Call to democratise media

IN Books | 25/08/2011
Prof Thomas’s years of engagement with the CR movement imbues the book with an unwavering focus on the benefit to the people as the measure of success of a movement.
PADMAJA SHAW reviews a pioneering work.
Negotiating communication rights: Case studies from India by Pradip Ninan Thomas. New Delhi: Sage. 2011. Rs 695.
 ‘Negotiating communication rights: Case studies from India’ is the second of a three volume series on media in India written by Prof Pradip Thomas, the co-director of the Centre for Communication and Social Change, The University of Queensland, Australia. ‘Political economy of communication in India’, the first in the series was published in 2010 and the next in the series, ‘The digital and social change’ is under review.
The extraordinary movements of reassertion of people-power across the globe, whether in the Middle East, Europe or India, render this book, ‘Negotiating communication rights’, prophetic in its scope, as it discusses the primacy of communication rights (CR) alongside the widely recognised human rights for achieving a just and humane society.
The first section discusses and interconnects various practical and theoretical streams that have long explored communication rights. Beginning with a brief history of communication rights thought, the section includes an insightful exploration of the role of MacBride Commission Report in posing a challenge to the dominant global order, its aftermath and the role of CRIS movement in keeping the CR debate alive over the years.
The section also includes chapters on the ‘Philosophy of communication rights’ and ‘Observations on theorising communication rights in India’. The philosophy chapter discusses Martin Buber, Habermas and Paulo Freire’s perspectives on public sphere and rights, and points out that ‘protonorms’ such as self-respect have to be made the basis for communication rights and that ‘Voice must lead to a better quality of life.’ The chapter on theorising communication rights in India looks at the issue in all its complexity, accounting for the roles of the state, the corporate sector and the sectarian interests. The author says that the rights discourse is under threat from ‘syndicated religions’, and an instrumentalist understanding of communication.
The second section of the book deals with five case studies – the right to information movement, the community radio movement, the women and media movement, the free and open software movement and the citizen journalism movement. Of the five case studies, the author cites the right to information movement and the free and open software movement as the most vibrant and inspiring. Each of the case studies is presented within a theoretical and historical context and discussed for its potential for success given the policy framework and public response. Both the right to information and the free and open software movements are presented in greater detail as the impact of both the movements have gone well beyond their communities of origin. According to the author, the RTI movement ‘valorises Voice’, while the free and open software movement opens up significant possibilities for e-governance to benefit the marginalised communities.
Prof Thomas’s years of engagement with the CR movement imbues the book with an unwavering focus on the benefit to the people as the measure of success of a movement. The idea of communication rights as mapped by Prof Thomas includes not just the right of the people to communicate autonomously but their right to be heard. He says, `‘The CR initiatives need to be grounded in and evolve from real contexts where people are faced by communication deficits. While participation is a buzz word today, its contribution to processes making a difference in people’s lives is in many ways determined by the extent to which the initiators of participation, that is, an NGO, embraces participation in its own life and work ... The issue here is the need to listen to people. To what extent are NGOs and inter-governmental agencies involved in supporting CR listening to people? ... Who is involved in defining communication deficits and solutions to these deficits?’’
The book brings together a large canvas of theory and practice in the communication rights activism in India. Probably for the first time, the case of free and open software movement has been redefined as a CR activity, opening up the possibility for newer synergies between groups working within various domains of information exchange.
However, for a significant academic contribution of this scope, if there is any negative to be mentioned, it is the poor quality proofreading, which I hope will be rectified in later editions.
For the Indian communication academia that is entrapped in ‘trickle-down’ and ‘top-down’ theories of communication of Western orientation, this book is mandatory for its firm focus on theories and projects that have made a significant difference to the lives of the people. The book calls for democratisation of media, and emphasises the need to develop a CR framework for Indian needs. This is an important step towards identifying the real concerns of the marginalised people in India, communication rights being central to the articulation and achievement of their needs.
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