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No Country For Minorities: The Absence Of Dalit And Muslim Journalists In Indian Newsrooms

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This paper was written by Junaid Dalwai, while pursuing his MA in politics from the University of Mumbai in 2016. A devoted son, brother, friend, and an individual with an indomitable spirit, Junaid reflected several of the qualities that are virtually missing today. One of them was to raise his voice against injustice despite a lot of odds. He undertook a tough path for a great cause – quality education. In the Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai, he fought bravely against several problems which had and were destroying the past and future of the students as well as the ethos of the institution as a whole.

He passed away in an unfortunate spate of events on May 24 last year. I want to thank Jahid, his brother, not just for providing access, but also for the consent to put his work out in the public domain. It is based on a media-related theme. He has looked at both the American and Indian media and how diversely represented they are, in reality. It will be enlightening for a lot of readers. The paper is reproduced below.

 – Akhil Oka, classmate and friend

Introduction

Is the media really diverse? Does it take into account all the elements of the society and if so, to what extent? Is the media doing justice to the fourth estate of democracy? The Noble Laureate Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “I have a dream” speech said, “I have a dream that my four children will not be judged by the colour of the skin, but by the content of their character.” The racial segregation and discrimination faced by African-Americans and Dalits and minorities in India helps us understand how diverse the society is, especially with reference to media.

As Catherine A. Luther in her book “Diversity in US Mass Media” states, “Diversity is commonly defined as being composed of differing elements or qualities.” More specifically, in the context of social groups, the concept of diversity embraces the ideas of acceptance and respect and an understanding that groups are made up of unique individuals. Further, when regarding diversity within the context of media, it is important to consider the extent to which an array of representation of individuals or social groups are being heard or reflected. Research has shown that mass media has played an important role in how individuals perceive and feel about themselves and about others.

Diversity In American Media

Diversity in American media can be understood through two aspects – firstly, the representation of the minorities – African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asians. Secondly, through the aspect of ‘ownership.’

Ownership has its own angle. The understanding of ownership in American media is quite vague. Writing in 1983, Bagdikian in his work “The Media Monopoly” argued that not only do a smaller number of owners have possession of larger and larger number of media properties, but for the first time in the history of American journalism, news and public information have been integrated formally into the highest levels of financial and non-journalistic corporate control. This is the usual tendency that America has been following for years.

He further analysed that media mergers have reduced the number of controlling corporate players from approximately 50 in 1984 to 10 in 1996. The largest merger was when AOL spent $124 billion to buy Time Warner in 2001. Today, just the six corporations control the entire American media. The six include General Electricals, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner (the largest of them all) and the CBS.

The strange thing among these corporate media houses is that none of them are owned by an African-American. Due to this, the local media, which was owned by the minorities, is becoming extinct. Lastly, Bagdikian says, “The communication cartel has exercised stunning influence over national legislation and government agencies, an influence whose scope and power would have been considered scandalous or illegal twenty years ago.”

This media merger is directly or indirectly a result of the Telecommunication Act of 1996. The act was the first significant overhaul of the American telecommunications law in more than 60 years, amending the Communications Act of 1934. The act was signed by then-President Bill Clinton. This was the first time the internet was included in the broadcasting and spectrum allotment. According to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the goal of the law was to “let anyone enter any communications business – to let any communications business compete in any market against any other.”  This deregulated the entire media market and eventually led to media concentration. All this led to the media houses turning more and more elitist.

This act eventually came under heavy criticism. Howard Zinn, the writer of the book “A People’s History of the United States”, critiqued the 1996 act, “it enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further, mergers enabled tighter control of information.” If all this excludes ‘minority ownership,’ to what extent will diversity prevail?

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod v FCC, 1998 illustrates just how much burden the term ‘diversity’ has been asked to bear in the latter part of the 20th century in the United States. It appears to have been coined both as a permanent justification for policies seeking racial proportionality in all walks of life and as a synonym for proportional representation itself. In my view, it has been used by the commission in both ways. In sum, the court attacked the diversity rationale as a whole. It also shows the flaws of the commission.

If we consider the participation of the minorities, the figures are even more worse. According to an article in Al Jazeera by Micheal A. Deas, he states that, among the 38,000 journalists working at 1,400 newspapers, only 4,700 are minorities. That’s an average of three non-white journalists. If we look into the historical context, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) began in 1978. The presentation of non-whites in the newsroom was 4% when they accounted for 30% of the American population. The ASNE had set certain targets for improving that percentage to 20% by 2000, but they failed. By 2011, the representation of minorities was just 13% when they constituted 36% of the American population.

