Rights violations by the media?

BY Imphal Free Press| IN Media Practice | 31/07/2009
When the Imphal Free Press carried a photograph recently of a rape victim, it generated these two editorials. The paper allowed a leader writer to have her say, but also countered it two days later, with its own view.

Imphal Free Press, Friday, 31 July 2009



Media Spaces



Leader writer : Chitra Ahanthem


The issue of rights violation has become so much centered upon the issue of killings in the ongoing-armed conflicts in the State today that other significant aspects of the rights of a person are hardly seen as significant. In another extension of this near obsessive focus on armed excesses or violence related instances, State security forces have long been seen as human rights violators while non State armed security groups have been clubbed into this group in the background of their attacks on civilian locations and firings at public places. In the midst of all the churnings in the social, economic, political and standard of life under the shadow of guns, the media is one section that keeps its eye and act as the bearer of news of what is happening on a daily grind. That the media fraternity in Manipur is understaffed and underpaid is known and accepted. What is not acknowledged however is that the media often shortchanges its readers at times: going for sensationalism and going ahead with news stories and reports without corroborating facts. The reasons for this are manifold: for starters, media houses do not have any guidelines for what should and what should not get into print. Even with the electronic medium, the local cable news gets away with a lot more insensitive portrayal of events and persons affected by those events. Understaffing at media houses, which in a sense, is related to the underpaid nature of work, also contributes to the lack of attention to details. Except for a few Manipuri newspaper houses, most have around 10 reporters or so. Some even less.  What adds to make it worse of course, is that every person running the show for any sort of event starting from a dharna to a press conference to everything else expects nothing less than the known faces of each newspaper to cover their event. This means then most reporters get caught in the frenzy of press conferences and protest dharnas that dot the course of a single day, leaving little room for detailed stories.


Most media practitioners except the senior staff get opportunities to go for exposure trainings or have interactions with seasoned persons in the field. There is no specialization of areas or ¿beats¿ as they are known which also means that journalists in the field also have an excuse not to be an expert and thereby excusable in case they make glaring mistakes. There have been many instances where lack of understanding of complex issues like gender have jarred sensitivities: the many cartoons that lampoon political leaders dressed as women comes to mind here. When The Telegraph newspaper recently showed a composite picture of five of its top administrators (including the Chief Minister and the Director General of Police) dressed in saris, it triggered off intense reactions from women groups. Compared to that, the media in Manipur has not met any form of protest on the occasions that it has dressed up political leaders as women and are totally lost to the way it adds to the stereotyping of women as weak and inefficient.


But no reasoning can excuse gross violations when media representation oversteps its boundaries. The nature of reporting on incidences of rape happening in the state not only lacks sensitivity but also violates ethical as well as legal lines. While reporting on rape has indeed gone to a stage where the name of the victim is changed to protect her identity, most reports still carry the name of the parents and the locality of the victim as has happened in the case of a physically challenged girl that happened this week (IFP carried the photograph of the girl). Such reports are actually punishable by law for Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) treats publication of the name of the raped woman or any matter, which may make known the identity of a raped woman as a cognizable offence punishable with imprisonment of up to two years and fine. Many may well debate saying that when the victim herself has called for a press conference her identity (or part of it) can be made public. But reporting rape cases cannot be akin to reporting other crime stories for rape carries stigma and social prejudice. This is why the Press Council of India laid down Norm No.14 which states: "Caution against identification: While reporting crime involving rape, abduction or kidnap of women/females or sexual assault on children, or raising doubts and questions touching the chastity, personal character and privacy of women, the names, photographs of the victims or other particulars leading to their identity shall not be published."  


The media in Manipur is as much a victim of circumstances as much as every citizen of the state but has a stronger responsibility to be more humane and mature than most others in the representation of the tears in the fabric of our lives. If the task is difficult because of lack of serious debates and a much needed media monitoring, then perhaps it is time that all media practitioners sat down and lay down guidelines for media coverage. For a change, such an exercise would be held not because of a threat from guns and grenades due to certain press releases not getting space but because, the media recognizes its responsibilities.




Media and its Critics


Contrary to popular belief, it is not always a case of the media which must have an opinion on any matter under the sun, but equally everybody under the sun having to have an opinion on how the media should function and conduct itself in general. Hence it is not just a trial by media that the public have to suffer often, but the media too has had to suffer scrutiny by people who may or may not have adequate understanding of the trials and tribulations, pressures and compulsions, the media undergoes on a daily basis. In a way, there is nothing wrong with this for both become in the process a good foil of each other in the democratic spirit of putting up as many checks and balances as possible so as to ensure everybody remains on track. But sometimes these trials shoot off beyond limits, especially when the media or else the media critics, presume a self ordained authority that is not warranted, mandated or legitimised by either a general sense of moral rectitude or else legitimate institutions.


The media as we see it can only be a whistle blower, alerting the people of possible violations of norms which have occurred or are likely to occur, but it cannot be the judge over these matters. The judgement can only come from people legitimised by not just the specialisation they have achieved in law and its practice, but also by belonging to legitimate institutions of the state set up precisely for the purpose. No we do not believe modern life and the state can be ever delinked. Notions of justice, rights, entitlements etc make meaning only against the context of the state. Without the state there would only be anarchy. The objective then should not be to destroy the state but to make it benign and respectful of individual freedom and welfare. Democracy just happens to be the closest and the most successful in guaranteeing these conditions. Democracy, Winston Churchill once famously said, is the worst system if not for the others.


If the media cannot sit in judgement over public issues, so cannot anybody else, apart from those mandated by democratic norms and institutions. So many however arrogantly do it, not the least in their self righteous criticism of the media. The government has done it and the parallel governments have done it, often in extreme forms resulting in media shutdowns. So have others. One is reminded of a rather cynical remark by Sir Vidia S Naipaul in commenting on the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. He said the death threat on the author was a severe form of literary criticism. Few others would understand the essence of this masterly piece of black humour than the media (and sometimes Shumang Lila and film makers) in Manipur. Just reservations about two familiar criticisms of the media in Manipur should summarise our contention. One is the media is often bludgeoned (and not a mere statement of facts) that journalists in the state are ill paid and that this tells on the quality of work. Well media professionals here get benefits which are the true market standard. Other professions linked to the market realities of the state do not get better. Only those shielded from this reality, such as government employees and NGO workers in niche well-funded fields get more. Hence government school teachers, many of whose schools do not manage to produce even one successful candidate in the annual Matric examinations year after year, are entitled to salaries several times those of their counterparts in private schools which perform much better. The NGO workers of course do not earn their own money in the traditional sense. They manage other people¿s money. The other reservation is about literal application of generalised norms in specific situations. For instance dowry is banned in India, but if this ban were to be imposed in letter and spirit in Manipur, it would amount to an injustice. Dowry here is not the same as in say north India were it is more like a bargained bride price. Here it is more of a social mechanism to ensure female children¿s inheritance rights to parental property. Coverage of insurgency, violence, rape etc are some others where a differential scale sometimes is essential. On the last issue for instance, the IFP drew some flak. We acknowledge an unintended technical error which resulted in a digital mask over a victim¿s face coming off during desk top printing, but without being too defensive, as far as we remember, rape coverage by the media in general in Manipur have been primarily focussed on the perpetrators, not the victims. If the victims came into the picture, this was to accentuate the guilt of the perpetrator. This is different from the titillating, voyeuristic, intrusive coverage that once marked TV coverage of such crimes in India, which ultimately prompted the Supreme Court to rule against such coverage.





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