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Sensational and Narcissistic: Why There Is Nothing Exclusive About Indian Media Anymore

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Early Ruminations on Media:

The launch of Hickey’s Bengal Gazette, India’s first newspaper heralded the arrival of an age defined by media. Since then, public opinion has never remained the same. It is widely acknowledged that newspapers and radio became handy tools with the crusaders of the Indian freedom struggle.

Hicky's Bengal Gazette
Hicky saw his newspaper as a forum where people of many backgrounds could voice ideas for the betterment of society. As he promised, he avoided politics.
Picture Credits: Wikimedia Commons

So, if MK Gandhi reached out to the illiterate masses through periodicals and newspapers like Indian Opinion and Young India, Bal Gangadhar Tilak invested in the vernacular newspaper Kesari and English newspaper named Mahratta as vehicles for the propagation of his political ideas. Dr Ambedkar chose to rekindle the spirit of self-awareness and emancipation among the Dalits of India through an influential Marathi fortnightly journal named Mooknayak (Leader of the Mute) in reference to the voiceless existence of Dalits within the Hindu society.

The era of the freedom struggle not only brought up several novel journalistic ventures to the fore in India but slowly laid the foundation of a bustling media. The press in the pre-independence era gave spark and fodder to revolutionary ideas and ignited discussions and debates around themes of British subjugation and exploitation. The British administration attempted to reign in the nascent Indian press bypassing several regulatory legislations.

By some accounts, village folk started gathering around a commonplace in the village to discuss the political trends. The freedom struggle movement brought the cherished ideals of democracy and liberty out of the cabinet and confines of privileged gentry and created a threshold for the voiceless masses and the dispossessed to speak up and be counted in the growth story of India.

Evolution of Media:

In the post-independence era, this trend took a definitive turn with the arrival of mass media. Mass media included the dissemination of news through modern gadgets like television and radio and TRPs suddenly started to matter when private players entered the domain of broadcasting and newscasting, in particular in the last decade of the 20th century. New players entered in the entertainment and media industry.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers(PwC) report of 2005 notes that one of the most significant entry was of Reliance Group. As per the report, “The Reliance Capital bought a majority stake in Adlabs which enabled it to have a presence across the entire value chain of the filmed entertainment segment ranging from film production, exhibition, and distribution. Through Adlabs, Reliance also made its entry into the radio segment by bidding for over 50 FM radio stations across the country with aggregate bids of over ₹1.5 billion.

person with phone
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The internet proved to be a game-changer in the 21st century as it reshaped the media like never before. Media influence on our lives stands at an alarmingly disproportionate level concerning our health and sanity in general. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are the new and fancied public engagement sites. The face is important. Reason and rationale more than often lose track in the glib talk which goes on unendingly on the “idiot box”.

The absurd and irrational elements in news reporting find safe refuge on social media platforms even as these have become virtual battlegrounds for participants craving for 2 minutes of fame. Ideally speaking, this should be empowering and emancipative in character, but regrettably, the 24X7 news format currently in vogue has killed the news.

Newsworthy, Really?

What is newsworthy is decided more by economic considerations and TRP (Target Rating Point) ratings. Indeed, it marks a step backwards in Indian democracy when the incumbent Government informs the parliament that there is no data on the number of migrant deaths during the pandemic ensued lockdown.

According to a World Bank report in April this year, the nationwide lockdown which started on March 24 has impacted the livelihood of nearly 40 million internal migrants.

Did this news achieve traction in media circles? Was it the central theme of discussion in the “prime time feature segment” of leading television channels. Again, regrettably, no. Maybe because the poor souls of migrant workers deserve a quiet burial, after all, the deaths of migrant workers do not count as much and the news is certainly not binge-worthy.

So, whatever is not binge-worthy is not newsworthy. Indian media in its present avatar is stooping low by forfeiting its intellect and reason to a 2-minute byte on triviality and gossip. Press freedom is integral to a thriving democracy. Why the media doesn’t go into overdrive or atleast discusses on prime time when a Dalit girl is raped and burned alive? Is the life of a Dalit girl less important than say, the life of a celebrity. Both are citizens of this nation. Why is the cry for justice muted and feebly mentioned in case of a poor Dalit girl?

