Mainstream, VOL LIII No 42, New Delhi, October 10, 2015
Media and Children
Saturday 10 October 2015
by Dipa Dixit
India is home to 17 per cent of the world’s children, and has the world’s largest child population. Despite this, India’s children are often neglected and their rights ignored. Of the 430 million children in India, an estimated 55 per cent—a staggering 236.5 million—currently experience rights’ violations. Yet children are not considered a key audience segment in either news broadcasting or the print media.
India’s media landscape, one of the oldest and largest in the world, is complex and highly diverse—a result of the country’s geographical size, huge population and numerous languages. The violatility in the media market and the sheer number of media houses and media activities (at the national and State levels) make it an extremely complex sector to navigate.
Child rights advocates view the media as an extremely important and powerful agency to promote and ensure that children are able to access their entitlements, creating public awareness and opinion related to their issues, while exerting the necessary pressure on the government to discharge their responsibilities in this context. Yet, many such advocates in India express strong concerns on what they see as the media’s consistent failure to play its part in this effort. The media is repeatedly criticised for its lack of adequate, balanced and sensitive coverage on child-related issues. As can be seen by many, ‘the trigger for a media story is always an incident, and a tratedy serves as a “strong” trigger-poiont’. Incidents such as child rape or child sexual abuse are therefore readily picked up by the media. Long-form or discursive reporting is extremely rare; and solution-based reporting or coverage with regard to government efficiency is sorely lacking. There is now a near-uniform preference for sensational treatment of
news items—the practice of consistent ‘breaking news’ in Indian news. Where day-to-day news coverage is concerned, a lack of regard for good-quality investigative journalism or follow-up has become the norm!
There is no separate ‘Child Beat’ in the Indian media. More importantly, there is limited media understanding of the child rights sector, as a result of which many reporters do not have the background knowledge or capacity to appro-priately and comprehensively report on a child rights issue or violation that takes into account all relevant aspects of the situation; this often leads to insensitive coverage and sensational stories, which run the risk of distorting the truth.
Several cases in the recent past demonstrate this trend. In May of 2008, a 14-year-old child was murdered in the most gruesome circumstances—numerous photographs of this child were procured and published by the media; her “character” and personal life were dissected and deemed immoral. The Arushi Talwar murder case, the details of which have been debated ad nauseam in all the media publications chamrels (both print and broadcasting), is a classic case of media infringement on the privacy and dignity of the child and her family. Other cases in point are the Baby Falak case and the Nirbhaya rape case of December 2012. Children, who constitute the most sensitive and vulnerable section of society, provide for best human-interest stories and the media tends to capitalise on this. Often stories pertaining to children involved in crime are hyped and sensationalised by the media resulting in their re-victimisation. Secondary victimisation of children occurs both at the stage of news-gathering and through the publication of photographs, and other personally identifiable information. The journalists covering crime have a challenging task of striking the right balance between the “public’s right to know” and “responsibility of bringing the issue to light” versus ”the individual’s right to privacy”. It is a matter of debate whether such victimisation that leads to further trauma for the child victims is caused by the journalists due to their negligence or lack of training. In the process of sensationalising such cases, the media has at times incited the public to form ill-informed opinions. In response to this built-up public opinion and pressure, the administration has often made hasty and drastic decisions to address these issues, with little or no positive results. The Indian media currently offers little opportunity for children to speak for them-selves on issues or policies that matter to them.
Oddly though there is a legal framework which governs the media coverage of children. Apart from International Conventions [the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—Articles 16 and 40], and the law in India [Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 and Rules of 2007—Section 21], a few media guidelines [Press Council of India Guidelines, News Broadcasting Association (NBA) Guidelines, UNICEF Media Guidelines, etc.] for child rights reporting already exist in India. Most reporters are blissfully ignorant till they are informed about the stipulations on child coverage by editors when they file stories that violate set norms. While the common, court-imposed norms are largely followed by the big media houses, occasional slips do occur.
In this context the Baby Falak case was important. In January 2012, a badly battered two-year-old infant—Baby Falak—was admitted to the AIIMS Trauma Centre by a 15-year-old adolescent girl. In due course, it was found that the adolescent girl had battered the baby to stop the infant from crying. After a heart-rending struggle to live, which was watched by the nation at large, Baby Falak died.
The case raised a lot of issues about the condition and circumstances of both the children, that were covered by the media extensively around the country. However, the coverage also raised a lot of questions about the manner in which the media accessed and disclosed confidential information about and photographs of these two children. This case also raised significant questions, for the first time, about the role and responsibilities of different stakeholders in disclosing information about children involved in such cases—be it the police, the doctors, hospital authorities, the Child Welfare Committee, judiciary, the government departments, civil society groups, counsellors, etc. Shockingly, the TV cameramen were allowed by the hospital authorities to film Baby Falak in the ICU!!!
There is no doubt that several provisions of the law and regulations were flouted by the media in this case. A PIL was filed in the Delhi High Court in 2012 that emphasised the urgent need to frame specific media guidelines for reporting on children and disclosure of details of children in the press. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, a statutory body, pursuant to the directions of the Delhi High Court, set up a Committee, which has since formulated the Media Guidelines specifically for children. Amongst other things, the Media Guidelines stated that:
• The privacy, dignity, physical and emotional development of children needs to be preserved and protected while reporting/broadcasting/publishing news/programmes/documentaries etc. on and for children.
• Lack of care by the media in this regard may entail the real risk of children facing harm, stigma, disqualification, retribution, etc.
• The media shall ensure that a child’s identity is not revealed in any manner, including but not limited to disclosure of personal infor-mation, photograph, school/institution/locality and information of the family including their residential/official address.
• The media shall not sensationalise issues or stories, especially those relating to children, and should be conscious of the pernicious consequences of disclosing/highlighting infor-mation in a sensational form and the harm it may cause to children.
The Delhi High Court has passed an Order, dated August 8, 2012, directing the Delhi Government to adopt these Guidelines, and also directed that these Guidelines and the Court order be uploaded immediately on the websites of the Press Council of India (PCI), Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Department of Women and Child Development—Government of the NCT of the Delhi Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Ministry of Women and Child Development—Government of India, News Broadcasters Asso-ciation (NBA) and Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) and circulated to all stakeholders for compliance, to protect the interests of children.
It is universally recognised that media coverage has raised the level of debate about the condition of children, the rampant abuse (both physical and sexual), the lack of adequate protective measures and the treatment of juveniles in this country. There is also unanimous agreement in India that the media is an extremely important and powerful stakeholder in enhancing the public awareness about child rights, and in providing the much-needed push for policy and legislative changes. The key expectations from the media are increased coverage of success stories, responsible child-rights’ reporting, engagement of journalists in more in-depth investigative reporting (including follow-up and discursive pieces), and improved background knowledge of journalists on child rights issues.
The mass media, whether print or electronic, is very powerful since it reaches out to entire communities, state, or country. With this power comes a responsibility of using the medium with utmost care.
1. Press Council of India Guidelines.
2. NBA Media Guidelines.
3. I & B Media Guidelines.
4. NCPCR Media Guidelines.
5. UNICEF Media Guidelines.
6. Delhi High Court order dated 08.08.2012.
7. Constitution of India.
9. JJ Act and Rules.
10. Interviews Europe—Protecting the Rights of Children.
11. International Journal of criminal Justice Sciences (Vol. 2, July-December 2007).
12. Case studies in various newspaper articles.
Dipa Dixit is a practising lawyer and a former member of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). She can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org