Somewhere in the mid-Eighties, Utpalendu Chakravarty, a talented filmmaker, made Debshishu (God's Child) in Bengali. It was the strange story of a very poor couple who gave birth to a three-headed baby. Unable to look after it, the couple was forced to sell the baby away to a small tradesman. Several years later, they discovered that the tradesman was now the owner of a small village fair. The fair drew a massive audience that queued up for tickets. Curious, the couple stood in the queue. To their shock, they discovered that the crowd-puller was none other but their own three-headed son. When they went to the fair-owner and asked him to give their child back, he refused and threw them out. They had sold their own child, remember, he asked. "Now I am the owner," he said.

Is this a case of child abuse? If yes, who was the abuser-the parents, or the fair owner? Both of them were perpetrators. The parents had violated the rights of the child to a fair life by trading him in exchange for money. They had actually participated in the persistent abuse of their own child by facilitating it through a third party. The fair-owner was abusing the child by denying him the basic recognition of being a human being by exhibiting him and using him as a money-spinning commodity.

Over the past couple of years or so, it appears that the electronic media of television has been constantly playing the role of this fair owner. In January this year, Vineesh, a six-year-old girl, was seen answering questions right across the news channels about how she saw her father kill her mother. After the initial confusion, the little girl seemed to enjoy the media attention and faced the barrage of questions aimed at her. It was as if she was merely being asked to repeat her name, the name of the school in which she studied and so on. Danish, a small boy, was asked to keep repeating the experience of having witnessed his father killing his mother while Sharad, almost on the verge of trauma, with head bent, narrated how his mother had her husband killed with the help of her lover.

Sometime ago, one channel produced a special programme called Bal Gawah. It featured three small children, each of whom had witnessed one of their parents murder the other. They were repeatedly questioned much after the police and the courts had already interrogated them at length.

Illustration: Farzana Cooper

All of this may just be the tip of the iceberg. Look at the over-exposure of children who are out to set records in non-stop singing, or playing the saxophone or rolling rotis forever. When young Akanksha decided to create a record by singing for as many hours as she could, irrespective of the quality of her feat, television cameras remained focussed on her to cover her entry into the Limca Book of Records. A few days later, someone else and then another someone else smashed her 'record'. Akanksha's parents and family did nothing to discourage her as they too, could hog media attention via their child. Another girl who 'decided' to create a record in rolling rotis fainted after having rolled without a break for around 16 hours and had to be hospitalised. Are the television channels so starved for news that they have to resort to helpless and naïve children to meet their viewership targets?

Just a couple of weeks ago, a small child of four was being freely bandied about for his magical 'healing touch'. He just had to touch someone to cure him of any ailment. His parents understandably, were busy guarding him on the one hand and collecting the loot on the other. And television cameras were having a gala time imbibing magical bytes for their voyeuristic viewers.

Referring to repeated exposure of children exposed to crime, Calcutta-based psychiatrist Rima Mukherjee says, "I would certainly call this kind of sensationalizing news (at a time when a child is extremely traumatized) as child abuse by the media." As regards the media attention for the infinite singing records, she thinks it is child abuse by the parents, which the media is facilitating. "This should definitely not happen," says Mukherjee.

Another case in point is the highlighting of the performance of rank holders at the school and high school board exams in the media. In some cases, over-exposure could really be counter-productive and also lower the self-esteem of those who could not make their place in the merit list. Mukherjee feels that the media hype created after the SSC and Higher Secondary results are out must stop. "I have actually come across quite a few parents here who have told their child that it is better off they die than perform badly in academics because then where will their prestige be!" she says. Parental abuse will continue to be on the rise and children will continue to feel they have not lived up to their parents' expectations, as they have not topped, worries Mukherjee. "I see a lot of child abuse by parents in my practice," she says.

What about regulation?

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, contains four basic principles to guide political decision-making affecting the child:

(a) The best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in such decisions;
(b) Opinions of children should be heard and valued;
(c) Child development, not just survival, should be ensured; and
(d) Each child should be able to enjoy his/her rights, without discrimination.

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The legal reality is that there is no regulation on the over-exposure of children in the media. But Article 39 of the Indian Constitution that addresses itself to child abuse states that "young children are not to be abused and are to be protected against moral and material abandonment." The various Child Welfare Acts provide for the prevention of cruelty to children and also for the care, welfare and rehabilitation of abused children. But the law against cruelty (Juvenile Justice Act, 1986) can only be resorted to with the approval of an officer of the state government permitting for moderate punishment. The National Policy for Children, 1974, states: "Children shall be protected against neglect, cruelty and exploitation" but few are even aware of these provisions, including the legal, judicial and executive machinery, appointed among other things, specifically to prevent, monitor and execute action against such cruelty.

Journalist Shahla Raza recounts: "I was horrified to see a news story about a little boy who is allegedly a reincarnation of his uncle and who claimed to know who had murdered 'him' in the previous birth when the little boy was this 'murdered' uncle. The channel had brought in experts to talk about whether reincarnation could be used as a basis for a case against the accused man."

