Online voices of offline people
The challenge is to make digital media perpetually democratic and universally accessible, without discrimination
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Only 36% of news on the Internet is about women in India. Social networking platforms such as Twitter are male-dominated, with men taking up 64% of news space. However, when it comes to online reporters, India outnumbers most countries with 59% women, while neighbouring Bangladesh does not have a single woman involved in reporting news online.
Across Asia, only 9% of the news on the Internet concerns women.
These figures are from the Global Media Monitoring Project report published by an online portal—Who Makes The News. This portal monitors and reports on gender-related issues in the media.
The data clearly shows that age-old discriminatory practices against women in the mainstream media are now being passed on to online media as well. And this discrimination in the media comes from the discrimination practised in our society.
In our experience, when we go to establish digital infrastructure or impart digital literacy in rural areas, more often than not, we find that most mobile users in a community or village are men, and not women. Women, if they have access to a phone, usually get a second-hand instrument and often have to share it with other women in the household. In fact, according to a report titled Connected Women by GSMA, 72% of women do not have access to mobiles in India.
However, is access to media only related to gender discrimination or does the discrimination go beyond gender? What role does being economically weaker, caste, place of residence, and religion play?
It seems that the discrimination practised in our daily lives is gradually becoming a part of the digital medium. According to an article in the March issue of Caravan magazine: “Its (mainstream media’s) coverage of scheduled castes and adivasis, who constitute over a quarter of India’s population, has historically been inadequate. Mostly, it appears only after heinous atrocities, when dalit children are burnt alive, when a panchayat orders a low-caste rape victim’s nose chopped off, or when an entire family is hacked to pieces. This was true in (Rohith) Vemula’s case too (which was first reported by a regional dalit journalist named Dilip C. Mandal and taken up by the mainstream media much later)”.
According to the same Caravan article, “In 1996, Kenneth J. Cooper, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote about not being able to find a single dalit journalist in India.”
The situation is not very different today in mainstream media. Dalits, tribals, socially backward, financially weak, and communities that are geographically remote are always ignored over political news (from the Centre or state capitals), sports news, business news, celebrity gossip and even news about big brand/company names.
Also, environment hardly ever makes it to the front page. Perhaps this is because mainstream media is gradually being taken over or controlled by corporate entities, making their neutrality and ethical responsibility questionable.
Trying to change this or rather making an effort to bring forth unheard stories of dalits, tribals and the socially backward are the Facebook pages of Dilip C. Mandal and Meena Kandasamy, and websites such as Dr Ambedkar’s Caravan and Savari, which are pioneering platforms.
With the penetration of the Internet, and access to computers, laptops, tablets and mobile phones, alternative media is getting more space. The need for printing, publishing and distribution means high cost. Alternative media houses, alternative journals and even alternative voices in the digital space, on the other hand, have managed to significantly reduce the cost of production and still reach out.
The digital medium has also become an agent for the dissemination of news and information from the ground. Take, for example, Beyond Headlines that focuses on alternative analysis and Right To Information Act exposés; or Raiot that raises issues in the hardly-in-the-mainstream-news northeastern state of Meghalaya; or even India Resists that throws light on people’s struggles and democratic movements.
Maybe this is the future. These days, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I see a lot of people questioning the way news is reported in the mainstream media. It is a sign that we will see more alternative media voices in the digital space in the time to come.
Whether or not digital media (read alternative media) will become the voice of the unheard, it must avoid becoming party to the discriminatory approach that is seen in mainstream media. The challenge is to make this digital media perpetually democratic and universally accessible, without discrimination.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar