Human Rights And Responsible Media

Media is defender of human rights; it fearlessly exposes the mal-governance, nepotism, corruption, black money, swindlers of taxpayers’ money through scams, bank loans and so forth

By Ashok Bhan

“Press freedom is a cornerstone of human rights. It holds governments responsible for their acts and serves a warning to all that impunity is an illusion”—Kofi Annam.

Freedom of speech and expression from where media derives its freedom and strength is a basic human right and a natural right. It is inherent in the fact of life itself. Therefore, nexus between the human rights and freedom of speech is obvious. Moreover, unrestrained or motivated expression can endanger human rights as much as efforts to curb it in the name of national security can always lead to censorship.

In the today’s times, media is following a certain trajectory of growth, from voicing subjective opinion or pamphleteering to the dissemination of wide information and news through newspapers and broadcast channels — the democratization process of media and social media is moving from purveying objective news to the posting of subjective opinions or reactions.

Right to know, to make the events and ideas known, is essential to freedom of speech. Yet ideas can threaten established positions even as information empowers. The right to information has therefore come to be seen as a fundamental right that ensures sunlight and transparency which enables citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process and governance.

Human rights preceded the birth of modern media. Means of transmission and dissemination of news developed rapidly with the advent of the steam engine and steamship, telegraph, telephone, radio and television etc., these increasingly propelled human rights into an over-widening arc of public gaze and from that developed institutions to monitor, investigate and standards pertaining to their observance.

The UNHRC, the NHRC, the common wealth Human Rights initiative, Amnesty International and other bodies have found agency through the reach and power of dissemination and advocacy, particularly through the media and now the social media etc.

Everybody communicates with everybody directly, immediately, and not necessarily through media – more contemporaneously through cell phones, sounds and images, the blogs, i-pads, facebook and twitters etc. That has become the form of global notice boards. This babble of tongues has created what has come to be described – social media which addresses not only one individual or group but the society at large. More often than not, social media is not conversational as much as a public address system for whosoever cares to listen. This has its own advantages and pitfalls. It can be satisfying to blow one’s own trumpet, but what is communicated is personal opinion or a commentary unmediated by gatekeepers and editors, unlike what one normally expects in the print and broadcast media.

Unlike the print and broadcast media, where deliberate misinformation or fabrication or distortions can be corrected, once such disinformation and distortions are fed into social media they can spread vi-rally within minutes creating a false reality that can trigger reactive responses out of anxiety, anger and fear. There are various examples in India about such activities. Such distortions have endangered the safety and rights of individuals and groups of societies and the citizens therefore media is obligated to keep a spotlight on these fault lines and failures as a spur to redress and reform.

The media is a staunch defender of human rights; it fearlessly exposes the mal-governance, nepotism, corruption, black money, swindlers of taxpayers’ money through scams, bank loans and so forth.

These constitute human right abuses of illicit gains at the expense of common citizens. The breakdown of criminal justice and policing system in India inflicts huge cost of human right violations on ordinary people who are victims of abuse of power with police and other law enforcing agencies. The influential elite for their wrongdoings go unpunished. The media has to keep the spot light of mal-functioning of Governmental agencies.

 The judicial activism in India has often encouraged media by taking Suo- Motu action based on media reports on the issues of public welfare,-like environmental violations, issues of down trodden and weaker sections, Child labour, corruption in high offices, safety, liberty and dignity of women and upholding the human rights of large social and citizen groups.

 Patriotism is a noble virtue, but media must avoid the danger of ultra-nationalism or chauvinism based on the dogma “my country – right or wrong”. This is the road to justify internal repression, censorship and derogation of human rights.

 India has its share of insurgencies. Separatists’ movements, naxal extremism and proxy war syndrome. The media has a big role to focus on the events and fallout but equally keeping in mind the human rights of dissenting elements in a very diverse and plural society of India, where free speech is fundamental to our constitutionalism.

 Constitutionalism is the sacrosanct faith of every citizen in India – we have entered an era of cyber wars and electronic snooping on individuals’ and nations. Wiki leaks and Snowden papers tell us of new challenges to privacy. Everywhere there are nascent pressures to regulate the media, not least to protect privacy and human rights and to maintain a societal framework conducive to good governance, social ability and integrity of the State.

 Article 19(2) of the Constitution permits reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression – the new debate is whether these restrictions can be expanded to in the light of newer circumstances? The Levenson report in the UK opines self-regulation rather than that of state regulation. Legal fraternity in India and at apex Court level says – Self-regulation.

 Media trail have become most controversial subjects. Most people argue that it violates human rights way back in 1989. The Supreme Court of India in Indian Express case – (AIR 1989 SC1900) restrained the media to publish any new article, comment, report or editorial on any of the platforms which lead to a large public outrage in the ongoing issue.

 Article 21 of the Constitution gives every alleged accuse a right to fair and free trail in the court of law. Often in sensational matters, the media portrays the accused at pre-trial stage, as if he has been proven guilty by a court of law. A responsible press is the handmaid of effective judicial administration. The press does not simply publish and broadcast the information about cases and trials but, subjects the entire justice-hierarchy (police, prosecutors, lawyers, judges, courts) as well as the judicial process to public scrutiny.

 Scam hunting is one such area of investigative reporting popular these days. It is the duty of media to avoid unnecessary excessive reporting which maligns the image of a citizen. No doubt, media guards public interest from misdeeds, failings and lapses of the governmental agencies. Free, friar, robust reporting and media debates contribute to public understanding, at the same time, media is obliged to take care and caution in reporting.

(Author is an International Law Expert and Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India)