November 2006 
Year 13    No.120

Cover Story

Studied silence

The media and mass movements: Notes of an activist


As a human rights activist, one stands committed to the right to freedom of expression and in turn to the freedom of the press. However, the shrinking space in the media for movements for people’s rights remains a growing concern for citizens of the country committed to democracy. On the one hand there is a segregation of news into the regional pages of newspapers, limiting important coverage to locales and regions. On the other hand there appears to be a dominance or monopoly of so-called national and world news.

In Chhattisgarh we find newspapers bringing out city editions. As a result, the news from a particular region in the state is reported in the respective city editions and barely carried in other editions. So a citizen sitting in Raipur does not get the opportunity to read significant news emerging out of the Bilaspur region or for that matter any other region in Chhattisgarh.

Take for example the Shaheed Niyogi Diwas observed at Bhilai, the steel city of Chhattisgarh, on September 28, 2006. Eight thousand workers, peasants, women and youth from various parts of the state gathered to pay homage to the martyr, reflecting also that a dynamic movement like the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha was alive. This significant mobilisation was restricted to a news item – although a prominent one – only in the Bhilai edition of almost all newspapers published from Raipur, Chhattisgarh’s capital city. In contrast, the visit of a national political leader like Sonia Gandhi to Chhattisgarh a few days later was prominently placed in all editions of all newspapers published from Raipur.

Only a decade and a half ago, the media’s response to democratic movements was enthusiastic and palpable. While the era of globalisation and neo-liberal policies has prised open consumerist lust and competition, it appears to have dampened media interest in democratic movements. Last month a mass-based organisation held a press conference to speak about its proposed campaign against the use of machines in farming like the harvester, which renders jobless thousands of agricultural workers who are then forced to migrate to other parts of the country. It also provided case studies of bonded labourers in Mahasamund district who were released by the Supreme Court of India way back in April 1988. Many of them were present to narrate their stories about how the state government had failed to comply with even the minimum requirements for providing them with reasonable work and land for livelihood.

The press conference was held at the Press Club in Raipur. But the next day only one of the morning newspapers published from Raipur carried a report of the press conference. The argument offered was that the press conference was ill timed as it was held on the eve of Diwali. The timing did not prevent newspapers from carrying news of certain religious and social functions in full detail. Media preference was clear. A democratic movement’s protest against a policy that would render hundreds of thousands of labourers jobless went unreported. But a large portion of the state’s dailies did have space for and were full of Diwali advertisements – displaying greetings by political leaders or commercial enterprises!

The capacity of the media to put forth the facts and place these in the correct perspective is also on the decline. This may be attributed largely to the commercialisation of the media. In common parlance one often hears of the "newspaper industry". It is not without reason that the heads of newspaper houses also occupy top editorial posts. This is a pattern visible in the past 15 years or so. There is a definite connection between patterns of responsibility and ownership and the shrinking space for democratic movements in the media.

In small towns there is yet another trend that has become a permanent yet disturbing characteristic of newspapers. The person who owns the agency for distribution of a newspaper is also the "local correspondent" of the publication. In most cases the newspaper agency is in the hands of a local trader or contractor who is sometimes also a local politician. So it is no surprise that local rights-based movements and agitations hardly find any space in the newspapers. If and when they do get some space it is with a particular bias against the organisations or individuals thus creating a climate of hostility and anger against such people’s movements.

During the struggles for the identification, release and rehabilitation of thousands of bonded labourers in Chhattisgarh’s Mahasamund district, the focus of the news was more on the fact that it happened to be Christian social activists who were leading the campaign. A people’s movement was thus sought to be communalised with motives such as "converting these labourers to Christianity" being attributed to the activists. The media reported these baseless allegations uncritically, thus failing in its role. For three years, from 1986-1988, we witnessed a struggle for the release of these bonded labourers as a result of which the Supreme Court of India delivered landmark judgements leading to the release of 4,000 bonded labourers from a single district in the country. Yet the media did not even relate or report these historic judicial pronouncements on the rights of citizens kept in bondage for generations.

Thus, shamefully, a democratic movement whereby slaves became aware of their rights and in turn gained a new identity and selfhood as citizens of a free country went unreported in the regional press. That none of the released bonded labourers from Mahasamund has gone back into bondage is due largely to their unionisation. This solidarity and mobilisation led to the next stage of their struggle, the unique zameen satyagraha that enabled them to occupy thousands of acres of fallow land and till it for their livelihood. The media continues to remain silent, refusing to reflect this vibrant democratic movement that remains only as a subject matter of study for academic institutions to be published in the coursebook for Indian Administrative Service, IAS trainees at Mussourie.

Why has the media decided that this story of self-empowerment is unfit for space and public consumption? Could it be because the story would so inspire that it would actually unfold a new democratic consciousness among the deprived and the marginalised sections of society? Twenty years into this unique people’s movement for freedom from slavery has seen not one individual converted to Christianity but this does not find any mention in the free Indian press. Yet while the struggle against a centuries old bondage was under way, prominent stories in four columns appeared on the so-called ‘grand international conspiracy to convert them to Christianity’.

Media bias is revealed when the response to a mass rally or protest is contained in box items that decry the manner in which entire roads were blocked and the public suffered because of the adamance of agitators resulting in traffic jams. No such comments are passed when religious rallies cause similar inconveniences. The evidence of shrinking democratic space is visible in the limitation of public rallies and meetings to a cordoned off area by the law and order machinery and in the fact that the media finds such mass protests an eyesore.

This is not to eschew or undermine many committed journalists who remain on the staff of several newspapers and even television channels. The relentless forces and trends of globalisation restrict their spaces and rights as can be observed from the media response to small but significant acts of democratic mobilisation such as celebrations of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh or Shankar Guha Niyogi. There appears to be a distinct fear lest public opinion be mobilised on issues of justice and rights. It is not without reason that democracy is found to be dangerous both to the forces of globalisation and communalism. Both these trends are two sides of the same coin, complementary to each other’s draconian design to derail democratic development for justice and peace.

(Rajendra K. Sail, president, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, PUCL, Chhattisgarh, is a social activist who has been working with the state’s poor and oppressed for more than three decades.)



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