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Media and Democracy in South Asia

Nandini Sahai
Nandini Sahai

I have chosen to discuss Media and Democracy in South Asia, for the simple reason that in the last one year or so all the countries in the region have gone in for elections and are now democratic countries.

The mass media constitute the backbone of democracy. The media supply the political information that voters base their decisions on. They identify problems in our society and serve as a medium for deliberation. They are also the watchdogs that we rely on for uncovering errors and wrongdoings by those who have power.

It is therefore reasonable to require that the media perform to certain standards with respect to these functions, and our democratic society rests on the assumption that they do.

The state of media in South Asian countries in 2009 was as varied as diverse the countries of the region are. With almost 100 TV channels in India, dozens in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, South Asia has entered the electronic and digital multimedia stage in an unprecedented way.

Never in history has the growth in media been so mismatched with the archaic and obstructive legal, traditional and administrative structures at such a scale and with such intensity. At a nerve breaking speed, the information revolution is demolishing all hurdles and restrictions that come in its way.

Also in many South Asian countries, the judiciary has failed democracy. One of the major flaws in the judiciary is the delay in its legal System. In South Asia, more than two million cases are pending in 18 High Courts alone and more than 200,000 cases are pending in the Supreme Court for admission, interim reliefs or final hearing.

If you will look into The Guinness Book of Records you will perhaps find an entry, which says that the most protracted law suit ever, recorded was in India. A "mahant", who is a keeper of a temple, filed a suit in Pune in 1205 AD and the case was decided in 1966 –(761) years later! However, this is not the average time taken by the Indian courts for deciding cases. Normally, it takes between 5 and 15 years for a case to be decided in an Indian court. But this time is long enough to break anyone’s belief in the judicial system and democracy.

Democracy can only function when the state does not get involved in any judicial proceedings, just to save those whom it has favoured previously. It is up to the courts to give justice to the people or it would be sooner rather than later that the people start to lose trust in the judicial system. In fact, it is the duty of the state to ensure that judicial proceedings are free , fair, impartial and peaceful.

The people in South Asian countries may have lost trust and faith in judiciary and law system, but do they have trust in the police? Sadly speaking the answer is "NO" specially in the Indian context. Indian police discriminate against people on the basis of caste and financial status and consider themselves above the law, undermining the country’s democratic ideals, a leading human rights group said.

Police also stood accused of illegally detaining crime suspects, torturing them and even carrying out extra judicial killings in custody with impunity. The reports collated from interviews with about 80 policemen of various ranks and victims of police atrocities said several officers admitted in private that suspects were often tortured and beaten to extract confessions

Policemen charged at economist Professor Anu Muhammd with truncheons as he fell on the road during a police attack on a peaceful procession of the national committee to protect oil, gas, mineral resources, power and port, which was marching to lay siege to the Petrobangla head office in Dhaka.

Both legs of Anu Muhammad, also a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University, were badly fractured in the police attack. He and other injured were taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital and most of them were released after first aid. Professor Anu Muhammad was shifted to Square Hospital from DMCH.

Journalists trying to visit Anu Muhammad at Square Hospital were refused permission to see him. When contacted, the hospital management said it might have been done on the advice of the attending doctors.

South Asia is in the grip of multifaceted crises extenuated by the poor quality of governance and its inability to grapple with the challenges of population explosion, poverty, deprivation, social exclusion, rapid urbanization, and environmental degradation caused by the very forces of development.

The symptoms of this multifaceted crisis are seen in the rise of political and social violence, militarization of society, pervasive political graft and corruption, youth alienation, and, indeed, the undoing of democracy itself with the peaceful overthrow of an elected Government by the military establishment for mal-governance.

With a population of 1.3 billion or around 22% of the world population, the challenge to governance in South Asia is immense. The task ahead is made more complex by the regional diversity borne out of its multi-racial , multi-religious, multi-linguistic and multi-cultural composition.

