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Opinion: How Can We Define The Role of Media In Democratic Politics?

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Note, ‘Media’ here refers to ‘News Media’ which could be disseminating the news through means of any media.

Merriam Webster dictionary defines democracy as “A government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free representation.”

Democracy is the best available means of reconciling views on economic and political matters through debate and discussion rather than agitation, strikes, and riots. (Sah,2004)

Although people often equate ‘politics’ and the ‘government’, they are very different things. Politics is a process, while governments are an institution.

More specifically, politics is the process by which a society decides how power and resources will be distributed within that society. Politics enables a society to decide who will reap the benefits, and who will pay the costs, of its public policies.

The word politics is sometimes used in such a way that it is somehow immoral or something to be avoided. But again, politics is the means by which a government is conducted. It is neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but it is necessary. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of government without politics.

So, unless the ideas and perspectives of citizens are transmitted to the political arena, we cannot talk about the power of people. Education is crucial here. With better education, people’s voting preferences might have better bases. However, this does not make the system any more democratic than it is now unless people have more chances of effecting policy-making. This needs a better systematic environment than electoral politics. Here, I think deliberative and participatory models offer great ways of political decision-making (Gul,2013). In my opinion, ‘media’ can, and does, serve the role of that model.

Lawrence K. Grossman wrote in 1996, “The general belief holds that representative government is the only form of democracy that is feasible in today’s sprawling, interactive telecommunications now make it possible for tens of millions of widely dispersed citizens to receive the information they need to carry out the business of government themselves, gain admission to the political realm, and retrieve at least some of the power over their own lives and goods that many believe their elected leaders are squandering.”

Ideally, the media serves several essential roles in a democratic society. Their primary purpose is to inform the public, providing citizens with the information needed to make thoughtful decisions about leadership and policy. The media acts as watch-dogs checking government actions. They set the agenda for political expression. They also facilitate community building by helping people to find common causes, identify civic groups, and work towards solutions to societal problems.

Public support for the watchdog is substantial, with a Pew Research Centre study finding that 70% of Americans believe that Press reporting can “Prevent leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done” (Chinni & Bronston,2017). Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein inspired a generation of investigative journalists after revealing President Richard Nixon’s role in the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, forcing his resignation. The Washington Post’s ‘Fact Checker’ identified almost 1500 false claims made by President Trump in just over 250 days in office.

Thus, from the above examples we have come to know that the media has the potential to enhance people’s access to political information, facilitate wider ranging political discourse, and foster participation.

The two basic concepts of democracy, to which the present ‘media has not been able to stand by are:

1. Equal weightage to both, the politicians’ mouthpiece and the common mans’ mouthpiece.

Journalism Cultures that follow an interventionist approach may act on behalf of the socially disadvantaged or as mouthpiece of a political party and other groups whose interest are at stake”. (Hanitzsch, 2007)

But, in the present context, something else has been happening.

India Today published an article on August 14, 2019, titled ‘Did BBC and Al Jazeera choose to ignore the terror angle in Kashmir protests?’. The article went on to say “As the government prepares for the challenge of ensuring peace in Kashmir on Independence Day, two news reports from international media organizations (BBC and Al Jazeera) are generating a lot of heat on social media.”

Then, The Economic Times, on September 8, 2019, reported: ‘Kashmiri Pandits stage demonstration against Washington Post for “biased” reporting on J&K issue’. The report said that “The protesters alleged that the prominent US daily has been giving “one-sided and biased coverage” after the Indian government withdrew Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 of the Constitution. Kashmiri Pandits, who had gathered in Washington DC from various parts of the United States, raised slogans in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for taking the “bold and historic step.”

There’s a term for this: ‘media capture.‘ Capture is different from the old-school forms of control with censors marking up copy in red ink or government agencies issuing directives as to what should be covered. It’s a form of soft pressure that is ubiquitous and increasing in many parts of the world.

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, professor of democracy studies at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, defines media capture as a situation in which the news media are controlled “either directly by governments or by vested interests networked with politics.”

The definition provides a useful framework for understanding the continuing rise of right-wing populism and how governments maintain their hold on the public. It also helps to explain the increasingly tangled relationships between repressive regimes and the news media they seek to dominate (Schiffrin,2017) . The above examples depict the dominance of right-wing on Indian Media houses.

2. Acceptance of the necessity of compromise.

Uttar Pradesh Minister Sunil Bharala gave a statement. He told ANI, “Temple of Lord Ram will be built during the tenure of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. He is a decisive man, he will be the one to build the temple with his own hands, he has ‘apaar shakti’ in him. The day-to-day hearing on Ayodhya matter is taking place in the Supreme Court and a decision will be taken soon in the favor of the construction of Ram temple… Even the Muslim community supports this.

“Everyone believes now that removal of Article 370 has united the country. Now a grand Ram Temple will be built and we all witness it soon,” Pragya Singh Thakur said while speaking to reporters in Bhopal.

By propagating such statements and certain ideologies like ‘Hindutva’, I feel the media is strengthening and glorifying it and conceptualising the minds of the preachers of that particular ideology not to compromise and narrowing the room for adjustments.

Thus, I feel we can conclude that despite the fact that the ‘media’ possesses capabilities of reforming democratic politics, it is making democracy lose its very essence.

This article was first published here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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