Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Role of Media in Promoting Non-Violence

 Scope Of Media
I often come across people who on knowing that I am a journalist want me to tell them “What’s the hot story of the day”. Similarly, I also hear comments almost regularly from friends and acquaintances such as “Oh! You are so powerful. You can do whatever you want. You don’t even spare leaders and bureaucrats” and so on. Now what do these gratifying utterances really mean? It’s simply that we journalists or media persons are held in high esteem by the general public, that it has immense faith, howsoever misplaced, in our capabilities and that we are supposed to stay alert as the watchdogs for the common good. This public perception is not a recent development but has its roots in the very structure of the human society. As I see it, what distinguishes the mankind from other animals is that we possess a constant urge to relate with the fellow peoples and to that purpose we have in a unique way developed multiple modes of communication- from primitive to new media and from oral transmission to digital technology. By using these media, we not only carry the news and tidings, but also share thoughts and experiences on a whole range of subjects. The long and short of the story is that we are uniquely ever poised to champion a worthy cause for the greater public good.
What Is Non-Violence
Let us now turn our focus on what do we understand from Ahimsa or Non-Violence. In a general manner, we tend to equate ahimsa with passive resistance or for showing compassion to other beings. There is no dearth of people, at least in India, whose definition of ahimsa does not go beyond certain dietary habits or animal protection. In fact, the real meaning of ahimsa goes much farther than this narrow understanding. In my opinion, and I am sure that you would agree with me, non-violence is never passive; it is rather the highest degree of active resistance. A practitioner of non-violence is the one who fights the wrong with deep conviction and does so with all the power of his or her soul, stands ones ground in the face of severest adversity and demonstrates ultimate courage. In that sense, Ahimsa represents a wider political value system, rather than being merely a humanitarian act. It encompasses a whole set of values such as democracy, plurality, equality, human dignity and truth. A democratic society per se should have no place for violence and it can survive and thrive only when there is no discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, geography, race, religion or riches and such other limiting notions. Similarly, peaceful coexistence means that we acknowledge and respect plurality in the society. Above all, truth, too, has great bearing on ahimsa, as a society built on the foundation of untruth can never be stable and peaceful.
Media As Advocate
 This brings us to the question of what role media can possibly play in promotion of ahimsa. I would like you to go back with me to the origins of human civilization and ask what would have happened to this world of ours, had the cavemen killed each other with their stone tools. The point I am trying to make is that our ancestors from very early on had understood the meaning and the need of dialogue, of talking to each other, of communicating in a balanced fashion. In other words, they eschewed violence and made positive choices as they progressed from one stage of civilisation to another. One may argue that the history is replete with the acts of war and violence, but on the whole, as one can see it, it is the voice of reason that has ultimately prevailed. My argument is that the communicators, even in that primitive age, knew what was expected of them and did their job in that spirit. What we need today is to take a cue from these ancestors, reflect upon the mission ahead and prepare to act accordingly. At this juncture, I must invoke the memory of the greatest communicator or the greatest journalist we have known. Yes, I am referring to Mahatma Gandhi. We, in India, at times, while discussing the media scene in our country, talk about which newspaper is the biggest, which is the fastest growing or which has the largest circulation. On such occasions, inevitably the truth emerges that there is a sea of difference between the “Big” and the “Great”. And then we realize that Indian Opinion, Harijan or Young India- the journals edited by Gandhi- were the greatest newspapers of our era, because they espoused the cherished values of Ahimsa with all its nuances.
Past And Present
 In the days of the yore, struggle for freedom from the colonial rule was the cause célèbre across the third world, and the media then broadly demonstrated that it was up to the occasion. Today we are faced with other challenges that go beyond reporting on the run-of-the-mill happenings and mundane matters; and here we have to prove once again that the society can depend upon us to give voice to its concerns and help in building an atmosphere of enduring peace and happiness. In the present times, the job of the media is twofold- one is to produce news and the second is to interpret and educate the readership. Allow me to take the second part first. What I think is that we should take issues relating to our life and existence to the public domain, initiate informed debates, convince the general public that the only path to make this world a safer and peaceful place is to adopt the philosophy of non-violence in the fullest sense. In other words, what I am asking is not to limit us by publishing articles on the virtues of non-violence or pay perfunctory homage to the Mahatma. In stead, we have to engage with the people in a pro-active manner, call it advocacy, if you please. 
Issues And Advocacy
I may give an example. There is much debate going on throughout the world on the use of nuclear power, particularly so after the Fukushima disaster. What should be our position, as a responsible section of the society, on this contentious issue? We have witnessed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We have also seen Chernobyl and recently Fukushima. Do we still think that nuclear power is a better and safer option to meet our demand for energy? I am not taking any sides here, but simply putting forward an argument. If we are able to generate an informed debate on this matter, soon we will also come to deal with, besides the safety aspect, other related issues such as impact of uranium mining on the natural environment as well as on human habitation, the social cost of relocating tribals from mining areas, the hidden danger of nuclear energy being used for military purpose and so on. Then, there comes the question of how much energy do we really need. Should per capita consumption of power, or for that matter any other commodity, be used to measure the development of a nation or a community?  You will not fail to see that all these questions have a bearing on our collective dream to create a peaceful world order. It implies that by taking an informed position in this matter, media can help reduce the chances of civil strife in certain geographical areas on the earth.  
Take another example. Go to a toyshop where you are bound to see miniature tanks, cannons, rifles, missiles, rockets, and soldiers in uniform on display. All kinds of war games are available both in the physical and virtual market. Our children are the buyers and consumers of such products. Isn’t there a constant need to ask the question whether kids really need these playthings and what is their impact on innocent minds? Why toy makers should manufacture these bizarre objects of amusement? Is it not a clever ploy to desensitize the children towards the havoc that war machinery is capable of creating? Can we tell our mom and dad readers to say No to these toys!
