A number of eminent journalists, media experts and representatives from community radio stations came together at a day-long seminar organized by the UN Information Centre, UNESCO and the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD) to mark World Press Freedom Day in New Delhi on 3 May.
The theme of the seminar was ‘Rural Voices: Upholding Freedom of Expression through Mainstream and Alternative Media’. The objective of the conference was to promote voices of communities having limited space in the mainstream media, highlight the importance of media freedom to development and rural empowerment, and reflect on the ways in which the media could help transform lives in the country’s rural and less accessible areas.
Sukumar Muralidharan, Programme Manager, International Federation of Journalists, presented the UNESCO-supported Press Freedom Report for South Asia 2012-13. This annual report monitors and reviews developments in the South Asian region that have a bearing on press freedom and quality journalism.
The inaugural session saw presentations by UNIC Director Kiran Mehra-Kerpelman, UNESCO Director and Representative for India Shigeru Aoyagi and IRRAD Chief Executive Officer Jane E. Schukoske.
“These are exciting times for the media in India,” remarked Ms. Mehra-Kerpelman. “But this is perhaps an opportune time to stop and ask: is the media is contributing to the strengthening of democratic institutions? What is the range of public views and sentiment that it manages to capture? And to what extent is it able to empower the poorest and the marginalized?”
“The most critical role of a free media is to protect the public interest and uphold democracy,” added Mr. Aoyagi. “The media’s function as watchdog is fundamental, as is the belief that it is the only institution that can fulfil such a function. The media are not just the anointed representative of the public, their practices must be intrinsically bound up with the fostering of public trust and accountability.”
Ms. Schukoske referred to the media’s lack of engagement with the lives of people in rural and poor urban areas. “We hope that mainstream media will step up to the need for greater attention to the realities of rural India, and that the alternative media will grow in its important role of creating spaces for rural voices,” she added.
Senior journalist Bharat Bhushan, in his keynote address, provided a comprehensive survey of the challenges facing the Indian media. This was followed by an equally meticulous, critical survey of the trends in Indian media and an assessment of the road ahead by the Chief Guest, Jawhar Sircar, Chief executive Officer of Prasar Bharati, India’s largest public broadcaster.
The first panel discussion saw eminent journalists and commentators discuss the media’s social responsibilities in the light of its role as an agent of social change and a watchdog of democracy. The panelists included A.S. Panneerselvan, Executive Director, Panos South Asia; B.V. Rao, Chief Editor, Governance Now magazine; and Ravi M. Khanna, freelance journalist and media consultant, formerly with the Voice of America. During the discussion and the Q&A that followed, the panelists provided a stark yet constructive appraisal of the state of the Indian media, particularly emphasizing the phenomenon of ‘paid news’, the media’s tendency to focus on ‘soft’ stories that reflect the growing consumer aspirations of India’s middle class, the perception of news as a ‘product’ and the role of the ‘CEO Editor’ in defining the nature and functioning of the media.
The second panel focused on alternative media, particularly community radio, video and grassroots newspapers. Chaired by Prof. Vinod Pavarala, Chairholder of the UNESCO Chair on Community Media, the panel discussed the capacity of alternative media to empower rural and marginalized communities along with examples of effective and innovative use of community media. The panelists included Aaditeshwar Seth, co-founder and CEO, Gram Vaani Community Media; Jitender Sharma, Station Head, Kisan Vani Community Radio; Osama Manzar, founder and Director, Digital Empowerment Foundation; and Shalini Joshi, Director of Nirantar, an organization working on education and empowerment of girls and women from marginalized communities and founder of a newspaper produced by rural women.
The seminar concluded with an ‘Open House’ chaired by T.K. Arun, Editor, Opinion, The Economic Times.
Iskra Panevska, Adviser for Communication and Information for South Asia, UNESCO New Delhi, presented concluding remarks, while Pooja Murada, Director of Communications, IRRAD, presented the vote of thanks.