Vol. XL No. 48 November 27, 2016

Media and Minority Rights Under the Scanner

By a Special Correspondent

JOURNALISTS gathered at a seminar on media and minority rights called upon their colleagues to ensure fairer and wider coverage of the issues of dalits, tribals and religious minorities in the media. The seminar was organised by the Delhi Union of Journalists on November 12, 2016, in association with Kerala Union of Journalists and Delhi Media Centre for Research and Publication Trust. It was chaired by DUJ president S K Pande.

Research shows that there are few dalit journalists today, pointed out veteran journalist and media analyst Sukumar Muralidharan in his overview address. He said the lack of representation of various minorities leads to a kind of ‘group think’ in the media with only the viewpoints of the privileged being projected.  He pointed to the growth of the social media as an alternative source of news but warned that without journalists as intermediaries to verify the accuracy of the information offered, social media messages and images can at times lead to violence and chaos.

Journalist and researcher Dilip Mandal reeled out data on the lack of dalits in the media, regretting that despite such research, since the first study in 1997, there has been practically no change in the composition of the media. He said, in contrast, the Society of Newspaper Editors in the United States encouraged the production of media diversity reports, published them on websites and tried to redress the imbalance. Mandal commented on the barriers in media to entry of dalits and the bias in coverage of dalit issues, for instance on the reservation issue. He said the only hope now lay in the emergence of a bahujan public sphere in the alternative social media which provides far greater information, more quickly on dalit issues. He said expansion of the internet and the smart phone revolution would amplify the voices of the marginalised.    

Nathu Prasad, general secretary of Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch said the media should reflect the pain of the ordinary people, of workers, of minorities instead of providing saturation coverage of government pronouncements and actions.

Writer and journalist Anjali Deshpande pointed out that in 1997 when senior journalist B N Uniyal had done a quick survey of accredited correspondents in Delhi, he had found 26 Muslim accredited journalists but not a single dalit. The situation is only slightly better today with a three month study commissioned by The Hoot managing to identify 21 dalit journalists, including one from the Bhangi community.  Anjali made a distinction between the word ‘shudra' that means lower castes who are ‘touchable’ and the word ‘dalit’ which refers to the untouchable. She said the word ‘dal’ had Sanskrit roots and meant ‘broken’.  In Maharashtra, she said, the dalit is called the ‘Bahirla’ literally the outsider. Jyotiba Phule first used the term dalit to speak of all the oppressed including women.  Later it was adopted by the Dalit Panthers. She noted that most of the time the media portrays dalits only as victims but now sometimes speaks of the rights of dalits which indicates a shift in thinking.

Seema Mustafa, editor of The Citizen, agreed that the media is not fair to the marginalised; today it writes for the corporates and the rich, not the poor. She said governments have a narrative; it is the job of journalists to bust it, not to feed it. Unfortunately what we now have is a censored, complicit media, she observed. She regretted the growing Islamophobia and the creation of a Muslim stereotype of a bearded, gun wielding terrorist.

Urdu newspaper editor and poet Masoom Moradabadi commented sarcastically that the media was creating a negative image of the Muslim male as a man who spends all day, day after day, saying ‘Talaq, talaq, talaq”. He said this is a false picture as divorce is these days often frowned upon in the community. He said the electronic media in particular is guilty of bias and treats all Muslims as if they are an evil that the country should be rid of. If the Muslims continue to be cornered like this what will happen, he asked. He expressed deep despondency at the state of affairs in the nation and the media.

Crusader  journalist John Dayal’s paper that was read out on his behalf  made several suggestions on what could be done to improve the communal situation. He said that all district magistrates should be personally responsible for violence in their districts.

The discussion then shifted to tribal rights, with academic and writer Ramanika Gupta pointing out the many ways in which adivasis are being marginalised. The Forest Rights Act has not been implemented in most tribal areas she said and PESA too has not been implemented in states like Jharkhand. She regretted the tendency to call all adivasis in the central India belt naxalites if they put up any resistance to the takeover of their lands and resources. She referred to the repeated firings on adivasis protesting against land grab by mining companies. She also observed that while past censuses recognised the category ‘Animist’ the census now lumps all Animists as Hindus.  

Vasavi Kiro, a tribal journalist from Ranchi, said there were many problems plaguing the tribal people, beginning with 2 Ms, Malaria and Malnutrition. She referred to a recent government report that said 70 percent of adivasi women and 80 percent of adivasi children are malnourished today. She said the reasons were deforestation and displacement, with the lack of access to traditional food resources from the forests taking its toll on the health of the people. She said poverty and displacement has pushed out five lakh adivasi women and girls to work as domestic workers in Delhi. Vasavi referred to the media indifference to the plight of adivasis even when there are atrocities such as three recent cases of police firings on protesting people in Jharkhand on August 28, on October 1 and again on October 22. Maoism will continue, she warned, if the problems of the tribals are not addressed. She challenged the government to provide a single successful model of rehabilitation of displaced people anywhere in the country.

Ajoy Ashirwad journalist and researcher of ‘The Wire’ said the major problems of tribals were non-recognition of their land rights, denial of access to forest resources, poor health facilities and malnutrition. He said the media only highlights tribal issue in three contexts. Firstly, if there is Maoist conflict which is a byproduct of the State’s push towards mining; secondly when there is militancy in the northeast and conflicts between tribal groups; and lastly when the right-wing raises issues of conversion as happened in Kandhamal where there were massive attacks on Christians. He said that there has been increasing mobilisation by Hindutva forces over the past year in Chhattisgarh and Telangana where there have been systematic attacks on Christian Pastors and churches. Gram panchayats are misusing powers under PESA to attack village churches, school and even burial grounds and take over these properties.

Senior journalist  Iftikhar Gilani lamented the plight of the journalist and the common person in the Kashmir valley and the curbs on newspapers there with clear examples. Even journalist bodies he regretted betrayed an ominous silence, he said while the people suffered.

Kerala journalist  Prasoon S expressed solidarity with the theme but spotlighted the problems of journalists and attacks by some lawyers on some scribes in Kerala. A resolution asking for more active government  intervention was unanimously passed.

The seminar ended with some discussion and a brief summary vote of thanks by S K Pande who called for greater introspection by the media, greater solidarity with the minorities, and also greater unity among the media fraternity to fight attempts at censorship of news and other attacks on the press in these trying times. He lamented that anti minority, biased lenses backed up by government, caste and class pressures often tended to underplay the churning and re-churning and increasing unity that was visible increasingly.