Friday, 21 January, 2022

Media As Human Rights Watchdog

Media As Human Rights Watchdog

Dr. Kundan Aryal

Media are the frontline defenders of human rights. Though there were instances in which the media outlets were misused for spreading misinformation and reinforcing discrimination, the major thrust of professional journalism is to protect people's rights. The overarching news factor is about the general people. Hence, the news is people. News is about the miseries and plights of the common people. It is about ensuring their access to all the basic needs, including social justice.

Milestone document
Today is the 10th of December that marks great achievement in human civilisation. The day the United Nations General Assembly had proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a milestone document of human rights. It was drafted by representatives from different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world. All the nations in the world, including Nepal, have undergone tremendous changes in terms of politics, economics and culture since the adoption of UDHR. However, the dream of equality, the first Article of UDHR is yet to be translated into practice. It says, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights".

The theme of this year's Human Rights Day is equality. As, it reads, reducing inequalities, advancing human rights, everyone should be reminded all the time to materialise the noble spirit in the day-to-day public affairs. For, instance, in the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, people’s equal right to get the life-saving jabs needs to be protected. Media can perform their role effectively in this regard. The very first sentence of the UDHR expresses a strong belief that human dignity and equality are the foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world. Media empowered by freedom of thought and expression would inevitably be the flag-bearer of the spirit of UDHR.

It stresses that recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. With a sense of responsibility towards society, as per the professional standards, media should hold the people in power accountable. People expect media to be instrumental in getting rid of all kinds of anomalies that undermine social justice. Media around the world, in general, perceive as of the UDHR that disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts. Media also believes that the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy the freedom of speech and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

The world of media was entirely different at the time when the UDHR was embraced more than seven decades ago. Conventional media outlets of that time had started to be committed to accuracy. By 1948, the notion of professional media had already gained momentum. Since the early years of the 20th century, editors and all journalists had generally been aware of the doctrine of fairness, truthfulness, responsibility and accountability, and the verification of facts. Today, whether in the global or domestic context, the mass media need to be more instrumental in identifying and exposing the gaps between the great human endeavours of the UDHR and the real world.

The quest for promotion and protection of human rights and social justice cannot be irrelevant even with the guaranty of all the rights by the constitution and laws. Rather, democracy and human rights are to be nurtured relentlessly. Even after the promulgation of the pro-socialist constitution and the laws protecting rights, the response of the law enforcing agencies may not be in the spirit of the existing constitution, law or justice. The agencies may put pressure on the victims to withdraw the complaint against violence or discrimination, after which the case would dismiss by mediation.

The UN states that human rights violations include governmental transgressions of the rights guaranteed by national, regional and international human rights laws and Acts. It also clarifies that omissions are directly attributable to the State involving the failure to implement legal obligations derived from human rights standards. Based on the previous experiences, it could be summed that violations occur when a law, policy or practice deliberately contravenes or ignores obligations held by the State concerned or when the State fails to achieve a required standard of conduct or result. In the entire context, people expect that the media play the role of surveillance.

All kinds of human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights oblige the government to respect, protect and fulfill them. The failure of a government to perform any of these obligations constitutes a violation of human rights. Media are not only the first observer of such failure, their position in the first row also demands their role to expose such failure.

On May 28, 1961, an article entitled the forgotten prisons written by Peter Benenson, a British lawyer, was published in the British newspaper The Observer. Later it became the initial effort to establish Amnesty International, a worldwide human rights organisation. Originally, he intended to launch an appeal in Britain to obtain an amnesty for prisoners of conscience all over the world. Gradually, he along with his friends realised that the effort would have to be continued. As there were a large number of prisoners of conscience, they were to be found in different countries. Hence, the newspaper article served as the seed for the worldwide campaign. Even today, there are expectations from the media to safeguard human rights around the world.

(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)