MEDIA WATCH

(This is an article I wrote in January of 2005. I’m posting it here now to have all my writing in one place.)

On October 9th, 2004, a small but very strange article appeared in the Chennai edition of The Hindu. This article reported that the current Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa had been awarded the “Golden Star of Honor and Dignity Award” by the International Human Rights Defence Committee (IHRDC), a Ukrainian human rights organization. The article was based on a press release from the AIDMK party, which Jayalalithaa heads. The press release was also picked up by a couple of news wires, and the story appeared in Indiadaily.com, The Hindustan Times, and The Economic Times among others.

On October 12th, supporters of Jayalalithaa, known as the “Puratchi Thalaivi” or Revolutionary Leader, took out full page ads in the back of The Hindu congratulating her for receiving the award. The advertisement noted that the presentation ceremony, oddly enough, was not held in the Ukraine, but in Chennai on October 11th. The press release also stated that past winners of the award include Kofi Annan, as well as the increasingly authoritarian Vladimir Putin.

No news in English is available on the activities of the Ukrainian organization on the internet outside of their own website, which is also silent on specifics about their activities outside of awarding human rights awards. Although the press release from the AIDMK states that the IHRDC is a consultative body to the UN, no available UN documents mention their name.

The award was conferred upon Jayalalithaa by Alfred Kitcher, the director of the IHRDC, who is also the head of the World Transformation Church currently operating in the Ukraine. The aims of the World Transformation Church, according to their own website, are “to serve in an apostolic and prophetic capacity to nations (governments) and peoples by bringing forth relevant ministry in the fields of national reconstruction and development, economic growth, prosperity and self reliance.”

That the newspapers failed to remark on the fact that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu received a highly publicized human rights award from a dubious Ukrainian organization headed by a man whose apparent aim is to merge Church and State in the Ukraine is strange. What is stranger is that the newspapers failed to mention in a single one of these articles that the Puratchi Thalaivi’s record on human rights is abysmal.

She has thrown numerous political opponents in jail under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), most famously Vaiko, the MDMK leader who languished for 577 days in a cell in Vellore. Under her watch, inter-caste violence in Tamil Nadu has seen a sharp increase; it is said that her party instigates such caste rivalries. When teachers and government employees dared to strike in 2003 protesting a cut in their pensions, she fired 200,000 of them, effectively paralyzing their right to strike. Her party is also widely acknowledged to be highly corrupt, a fair indication of the fact that the Jayalalithaa government’s priorities are not with the people.

Why, then, did an article reporting that Jayalalithaa was given an award for her commitment to human rights appear without comment in so many Indian newspapers? That it ran in The Hindu is particularly surprising; it was less than a year ago that the notoriously willful Chief Minister had attempted to have The Hindu’s senior editorial staff thrown in jail because they had described her speeches in the state legislative assembly as “stinging abuse” and “unrestrained attacks on the Opposition.”

The news media, without exception, failed to question any of the claims made in the AIDMK press release. It is such uncritical reporting that increases the legitimacy of political leaders who fail to observe the most basic limits on their power, and allows them to stay in power at great cost to the Indian people.

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