The ASNE has three important features with respect to diversity:

1. Encourage and assist editors in recruiting, hiring, and managing diverse newsrooms.

2. Expand ASNE efforts to foster newsroom diversity.

3. Establish three-year benchmarks for measuring progress.

In spite of these programs, the achievements are minimal. But this is still better than Dalit representation in India, which we will look at in the second part of the paper.

According to a recent survey by ASNE, minorities filled 900 managerial jobs compared to 8000 for whites. It was striking to see then-US President Barack Obama commenting on religious intolerance when the US itself is in such an obnoxious situation where the newsrooms account for 88% whites compared to 12% non whites. The only time when non-whites were well represented to a certain extent in the newsroom was during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. During the movement, newspapers hired scores for black journalists to cover the racial unrest and the sensitive issues in their communities. So does the American society expect such type of movements every time to improve representation? Yes, it indeed does.

One thing is clear – the representation of non-whites has improved in numbers, but if we look at the constituted population, it still has a long way ahead. Lastly, as Deas says, “I am concerned that digital newsroom that exclude minorities, who make up nearly 40% of the US population, will render themselves irrelevant and hamper rational public discourse.”

Diversity In Indian Media

Liberty, equality and fraternity are the values that lie at the core of the Indian constitution. It was this constitution that gave women, Dalits and minorities the rights that the African-Americans had to fight for over two centuries. Is the egalitarian image of Indian society that is presented to the world really true? What role has ‘media’ played in nurturing diversity and pluralism in India? Is the Indian media similar to the so called ‘racial’ media in America?  Does Indian media take into account the Dalits and minorities that account for a large section of the Indian population? The quest for truth continues.

Through the prisms of ‘ownership’ and ‘representation’, one can understand diversity in Indian media to be almost identical to its American counterpart. Ownership patterns in India are not as concentrated as in the US, but the equations are identical. Apart from the state owned ‘Doordarshan’, right from NDTV to Network 18 to Jagran, the private media houses are owned by the elites who are mostly from the upper-caste and upper-class strata.

Strangely, not a single prominent private news network is owned by Dalits or Muslims. The ‘elites’ have majority of the share holdings. Unlike America, which has various commissions to look into the ownership patterns (such as FCC), there is no room for such commissions in India.

CB Prasad pleaded the Press Council of India to follow the ASNE’s methods. As CP Chandrasekhar says in this article, “Within each kind of media business there is a real threat of domination that dilutes the basic tendency towards diversity and pluralism characteristic if Indian media marketplace.” In short, there is no room for Dalits and minorities to own media houses.

The aspect of representation is worse in Indian media. As Chandra Bhan Prasad states in “End Apartheid from Indian media”, India (99 million copies sold) has a powerful press ranked next to China (107 million copies sold). The US comes fourth in the list. India has over 4,720 daily newspapers and 14,743 weeklies. With a significant number of news channels and with India’s electronic media also making its mark, who exactly does the Indian media represent? For some reasons, the representative Indian elite has turned journalism into a kind of ‘social sect.’ Most Indian editors and news channel heads are near-white in skin, speak English with a Victorian accent and imitate Westerners in table manners and lifestyle.

In this article published in the Hindu, Robin Jeffrey says, “Is it a calamity that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are almost completely absent from newspapers and television? Of course it is. It’s a calamity for at least three reasons.

First, it means that the Constitution is not being lived up to. The Constitution promises “equality” and “fraternity.” There’s something deficient about “equality” if a quarter of the population is missing from the Fourth Estate. And it’s hard to fraternise — to practise fraternity — with people who aren’t there.

Second, a fitting presence in newsrooms, and the varied coverage that it brings, mitigates the resentment of people who are ignored and discriminated against. Recognition of tribulations and achievements combats discriminationAnd if meaningful changes do not happen, resentment will bubble up destructively — as it already does in areas of Maoist influence in eastern India. Constant, probing stories about the triumphs and agonies of people on the margins help to effect remedies and turn barriers into bridges.”

The article goes on to make an interesting comparison between the Dalits and African-Americans: “Part of the answer lies in the fact that Dalits lack advantages that Black America enjoyed (though “enjoy” is hardly the right word) even in the 1920s. Most important was a black middle class of shop-owners and professionals. Such people could buy advertisements and put up capital to back a publication. Black America worked in a single language, English, and had networks of churches and their pastors who provided respected leaders, education and connections. Martin Luther King was one of many. Black America was also less divided internally: caste among African Americans was not a problem, though skin tone may have been.”

