A workshop at the World Social Forum. Mumbai, January 2004.
Organized by the Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World
This event, presided over by Siddhartha, included many notables from the media world. The general theme had to do with the need for accuracy and responsibility in the media, and how this is often subverted by special interest groups. Siddhartha explained that the alliance had a programme on the media called Firewords and had networked with journalists al over the world. Two important international gatherings of the Firewords group were held in Bangalore (December 1999) and Lille ( during the World Assembly of Citizens in December 2001). The objectives of Firewords were as follows:
1. To encourage journalists, writers and publishers to give greater attention to social issues and suggest solutions to them.
2. To isolate particular issues and problems which need to be given greater attention.
3. To explore the possibility of writers, journalists and social activists forming informal networks that may lobby politicians and bureaucrats to implement social programmes.
4. To reflect on the role of the media in creating a vibrant civil society where local groups and organisations play a major role in tackling local issues in a participatory and democratic spirit. To see the media as a humanising and culturally energising force that can generate hope and initiative among a large number of people.
5. To monitor the process of globalisation in the interests of the poor and the marginalised peoples.
Praful Bidwai was the first speaker. He is one of India’s most well known syndicated columnists. He pointed out that in the US/Western Europe, the entire media was controlled by 8 conglomerates, each making anywhere from $20-35 billion. All of them are linked with large manufacturing corporations, with the exception of Rupert Murdoch, which is only a news corporation. This means that the corporations, with their affiliated political leanings, determine who and what makes the news, and more importantly, what doesn’t. He pointed out that the same phenomenon was starting to happen in India. Editorial content, and the ability to question, criticize, debate, and analyze current events, has been steadily giving way to marketing, advertising, and corporate interests. The Times of India is a prime example.
Sadanand Menon, who teaches at The Asian Institute of Journalism in Chennai, India, continued giving more examples in this vein. He said, additionally, that beyond the Big 8, there were 36 corporations of $5-10 billion each. He spoke about how the FCC has been increasingly applying pressure for the privatization of media. Not surprisingly, the chairperson of the FCC, Michael Powell, is the son of Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
Martha Walner, a media specialist from the US, had some positive things to share, despite the large-scale hijacking of the media in the West. She emphasized that the response to this has been an unprecedented amount of activism in this past year. There were three broad categories to this: 1. critique of current media content, and pressuring for media accountability, 2. building alternative media, and 3. helping to change policy by changing the laws.
Cecile Guiochon, from France, is a member of Panos (www.panos.com). Panos is an alternative news journal promoting pluralism and peace. There are currently nine regional headquarters for Panos, including one in India. Cecile spoke about the significant role of Panos in disseminating Development and alternative news.
Rukhmani Datta is the editor of an alternative monthly magazine, Humanscape (www.humanscapeindia.net). Based in Bombay, it focuses on one specific theme every month. It has a freelance editorial team of about 500 people, although it works on a very low budget with only two fulltime people. She spoke of some of the challenges she faces in keeping it going, since she has a policy not to accept institutional funding of any kind. Humanscape has a readership of 250,000 people.
Ramzan Durga is affiliated with a liberal Kannada newspaper that promotes human rights and social action. He is also an impassioned Sufi and poet!
He spoke of the role of the little magazines which are found in every small town in India, in the local language. These magazines are often very important as independent conveyors of news and analysis.
Gouridasan Nair works for The Hindu, perhaps one of the most outspoken newspapers in the country, along with its weekly newsmagazine, Frontline. He bemoaned that the media has essentially become an agent for globalization. He recommended The Hoot (www.thehoot.org) as an important internet media campaigner for these times.
Following these panel presentations, there were several comments from participants, providing further examples of how the media and media literacy has been co-opted in the US, Italy, UK, and other countries. The media has been manufacturing a theology of indifference, and in many countries has even become an instrument of propoganda and violence. Sadanand made a plea for the media to take its role in “closing down the Gestapo”.
Mrs. Didi Halleck, a well-kown independent TV producer from the US, also spoke about the role of the small independent efforts to create objective news analysis and features. Although this was still little compared to the weight of the mainstream media, it was beginning to become increasingly known. In the long run, of course, an objective and responsible media had to be independent of the interests of big corporations.
Several alternative media sources were mentioned, many of them internet based. These include indymedia, truthout, rense, moveon, earthrainbownetwork, copvcia, and leadingedgenews .
This was an important occasion for Firewords to renew it commitment towards a responsible and socially concerned media. In the months and years to come Firewords hopes to strengthen its work , particularly in its quest to create conditions for a World Assembly of Citizens to emerge.