The Asian Human Rights Commission says in a statement:
The existence of independent and strong media is a prerequisite for the working of a free and just society that governs itself by the rule of law. The role of media in establishing such a society is to act as the eyes and ears of the people, forming the collective conscience of the nation. After all what else does a democracy mean than letting its citizens make decisions that affect their lives? Independent media help the citizens in making informed choices by bringing news and perspectives to them. In short, free and impartial media is an important component to a democratic framework like its justice institutions.
The relative success of the democratic experiment in India in comparison to its neighbors owes considerable debt to its media. The robust resistance of the media to the declaration of emergency, one of the darkest hours in Indian democracy, is an example. It was the media that had the courage, augmented with exemplary resistance put up by all political and social forces, that openly opposed the dictatorial declaration of the emergency by the then prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.
The Indian media did not spare even Jawaharlal Nehru, the first and perhaps the most loved prime minister of the country, when few of his cabinet colleagues were accused of corruption. It was the media that had courage to expose the gruesome events during the Gujarat state-led pogrom of innocent Muslims in that State. Bringing out the fascist nature of the rightwing Hindutva groups leading the carnage was perhaps the singular achievement of the media, leading to the erosion of support for the politics of hatred in India.
Viewed in this context, the recent developments in the Indian media are worrying to say the least. This is in spite of the contributions the media have made in exposing corruption, for instance, the shady arms deal during the National Democratic Alliance regime by the Tehelka, the petrol pump allotment scam during the same period by the Indian Express and the telecom allocation scam by the current United Progressive Alliance regime.
Similarly unambiguous is the media’s role in fighting against communalism, by continuously reacting against the witch hunt of the minorities by some political groups. Equally substantial is the role the media played in publishing the criminal and financial backgrounds of many candidates, who contested and eventually lost, in the recently held parliament elections. While the media has definitely held its ground and stood true to its prestigious past, on many current issues it has been regularly faltering.
Unfortunately, the media do not appear to be caring for its own record when it comes to the reporting of acts of terror committed by the state, while it comes down heavily on those committed by non-state actors. The media, both electronic and print versions, have been instrumental in enlightening the citizenry about the use of dastardly and mindless violence committed by non-state actors upon innocent civilian populations.
The argument put forward by the media to condemn the violence is plain and simple, that there are no issues in a democracy which cannot be sorted out by deliberations and peaceful means of protest, and that dissent can always be dealt with politically and democratically and violence, not sanctioned by the law, is intolerable in a democratic set up.
The media however appear to be swallowing its logic by failing to give equal seriousness against state-sponsored violence. Extrajudicial executions, torturing of suspects, murder of prisoners and under trials, and disappearances are quite rampant in India. These characters of a failing state require equal treatment or probably more attention than that is given to violence committed by non-state actors. Yet, the media do not give enough time and space to discuss these issues.
India has witnessed more than 1184 deaths in police custody according to the data published by the National Human Rights Commission. The data is concerning cases reported to the Commission between April 2001 and March 2009. Of these, 601 custodial deaths have taken place in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, all peaceful states with no insurgency or other armed militia operating within. Yet, this news appeared in an almost invisible corner in the print media as a single column news in the inside pages. The electronic media ignored the news all together.
Similar is the case of fake encounters. Instead of condemning it and demanding prosecutions the media have actually been instrumental in the glorifying the killers in uniform. 'Encounter specialist and super cop' are media inventions in their attempt in showering accolades upon murderer police officers for 'successful' encounters. Some of these media heroes are now in jail or killed. For instance, the former Assistant Commissioner of Delhi Police, Mr. Rajbir Singh, was killed by a friend allegedly over disputes regarding his illegal investments, Mr. Daya Nayak of Maharashtra police, is in jail facing corruption charges and for his alleged nexus with the underworld. Mr. D.G. Banjara, Deputy Inspector General of Gujarat Police is in jail for his proven role in fake encounters. Even after the exposure of the real faces of these murderers in uniform, the media have singularly failed to get its act together barring a few exceptions.
After all, just how many times can one find such brazen acts of lawlessness like a live recording of the murder of two civilians by the police as it happened in Manipur? Just how many times the police, paramilitary forces and the army will let the media impartially cover their operations exposing their utter disregard for the rule of law as well as the constitution?
Any act of terror, violence, and extrajudicial executions is a crime against humanity. The question who did it is irrelevant. No law or ideology can legitimise the killings of innocent civilians, unfortunately caught between the state and its opponents. Murder or other forms of violence by the non-state actors based on whatever justifications - religion, ethnicity or ideology - should be unambiguously condemned. So should be the case with extrajudicial and illegal killings and other forms of violence committed by the state.
For one fact, unlike the non-state actors, the state warrants even sterner criticism for torture, killings and disappearances of its citizens as it is the state's duty to protect, promote and fulfil constitutional guarantees. The state deserves a far stricter scrutiny as it derives the legitimacy to use force by being the custodian of the law, guaranteeing to use it only for the protection of the citizens and not for killing them.
The studied silence maintained by the media, in this context, is unfortunate. A single murder, unsanctioned by the law, committed by state agents should let the press hit the panic button. 1184, is an exception. Yet the country's media chose to observe blissful silence. This prevents the possibility of exposing the countless unreported ones, which the media could have exposed.
The Asian Human Rights Commission expects that this silence is not from complicity, and that the Indian media will wake up to its legacy of standing by the people and the truth that they have the right to know.