Madhupa Bakshi, head of mass communications at a Kolkata-based management institute, says: "The continuous focus on Prince and Budhia shows that the media is behaving irresponsibly. They are using the age-old ploy of child depiction to garner a captive audience. In an age where innovation is the hallmark of success, media is failing to create content that would draw sustained audience attention." Bakshi refuses to label this 'media abuse' however because, in her opinion, the subjects of this media attention are also gaining in material terms. She cites how Prince is being invited to inaugurate functions and is also being asked to act in a film. Prince's parents stand to gain vicariously and even directly if there are monetary rewards at the end of it all.

Bakshi feels that on the one hand media over-exposure "will drive ignorant parents to push children to impossible feats like the father in Calcutta who allegedly battered his son to death because he was not satisfied with his performance in table tennis." She also notes that the media could create fear about excesses in society in children themselves. Asks Bakshi: "Should the media have chased the little girl who survived the Nithari killings to question her ad infinitum? Little children now ask why a man has to eat children?" This leads one to ask whether the media is creating a fear psychosis where it should actually be creating confidence, says Bakshi. "Such media excesses with children happen regularly in the US. But then, the media there also has counselling sessions, like Oprah discussing the evils of expecting too much out of your children and FM radio psychoanalysts advising adolescents how to tackle unhealthy attention. Where do we have such back-up support from the media here?"

"This intrusive nature of media coverage is extremely disturbing," says Lalitha Sridhar, a travel editor and freelance journalist based in Delhi, and also the mother of two children. "Self-restraint is definitely called for," says Lalitha. But, she worries, it is unlikely for individual journalists to make a difference in the horrendously competitive arena of media coverage. For one, there is no apex journalist association calling for a boycott of such unfair practices, Sridhar points out, adding that the debate, as it were, is limited to the confines of concerned private discussions. "If individual journalists were to desist, there is usually another just waiting to be the first to report 'exclusively' from the crumbled remains of an earthquake devastated home, asking an orphaned child, 'Please tell us, how are you feeling now. I mean, how do you feel after this terrible tragedy?' 24 hours of round-the-clock coverage is in great part the culprit for eroding standards of TV news reporting. The lack of a code of ethics that leads to denigration from peers, is another flaw," argues Sridhar.

A code of conduct

There is hope however, at the end of the tunnel. Kavita Ratna, Director of Communications at The Concerned for Working Children (CWC) in Bangalore, informs us about 'The Media Code to Realise Children's Rights, 2006'. CWC developed this code of conduct through the experiences of children and children's groups in India and also from experiences recorded by international organisations working for children, including some inspiration from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The objective is to give children a say in defining the media, to outline children's rights-based standards so that children as citizens are creators of media in society, and to provide a tool for monitoring of children's rights violations by the media or by civil society groups.

The The Media Code to Realise Children's Rights, 2006' has already been discussed in the recent Asian Regional Conference on Media and Children held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2006.

It will also be discussed in the forthcoming International Children and Media Conference in South Africa.

The violation of children's rights by the media, whether through insensitive reportage, misrepresentation or denial of space for children's opinions on various issues, is the focus of this media code. The code aims to cover the existing gap between the functions of the media to educate, entertain and inform, and its responsibility to recognize and respect the rights of children as (i) producers of media, (ii) users of media and (iii) subjects of media. It is intended to be a tool with which children can demand their space in the media. It is dynamic in that it is meant to continuously evolve through a process of debate and discussion. Finally, the code is conceptualised as an affirmative protocol, not as a prescriptive guideline.

Adopting this media code is currently voluntary for news organisations. CWC feels that if the media chooses to adhere, the code will be their litmus test to check if they are heading in the right direction. The code may also "enable those who advocate for children's rights, most importantly children themselves, to hold media accountable and to challenge it to perform its true role in the civil society," says Ratna.

In the meantime, the Press Council of India has reviewed this media code and hailed it as an excellent attempt to draw the attention of the media in the country to children's rights. It is set to include the code in the Press Council guidelines and to give it wide publicity in collaboration with the central government's Ministry of Broadcast and Information at New Delhi. While the media code has been evolved in the context of the Indian experience, the scope of its application is universal and will be extremely relevant globally.

The last word goes to Lalitha Sridhar. Says she: "Nobody bothers to react because we are all voyeurs simply watching what is happening to somebody else." She wonders why no citizens' initiative has developed to curb the escalating negative angles in media coverage. On the contrary, more and more channels and publications are launched, presumably based on higher subscriptions, says Sridhar, adding that this could be what led one editor of a leading daily to smugly say at a panel discussion: 'Oh, but our readers love it. You could say it is disgusting but everybody reads it.' Says Sridhar: "You see, we asked for it. And by not protesting against it, we only asked for more."