Furthermore, around 550 million or about 45% of the world’s poor people are to be found in South Asia and have yet to fully enjoy the fruits of democracy and development. The poor are either out of the mainstream of development as chronically marginalized people or face hardships on account of anti-poor policies, priorities and institutions.

The lack of democratic participation and its relation to poverty in South Asia can be seen in terms of ineffective political parties, local governments, national parliaments, civil society and civil service. In addition, the lack of dynamic and visionary political, bureaucratic and business leadership also serve to retard the extent of democratic participation in South Asia, strengthening the involvement of provincial councils in energy.

Most South Asian countries are following independence from British rule and, in the case of Nepal, liberation from the autocracy of one family group in 1950. They have enjoyed democratic systems of governance at some time or the other, often for extended periods of time. Electoral processes have, however, been found wanting to some extent in all these countries.

We have to understand the electoral processes as they are actually operated in South Asia to discover the reasons for the flaws in these systems and the degrees of success or failure in attempts at reforms Manipulation of elections by government and electoral malpractices are of critical concern in all South Asian countries.

South Asia is home to 1.5 billion people, who together comrpise one-fifth of all humanity. One-fifth of the population in South Asia is between the ages of 15 and 24. This is the largest number of young people ever to transition into adulthood, both in South Asia and in the world as a whole.

The prevailing conditions of political and economic insecurity, and the need to address them in a collective manner, are compelling reasons to forge a strong South Asian community capable of acting locally and regionally.

A step towards this happened in New Delhi late last year. Youth representatives (18 - 30 years) from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives gathered in the capital to deliberate on various issues confronting their region as part of the South Asia Youth Summit 2008 (SAYS '08) on November 24 and 25, 2008.

The summit brought together nearly 100 delegates comprising youth representatives from the fields of Media, Politics, Arts, Law and Business from across South Asia to create a space for a liberal dialogue on common public policy issues faced by South Asian countries.

The culmination of the two-day summit took place at India Gate where participants formed a youth chain and lit candles in solidarity with each other to fight against terrorism and spread the message of peace. And there began the "drafting of a new South Asia."

The nations of South Asia are more alike than they are different. Cultures and languages spill across national borders, most of which were created in the colonial era.

As in many other parts of the world, the creation of new and "artificial" national identities has been the source of much conflict and violent upheaval. This complex struggle continues to shape South Asia's political and economic landscape.

South Asian economies are a mixture of poverty and plenty, with advanced and productive economies couped with persistent poverty.

The turbulent past 60 years of South Asia have cost the region dearly. The prospects of a region, which could have been a leading geo-political entity in a multi-polar world, were dampened.

Therefore, it is high time new solutions and right directions are sought, especially with the help of the youth of the region. It is they who can effectively make an impact with their contributions, thus leading to the formation of a peaceful democratic South Asia.

The media has a crucial role in not only strengthening democratic processes in each of the countries in the region, but also in fostering greater cooperation and understanding among them. They can create the demand for change and ensure that the process is implemented in the best possible manner. The vast resources that many media organisations in the region today have and the fact that technology has removed most constraints of distance and time give the media houses and individual journalists a unique opportunity to play the role that audiences trust them to perform.


Nandini Sahai is a distinguished development journalist who has used journalism as a powerful tool for social development.

She is currently the Director of The International Centre, Goa. She is the guiding spirit behind the Media Information and Communication Centre of India (MICCI), a non-profit organisation created by leading academicians, journalists and social activists, which has worked on projects in areas such as Right to Information, Women in Media, Community Radio, Media and Social Development, Media and Disaster Management, Rural Journalism, Broadcast Bill and Youth and Media.

Before forming MICCI, she was the Country Manager of AMIC-India, a subsidiary of AMIC (Asian Media and Information Centre), a Singapore-based International NGO working in media related issues.

She is one of the leading Right to Information (RTI) advocates and has been closely associated with Aruna Roy, a Magsaysay Award winner in creating awareness among people about their rights. She has also worked with International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT).

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