reveals (See Table One)



16th Jan to 23rd Jan 2004








The Hindu






The New Indian Express






The Asian Age






The Times of India






Deccan Herald




















While most of the coverage naturally revolved around the newsmakers and the big names at the WSF,  there were some interesting asides which included a story on the t-shirts at sale and the music and dance carnival.  Each of the publications carried an Editorial and the use of visuals was lavish and interesting.  The Hindu went an extra mile when the Jan 18 edition carried the complete text of the speech made by Arundhati Roy at the opening Plenary session.  Also significant was that this was reproduced was within the main edition (Page 14).   

This database includes the attention given to the unfortunate case of rape which immediately became a point of media attention.  Of the 70 clippings in English, 9 were on the rape case and one in kannada.  While the rape case cast a shadow on the event, this was interpreted in every hue and colour possible.   

An unexpected finding was the fact that of the four newspapers scanned in the language press published from Bangalore, only ONE newspaper carried news about the WSF.  Three of the leading editions did not make any reference to the ‘world’s biggest show  of dissent’.   

We also undertook a comparative assessment of the coverage in the city edition of the Deccan Herald and that of the only language dailies that carried news on the WSF.  What did this reveal?  There were 18 news items in DH and 11 in PV.  All were news-based and around events organized during the day.  The use of photographs was extensive in the English paper while the language edition had little visual relief.  Each of the newspapers carried an editorial and no letters to the editor was noted.  Neither paper gave emphasis to the rape case nor its implications and treated this as yet another event.  Interestingly, 6 of the articles in PV were placed on page one though two of these were continued within the edition (page 8). In the DH only 2 clippings were positioned on page one, though one of these was the main photo with a caption.   

Melting pot of DIVersity

But contrary to the limited media mix of the coverage, the participants at the WSF believe that there were much deeper complexities at work during the event.  The focus of the WSF was to draw attention on the economic order where the terms of global trade and investment are skewed in favour of the rich countries. It was also a forum to celebrate the DIVersity of a world rich in variety, opinions, voices and perspectives.  The farmers, people with disability, child rights groups, women’s groups, displaced, tribals, war victims, all had a point of view which was expressed fearlessly. 

The statement that development strategies should be people-centred, not dictated by markets and profits, that livelihoods need to be sustainable and not based on the prototypes dictated, manufactured and marketed by the multinationals, and that the interests of the wealthy and powerful cannot be imposed on a world rich in DIVersity, emerged out of this melting pot of inDIVidual perspectives.   

If the participants at the WSF came together to represent and protect the interests of the marginalized, the poor, the tribals, dalits and the landless, were these adequately represented?  For every one person who was able to make it to the mela,  there were hundred others who could not.  If these groups were the very reasons behind the WSF agenda, were efforts made to include them in their absence?  To inform them of the discussions and the decisions being taken?  Of the importance to sustain their  involvement on the issues that affected their very existence? 

This is where the media had a critical role to play.  Particularly the language press.  The NRS surveys clearly indicate that the reach of the vernacular press is far greater than that of the English press.   Karnataka has several newspapers with a state-wide circulation and a district-based readership; then there are others which are largely city based.    

Yet  little effort was made to inform the vast numbers who were not present at the WSF.  Our evidence states that only one language newspaper in the state carried news reports on the WSF.  Now that the talking is over, the constituencies will not be wrong when they question, "Is another world possible only for those who read English or were able to travel to Mumbai?" 

The fact that only one language newspaper in the state chose to include news about the five-day event in the editorial content is a sobering indicator of the lop-sided focus of the media attention.   That this newspaper is the sister publication of the leading English daily in the state which positioned one correspondent at Mumbai for the entire period is a side issue.  The point is that this language publication very early recognized both, the importance of the WSF and its relevance to the rural readers as well as the need for pluralistic content in its pages.  Defining local news content was the first message against globalisation ! 

So while the World Economic Forum was covered, the Editors ensured that the WSF also got equal importance.  In fact, the editorial comment on the last day of the WSF stated,  "The  World Economic Forum (WEF) where some of  the world’s most powerful political and business leaders meet, has commenced its annual conference at Davos.  The kinds of worlds envisioned by the WSF and the WEF are poles apart.  The WEF vision needs correction and its delegates would do well to heed the call that has come out of the WSF meet."  (DH 22 Jan 04) 

That the meet was held in India where fractured civil society and DIVisions on political lines are dominant facets of its society, had a significance beyond the five-day event.  That this implies a responsibility to reach the discussions of the WSF to the ultimate constituency needed to have been addressed much earlier.    

Putting together such a humungous forum, both in terms of the resources involved and the logistics was not an easy job, and one that can not be repeated in a hurry.  Can this then be regarded as an ‘opportunity lost’ in engaging with the mass of humanity that cannot be ignored.  Communication with the masses, albeit at a tertiary level, would have indicated quite clearly not just that ‘another world is possible’, but that "another world is happening."   

That efforts within the media could not address this sooner, by engaging with the language press, is probably the greatest casualty of this enormous event.                                           


Shangon Das Gupta runs Communication for Development and Learning. Contact:



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