BY KALPANA SHARMA
The new-found power of the media needs to be tempered with responsibility.
I SUSPECT many people have forgotten. At a time when the subject of trial by media is a hot topic, particularly on the electronic media, we need to remember that Gudiya's case was actually tried live on a television channel. For those who might have forgotten the details, Gudiya is the young woman from Mundali village in Meerut district, Uttar Pradesh. She thought her soldier husband Arif, who she had known for barely two weeks after her marriage, had died when he disappeared during the 1999 Kargil conflict. He was presumed to be dead or a deserter as his body was not found. In 2004, after four years, Arif came back to India as part of an exchange of prisoners between India and Pakistan. During his absence, Gudiya remarried. She was expecting a child from her new husband Taufiq when Arif returned.
The making of a media spectacle
What should Gudiya do? Go back to Arif or stay with Taufiq? And what about the child? An intensely personal dilemma was first made the subject of debate in the village panchayat where 1,500 people ruled that Gudiya must return to her soldier husband. And shortly after that it was turned into a live television spectacle as all kinds of "wise" people and experts discussed what Gudiya should do. The anchor insisted that she should decide then and there, while the programme was still on the air. A confused and overwhelmed Gudiya said she would go back to Arif. Later she said, "It was everybody's wish. Who knows what will happen to me? I may die or the child may die. No one can say anything." The child did not die but Gudiya did, within a year of giving birth. And just last month, both Arif - who continues to take care of her child, a boy called Mateen - and Taufiq have remarried. Thus Gudiya's case is closed. But is it? Does it not still pose questions about her right to decide the course of her life and whether the media should have turned her dilemma into a media spectacle? Gudiya's case is not the same as the issues raised on trial by media. But as in her case, the media seem to arrogate to themselves a similar type of proactive role. Rather than leaving the law to take its own course now that the campaigning has resulted in the reopening of the three high-profile murder cases in Delhi - Jessica Lal's, Priyadarshini Mattoo's and Nitish Katara's - the media have decided that they must state an opinion on every step taken in the re-trial in the belief that the media spotlight will somehow ensure that justice is done. Perhaps they are right. Media scrutiny could at least ensure that the investigating agencies do their job. But such concern should extend to other cases too, where the case is closed because no one powerful is involved. The horrific killing of a Dalit family in Maharashtra's Bhandara district a month ago is one such instance. Just because the family refused the right of way through their land, four members of the family were brutally killed. Only one survived, the father, because he was not in the village that day. The case has now come into public view because some political groups decided to pursue it. But otherwise, like the thousands of Dalit murders that take place each year, it would have been one more case closed. At heart the issue is the working of the criminal justice system in this country. It tilts heavily towards those who have the power to manipulate it. And the three Delhi cases are illustrative of the way it works. By successfully playing a part in reopening these three cases, the media's belief in their own power has been reinforced. But this power needs to be tempered with responsibility. Is it the job of the media to play the role of judge and jury? Or should they stick to collecting and disseminating all the facts and allow people and the courts to judge whether someone is innocent or guilty? Of course "facts" are rarely unbiased. What is presented is selective, even in the best of newspapers and media. But if the intention is to present information without twisting the facts, then the viewer or the reader has a chance of making up her or his mind. But if "facts" are put together after a conclusion has already been reached, then the viewer or reader's ability to make an independent judgment is limited.
The other issue is whether the media are concerned about all miscarriage of justice or only when it involves "people like us" or cases that have elements of high drama? For, if the focus remains only on a few cases, even if there is justice in these cases, the problem will not have been solved. The media's concern needs to be rooted in tackling and exposing the flaws in our criminal justice system. If the campaigning and exposes succeed in bringing about systemic changes, then the benefits would reach everyone, rich and poor. If, however, the attention is geared only to a couple of cases and dropped once they are resolved, then we will be left where we are. In some ways we will be worse off, as expectations will have been raised that things are changing when actually things are much the same. Email the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org