Kenneth J Cooper, a noted African-American journalist working in the Washington Post, found it extremely difficult to find a single Dalit media person in Delhi.

BN Uniyal came up with a wonderful article in the Pioneer. He echoed Cooper’s concerns, “Suddenly I realised that in all the 30 years I had worked as a journalist, I had never met a fellow journalist who was a Dalit; no, not one.”

68 years after independence, this is the diversity and pluralism we have to show and we need people like Kenneth Cooper to tell us what kind of discrimination prevails. Babasaheb Ambedkar said it well, “with the press in hand, it is easy to manufacture great men.” But today, these great men belong to just the upper caste. If we look at the list of editors of prominent newspapers and magazines through the years, we don’t come across a single Dalit person which is really worrisome. An interview by J Balasubramaniam in the Economic and Political Weekly is worth noting, as it helps us to completely understand how upper caste editors can be ‘racial’ during interviews:

“Editor: Where are you from?

Bala: I am from Tirunelveli Sir.

Editor: I hope Pillamars are numerically in majority, isn’t it?

Bala: Yes sir, most of them reside in town

Editor: Do you belong to the Pillamar caste?

Bala : No Sir.

Editor: Then?

Bala: SC.

Editor: Ok…. (Silence) we will inform you when we need people.”

There was no call after that. This is actually the style in which it is done. CB Prasad perfectly states that if the Ku Klax Klan (KKK) has any relatives left, Indian editors and news channel heads can be described as their soft copies considering the times we live in today.

Siddharth Varadarajan wrote in the Hindu, “If television and newspaper coverage of the anti-reservation agitation was indulgent and one-sided, the lack of diversity in the newsroom is surely a major culprit.” He concludes by appealing to diversify the newsroom by consciously bringing in those sections (Dalits, tribals, OBC and Muslims) of society who have hitherto been excluded. There are a million stories out there waiting to be told. If only we allow the story tellers to do the telling.” Similarly in 2006, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, conducted a survey which found that “of the 315 key decision makers surveyed from 37 Delhi based (Hindi and English) publications and television channels, almost 90% of decision makers in the English language print media and 79% in television were from the ‘upper caste.”

The discrimination and violence against Dalits can be seen in several cases, right from the Keelavenmani incident to the Khairlanji killings. It not only shows the ugly face of the upper castes, but also how these incidents were covered by the media. With respect to the Khairlanji case, it was shockingly reported eight days after, by DNA. But today, due to rising vote bank politics, atrocities against Dalits do come to light, but the number is small.

Things are similar when it comes to the other minorities, especially the Muslims. Majority of the Muslims in the north had Urdu as their language. A majority of the newspapers used to be in Urdu, but due to owners facing heavy financial losses, they found it difficult to continue and shifted to Hindi. Another thing of concern is that the Muslim newspapers, journals, magazines are mostly unread by the non-Muslims. Thus, the reach of Muslim media is limited to Muslims. This is a matter of concern.

We hear the views of Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai and Arnab Goswami on their respective shows, and read articles of Ashok Malik and several others. But names like Santosh Valmiki and Ved Prakash have never been heard as they had to fight hard to get into journalism, coming from lower caste backgrounds. This  the reality of diversity in India.

Conclusion

We have to take into consideration that non-whites and Dalits and minorities account for a significant portion of the American and Indian population respectively. Solving the issue of diversity in media is a prolonged process. Formally, the strength of minorities should be increased in newsrooms, as editors, sub-editors and reporters to a large extent. Their reach should be maximum in social media which is evolving drastically.

On the ownership part, certain amount should be made available by the respective governments through budgets. This may sound imprecise but certain steps need to be taken.

The civil society needs to play a proactive role. For example, if a Muslim or a Dalit person writes an article, they should not be judged by their religion or caste but rather by the content. Participation should increase not only in privately owned news channels but also in ‘Doordarshan’ under some reservation.

Governments should take note of it and try to accommodate Dalits and minorities in good numbers. When representation in media will be proportional to the population, diversity will exist. As Barry Lopez has rightly said, “Diversity is not a characteristic of life; it is a condition necessary for life …like air and water.”

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  1. Raees Kc

    telecommunication act of 1934 was signed by then president Franklin Roosevelt. leave Bill Clinton, not even the sperm that became Bill was not here in this world at that time, Bill was born in 1946.

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