Media on a new voyage

At last! This Republic Day I want to celebrate one of the most powerful revolutions taking shape in India: that of a more free, more bold, more unshackled media. And even though sections of it continue to be linked with one political party or the other, a new sense of freedom and independence appears to have dawned on the Indian fourth estate as it begins to take on the establishment. Initially, the shrillness of their reportage was a little scary — specially when compared to the quietly scathing investigation from the BBC — but as the spotlight shifts from political corruption to humanitarian stories, one begins to appreciate it.
One necessary fallout of this new self-confidence has been that barring a few Niira Radia hiccups, the Indian media is becoming much more aggressive with the government and politicians. Therefore, increasingly, one hears the phrase, “Oh! This is just a media exaggeration” from nervous quarries in the spotlight for some misdemeanour. And that’s really a huge compliment — because everyone has realised here (as in the UK) that in the face of a fierce media, there is nowhere to hide.
It is also a relief to see that that there is a dissolution of the unbearable and smarmy respect and awe reserved for politicians in particular on TV channels. This is a true sign of a healthy democracy.
Hopefully, now, the same robust scepticism will permeate into all types of media, especially print, and there will be a cessation of the need to paste the photographs of ministers with such alacrity and frequency alongside reports which often read like press handouts.
Perhaps the transparency has come only because the media channels need a constant supply of news to keep the TRP fires burning, and it can be either news which comes from abroad or from a local source — either is welcome. The motivation is irrelevant because we should all celebrate the result, especially in cases where the vulnerable are concerned.
We only have to look at the high-profile case of the young girl from Banda who was first raped and then jailed for a trumped up case of petty theft to understand the kind of unaccountable power Purshottam Naresh Dwivedi must have enjoyed as an MLA (member of the legislative Assembly) in Uttar Pradesh when he allegedly committed this ghastly crime. There is no doubt that people would have known about him, and the local media must have been completely in thrall. But by relentlessly following the story, the national media has thrown up enormous questions of the rights of individuals even in a state led by a woman who comes from a socially-deprived background herself. There has been shocking silence from the Central government because issues of gender justice are never high on the agenda. And apart from that, why would they want to upset Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and a crucial ally? As a result the poor teenager has become fair game for the unscrupulous: she has neither received support, nor counselling or proper medical treatment. In any other country, she would have (on purely humanitarian grounds) been given protection and allowed space to recover from what has undoubtedly been a very traumatic experience. Instead, we have statements from the chief minister about how the state governance has been maligned. Whilst I oppose rape victims being so completely exposed to the media, it is difficult to understand how else she could have sought justice when all the elements (the police, politicians, medical authorities), which should be on her side, seem either disinterested or totally oblivious to her condition, apart from making some meaningless gestures. Ironically, if she was a victim of communal violence, all the secularists would have descended on her doorstep en masse. But being a harassed and humiliated woman is simply not good enough to merit collective outrage.
Again, in the case of the allegedly “battered” wife Paromita Verma, who had reportedly been struck by her husband Anil Verma, an official at the Indian high commission in the UK, the Indian government appears to be on the backfoot. At least the British government and the foreign office made an attempt to shield her and offer her some judicial recourse. But that these were thwarted by the ham-handed efforts of various Indian governmental agencies concerned only makes us even more worried if justice will ever be done. Nonetheless, the fact that the case has become so high-profile offers hope. Perhaps the only way for justice is to ensure the story hits the headlines: it is the one fear that still holds the key!
Given the number of gender-related cases in India, I often wonder if we should now work towards having fast-track courts which would deal only with cases in which women have been victimised. This will also force the perpetrators to think before they attack a woman — as they will know that it is likely they are going to be behind bars not in 20 or 40 years, but perhaps in a few months.
Nonetheless, gender-justice is something one hopes the media remains sensitive about — especially now when there are a large number of young women working within the TV industry. In a largely illiterate population it is the television medium that has a greater impact. Obviously, the change will come from the news channels and not from the entertainment channels which are still mired in tradition-bound saas bahu serials, reinforcing the same old regressive attitudes…

Meanwhile, on a personal note, am now en route to London where it will be an exciting week. I will attend the Costa Award Ceremony on January 25 for my book which has just won the first novel award. It promises to be a glittering affair in the heart of London… a great way to start the New Year!

The writer can be contacted at kishwardesai@yahoo.com

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