Let’s take another scenario. Farmers of a particular region face drought. Does this not deserve sustained media coverage on the efforts of the Government to preempt the fallout of such a scenario? How much more visual hours of transmission will the media devote to the sundry details of the ongoing investigation into the Sushant Singh Rajput death case? The news coverage is somewhat struggling to register its meaningful presence in the present era.

The Effervescent and the Drab:

Press freedom is a recognised facet of a democratic culture. A vibrant democracy gains strength from responsible media. Press freedom has not been separately provided in the Constitution, but this freedom is traceable to Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, 1950.

An important document of international significance sheds light on the role of media contemplated in democratic societies. The document is famously known as The Madrid Principles on the Relationship Between Media and Judicial Independence which stipulates that democratic culture hinges on a delicate balance to be maintained between the media and the process of justice delivery. In this document of international significance, freedom of the press is recognised as a fundamental feature of any democratic society. However, it also prescribed reasonable restrictions on media.

Under Article 10 of the document, it prescribes: “Laws may restrict the Basic Principle in relation to criminal proceedings in the interest of the administration of justice to the extent necessary in a democratic society.

  • for the prevention of serious prejudice to a defendant;
  • for the prevention of serious harm to or improper pressure being placed upon a witness, a member of a jury, or a victim.

Freedom of the press has been valiantly guarded by the Indian judiciary in several cases. However, in a few past instances, the Government of the day has attempted at times to silence the media through draconian measures for political ends. Most mainstream media houses were proscribed during the national emergency declared in the year 1975 by the Indira Gandhi led Government.

1975 emergency newspaper clipping
With freedom of speech being suspended as a fundamental right, newspaper printing presses were raided and for the next 2 days went out of circulation.

In the case of Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. and Ors. Vs Union of India and Ors(1986), Supreme Court of India held: “It is the primary duty of the Courts to uphold the freedom of the press and invalidate all laws or administrative actions which interfere with it contrary to the constitutional mandate. The freedom of expression has four broad social purposes to serve; (i) it helps an individual to attain self-fulfillment, (ii) it assists in the discovery of truth, (iii) it strengthens the capacity of an individual in participating in decision-making, and (iv) it provides a mechanism by which it would be possible to establish a reasonable balance between stability and social change.

However, with every privilege and power comes great responsibility. This protection and privilege afforded to the media may start losing significance by a restless and directionless media reportage of events. Media cannot always survive by spinning personality centric drab stories, but rather it must foray to weave stories around genuine and real issues affecting the lives of millions of people in India. This requires the fourth estate to tread responsibly. As Abraham Lincoln observed, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.

The Way Forward:

Suppose we take a long look at the recent l’ affaire of Sushant Singh Rajput. It will become inescapably clear to us that the media frenzy is slowly eroding the basic principles of justice. We notice that every single step taken by the investigating agencies is X-rayed by a crazed media leading to speculations and absurd half-cooked conjectures and surmises. The media appears to be going over the top in this and is failing to maintain the balance between the individual rights of an accused and the prerogative of reporting facts.

Further, the accused person and suspects have almost been declared guilty even before a fair trial. This scenario is indeed deplorable. Well established constitutional principles of fair trial guide the justice regime of India. In cases like the Sushant Singh affair, it appears that the victim is no longer the prime accused, but the process of justice.

The ongoing method and manner of media coverage undertaken in the case is not doing the media any good. There is a need to exercise restraint and media must rise above class bias and caste bias and behave more responsibly. Media has the potential to become the beacon of change and reform once again. It must focus on the principles of justice administration and unbiased reporting and must not indulge in sensationalism.

In the present scenario, as things stand, media is projecting a narcissistic image of itself in popular perception. Indulgence of this kind can set off public sentiments pivoted around half-baked information, gossip and rumours. There is nothing “exclusive” in killing the spirit of freedom of expression because the core ethic of freedom of speech and expression doesn’t revel in sensationalism and narcissism, but dwells on reason, logic and facts.

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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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