There are many more issues that breed discontent, tear the fabric of harmony, and sink communities in the state of desolation and despondency. At every step, questions come popping up- development, yes, but at what cost, what is the status of women, why child labour is still prevalent, how long will it take Dalits and tribals to claim their rightful place in the society, why are there so many slums in the city, aren’t we reaping more than what could be returned to mother earth? And then there are more direct questions- why can’t India and Pakistan live like good neighbours, can Israel and Palestine develop friendly relationship, why did the US invade Iraq and Afghanistan, what are the causes of terrorism, why do we need military alliance like NATO?  The media must raise these questions in earnest, howsoever uncomfortable that may be for the vested interests.
Events And Reporting
I may now come to the aspect of day-to-day news making. That is an area where media persons must demonstrate utmost sensitivity, carefulness and fine balance in reporting, writing, editing and even laying out of the news stories, which might put public peace and safety in jeopardy. It is an era when extra-ordinary movement of humans is taking place throughout the world for several reasons - migration from villages to urban centres, from developing nations to the developed world, from war zones to safer places, escaping from hunger, poverty and terrorism, travel for business, study or pleasure, internal migration due to mining and construction projects, etc. This often gives rise to suspicion, fear, misunderstanding and hatred in the host community. Then there are age-old prejudices deeply embedded in the social fabric based upon race, religion and the colour of skin.
Each of these factors has the potential of inflaming public sentiments, igniting conflicts and creating discord and unrest. As a matter of fact, we see this happening almost on a daily basis in one or another part of the world. Here comes the real test of our professional ability, integrity and wisdom. Remember that even a single wrongly constructed sentence or wrongly placed headline can induce people to resort to violence. I have seen this happening in the infamous communal riots of 1962 in Jabalpur, India. Similarly, a file photo, a wrongly chosen photo or a morphed one can inflict the same kind of damage. Therefore, when making news on such sensitive matters, a journalist has to behave in a responsible manner. We owe this much to the society. I may cite several examples, but will refrain from doing so as I am sure that you are aware of such challenging situations and are capable of dealing with them.
However, I would like to add that news channels have to be much more cautious on such occasions as the nature of the medium imposes them to make decisions in a jiffy without leaving enough time to weigh the pros and cons of what may sound a good news before broadcasting it.  
TV, Cinema And Theatre
It’s common knowledge that we are passing through a period of media revolution. In the process, newspapers are gradually losing their pride of place. Electronic media, mainly television is the taste of the day. It is still possible to find or steal some space in the print media for coolly debating serious topics, but it would be rather futile to expect much from TV. It seems that screaming from the rooftop suits it more to accomplish its business targets. In India, many of our news channels, it would seem, take sort of pleasure in creating hype on any given issue, be it Indo-Pak relations, river water sharing between two states, Maoist insurgency in Central India or border crossing from Bangladesh. In their rush of breaking news, they often throw caution to the wind and there is hardly any time available for logical discussion. I consider it unfortunate because TV was introduced as a vehicle of public education in my country.
The case of cinema, another strong medium, is not much different. We find that Hollywood is churning out movies that promote violence, weapons, the notion of us versus others and create false heroes in order to fight with imagined enemies. Indian films are no different. Our film industry produces rather poor copies of Hollywood films. Of course, there are exceptions, but they only prove the rule.
In this dismal scenario, at least in India, one can take satisfaction in the fact that theatre has played a commendable role. A typical play without passing a value judgment will leave it to the intelligence of the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions. In a subtle way, it gives the opportunity to understand the social reality and paves way for developing harmony amongst the people. But theatre has a limited audience and it also lacks resources. If only moviemakers had learnt from the theatre!
Media Needs Money!
A word of caution will be in order. Whatever our expectations from the media, one must not forget that media today needs huge infusion of capital to run the show. This dependence makes the media quite vulnerable to market forces and the powers-that-be. All over the world, most of the media houses are now part of one or another business conglomerate. In Australia, the richest person, owner of iron ore mines, has recently acquired significant chunk of shares in the prestigious Sydney Morning Herald and is now demanding three seats on its board. There is widespread concern in Australia that this development is going to hurt the aboriginal peoples who for generations have inhabited the mining areas. Similar conditions prevail in India and elsewhere. This is leading to monopolization of the media industry. The media owners of the day are more concerned with the returns on their investment or they incur losses only in order to use media to promote their other business activities. In this situation, what should a journalist or media person do? I will suggest that we the journalists must find ways and means to speak out what we think is in the best interest of the people. People look upon us for walking an extra mile with them in their travails and yes, at times, they want us to be in the frontline, take risks and tell them about the pitfalls and traps. It is our bounden duty not to fail them.

Alternate Media

It might be that corporatised media won’t buy our arguments. So be it. But it is always in our power to develop new methods to speak out on behalf of the people. The new media or social websites hold some promise in this respect. Some good experiments have been conducted, but it needs to be properly evaluated, and checks and balances must be put in place. Community owned radio station could be another potential medium. But, the idea I favour most is that journalists come together, pool their resources and publish newspapers and wherever possible, run news channels under cooperative ownership. There may be many more ideas, but the basic point is that we always keep in mind that it is our calling to work towards making the world a safer, healthier and peaceful place for the future generations.


Lalit Surjan
7th July 2012
Paper presented in “Roots To Fruits: Non-Violence In Action” conference in Durban, South Africa in July-August 2012.