My recent trip to India could not have come at a better time for someone interested in assessing the impact of media on the public mind. My impressions are based on this visit -- crimes as reported on TV and in newspapers, attendance at public events, and discussions with hotel and tourism employees and military personnel.
India is a country of contradictions. We may tend to think of it as a place of call centers, technologists and competitive university training. In fact, the vast majority of citizens are either working poor or destitute. According to Wikipedia, 69% of India’s population lives on less than $2 a day.
Against this economic backdrop, combined with a traditional culture where there is a female to male ratio of 940 to 1,000 (as of 2011), crimes against women tend to go unreported and unpunished. Read any daily newspaper and you will see a litany of brutal sexual attacks against females of all ages -- from infants to grandmothers. They say rape occurs in India every 22 minutes, but that is certainly understated since many go unreported. Up until recently, there seemed to be no galvanized women’s movement.
India’s Media Distribution
While rated as an emerging economic powerhouse, India is predominately rural, with 85% of the population engaged in agrarian work. Yet even rural villages have access to television. The number of TV homes in India stands at 148 million in 2011 -- almost 29% more than the U.S. There are 515 channels available and you can see satellite dishes dotting the landscape throughout the country, often on the most meager of structures. (Please click here to see photos and videos). And there seem to be many news networks. Our hotel in Delhi offered 38 news channels out of a total 95 channel choices.
According to Wikipedia, India's telecommunication network is the second-largest in the world based on the total number of telephone users (both fixed and mobile phone). It has the world's third-largest Internet user base, with over 137 million as of June 2012. One tour guide told us that mobile phones were the most common way for Indians to access the Internet, as opposed to computers or tablets.
While newspapers are not as prevalent among the poor because of cost and distribution challenges, Businesstoday.com reports that India has the largest number of newspapers / publications (72,000) of any country in the world.
In spite of the poverty, information and editorial can now easily reach deep and wide, urban to rural. But reach is one thing. Can media help to change entrenched attitudes and create societal change?
Media’s Impact – Recent Events
By now, many of you will have heard about the heinous Dec. 16, 2012 assault of a 23-year-old female student who boarded a bus with her date after seeing an evening movie. On the bus, six men gang-raped and brutalized her and beat her date before dumping both of them on a Delhi street. She eventually succumbed to her injuries and died on Dec 23 after being airlifted to a Singapore hospital.
While, as I noted above, rape and other horrific crimes against women are not uncommon in India, there was something about this attack that touched the nation. Public demonstrations sparked media coverage. Media coverage encouraged more demonstrations and put pressure on politicians, police and the legal system. In a rare display of efficiency, the men were arrested within 24 hours. Charge sheets were filed in record time. Protecting her identity in a country that punishes and shuns rape victims, she was named “Braveheart”, “Nirbhaya” (Fearless) and “Damini” (Lightning). But it was her father who (illegally under current Indian law) revealed her real name to the press because he wanted her to be an inspiration to rape survivors. (http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/340628) Other rape victims came forward. Then there was a backlash from traditionalists, followed by a backlash to the backlash. “Godmen” espousing insensitive and injurious opinions were vilified. With all due respect to Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution was televised.
An employee at one of our hotels spoke to us at length about this crime and the pervasiveness of all crimes against women. He lamented that as media attention to this assault fades, the public’s ability to effect change will fade too. Therefore, he said, it is incumbent on the media to continue to spotlight this and all crimes against women.
Media in India (like media in our own country) seems to play two roles: fueling the problem with sexually violent content (think Bollywood and its "item songs") or advocating for change. Here is a chance for our industry not only to inform public opinion, but also be a catalyst for much-needed cultural change. Let's hope these efforts continue.
There are many Facebook pages for Nirbhaya. Here are some links: