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Vivian Fernandes
Saturday , May 04, 2013 at 19 : 40

Indian media prizes national interest over human rights, says Amnesty International


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Does Indian media place national interest above human rights? G Ananthapadmanabhan, chief executive of Amnesty International India, believes it does. At a lecture in Delhi on this issue, organized by the Foundation for Media professionals, Ananth, as we shall call him for the sake of brevity, says journalists see human rights as a touchy feely thing that can get in the way of the hardnosed pursuit of political and strategic interests.

But he does not see a dichotomy if national interest is defined as the upholding of constitutional values and not (quoting a 2000 report of a US commission on the definition of national interest), as whatever the government of the day says it is, or the summary of current public opinion reports.

Ananth finds the outrage over the death of Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistani jail disproportionately nationalistic. There is justifiable anger over Pakistan's failure to protect an Indian's life in its custody. But anger when dressed in national colors provokes tit for tat retributive acts (as happened in a Jammu jail where Sanaullah Haq, a Pakistani prisoner, was brutally bashed up by an inmate), which are met with public approval or nonchalance in one country and fury in the other. Human rights violations must be seen for what they are. If not prisoners will become national pawns to be ceremoniously exchanged than as offenders to be set free in the normal course upon serving their sentences.

But if Sarabjit was not just another prisoner who was killed in a fit of rage; if he was murdered because he was an Indian to increase bad blood between neighbors isn't the outrage justified? If the media had not highlighted Sarabjit's plight in the first place, he might have languished forgotten in a Pakistani jail; such is the Indian government's concern for poor Indians in difficulty abroad. If Indians feel anguished at the travails of a fellow citizen should the media not reflect that pain? Should every act of national solidarity be seen as a chauvinistic cry for war? These were some of the responses from those who were in Ananth's audience.

Ananth is critical of the media's alignment with the government's position on Sri Lanka's human rights violations. By justifying India's hesitation to admonish Sri Lanka in international forums, the media is turning its back on the founding principles of this nation, he says. But what if public chastisement pushes Sri Lanka deeper into the embrace of China- no greater upholder of human rights - while doing little to secure the interests of the island's Tamil minority? Rather than seem optically correct, are not the government's below the radar attempts at getting the Rajapakshe government to uphold Tamil dignity, the smart thing to do? Ananth says the media's support for such a nuanced approach can be accepted if the Indian government was effective in its track two diplomacy. That not being the case, the media can indeed be accused of being tame and uncritical.

Amnesty International says it is neutral on nuclear energy, genetically-engineered agriculture and mining. But the media should not have accepted the Prime Minister's statement that protests against the nuclear plant in Kudankulam were financed with foreign money, without investigating the veracity of that statement. Responsible mining is fine, Ananth says, so long as the consent of project affected people is obtained.

But can development be painless? Isn't pain or loss for some implicit in the concept of the 'greater common good'? Ananth cannot accept development that creates winners and losers.

Does Amnesty International treat human rights violations alike regardless of who commits them? Or does it regard infarctions by non-state actors as less grave than those of persons in uniform? Ananth says his organization is equally critical of all rights abuses, through it is its criticism of state acts that get better visibility.

Media practitioners might say that that human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International must take a black and white view, while they have to be practical and balance various interests. But the Indian media will be failing its mandate if it goes along with the 'dominant consensus' without changing the discourse in favor of Constitutional values.


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More about Vivian Fernandes

Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
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