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Cut across all verbal taboos

It’s time the media stopped erring on the side of exaggeration or complacency, Chitra Subramaniam-Duella writes.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2013 20:36 IST
Chitra Subramaniam-Duella

Words influence thinking. When they enter the language, they exude power in ways that can destroy vested interests. We are witnessing this power that partly explains why some parts of New Delhi are fortresses. Political India is telling us about processes without saying how they will be institutionalised. It will lead to a situation of process perfect product weak or process unknown, end results unclear. If there was any margin of error left, it evaporated on December 16, 2012, taking with it all political parties and exposing their disconnect with aspiring India.

Systematic rape and sexual assault happens because of societal indifference. Apathy is a vector. Sustained media advocacy can turn the tide. The media has underestimated its own power of prevention and finds itself between an information glut of its own making and a power gap that it does not understand or pretends not to. Robust media advocacy is the gathering and consolidation of scientific evidence and clarity about policy options that lead to the framing of laws. Coalition building is key and natural allies and adversaries have to be identified by it.

Lawmakers, public and private companies, NGOs, academia and the media have to pull together to channel outrage into powerful information. The media’s responsibility is two-pronged. As a determinant, the information it brings to stakeholders and people at large should have a direct impact on information that people bring to their respective sectors as well as back to the media. Media advocacy also looks at timing and implementation with each sector deciding its course of action.

Data generation is rarely neutral. It is influenced by political, social and economic interests. Media advocacy remains vigilant about who is saying what, for whom and with what effect. If 10 areas need work, people will typically focus on the first three as they are media-seeking. The back office is equally important and the media has to be present across the spectrum to ensure that every segment is active and responsible.

If the nodal ministry is the ministry for women and child welfare, how do other ministries connect? What is its role in the current situation, what are its resources, how does it develop policy, where are the road blocks and solutions are some questions that need answers. Official responses say all sectors of the government moved with speed and synchronisation and the victim received the best of what India had to offer. So why were people on the streets? The hoodwinking goes on, with parts of the media playing an active role.

The media can enable informed dialogue, not provide solutions. It can shift the debate from person to people, question professional control of information by demystifying it. Homework and leg work is their backbone.

The national call is to prevent rapes. Lawmakers must decide if they want to sit at tables with colleagues who are charged with rape and murder. They should share their plans now that information is washing up on their shores. Industry bodies could add reporting of sexual harassment and rape to their call for governance. Academia can strengthen and widen the scope of evidence. NGOs must plough the unchartered course. The major difference between them and the media is that they are allowed to err on the side of exaggeration.

The need for confidence building has never been so urgent. Media advocacy can cut through barriers, verbal taboos and semantic jugglery without erring on the side of exaggeration or complacency.

Chitra Subramaniam-Duella is a former journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.