Reducing Farmer Suicides in India through Stricter Media Regulations

By: Raj Shekhar

More farmers in India are committing suicide than ever before because of their failure to repay debts — at least, this is what the majority of our Indian [emphasis supplied] news media report with headlines often pinpointing an increase in the number of such appalling instances. However, recent data brought out by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows a gradual decline in farmer suicides, even attributing this national tragedy to the ill mental health of farmers as opposed to bankruptcy.

Even if NCRB’s logistical incompetency in accurately collating suicide data is deemed to account for the estimation of this declining figure, there is no denying that India does not have a National Suicide Prevention Strategy, despite the strong recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO). Contrarily, even as reporting on farmer suicides per se by the print, broadcast or electronic news media is the constitutionally guarded prerogative of the press, it is generally carried out in flagrant disregard to the WHO international standards for safe and responsible suicide reporting, thereby, quite ironically, only increasing the risk of such suicides through a statistically proven phenomenon called suicide contagion or “copycat suicides”[1]. Media reporters and commentators often tend to dramatize the suicide at the risk of sensationalizing the crisis as the final solution to a farmer’s misery.

Perhaps, it is just a symptom of the Indian news media falling victim to its self-regulatory regime. The statutory Press Council of India (PCI) and the autonomous News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) are pan-Indian media regulatory institutions, both of which are equally toothless: PCI’s ‘Norms of Journalistic Conduct’ and NBSA’s ‘Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards’ are merely directory in nature, lacking any real statutory or binding authority to oblige media proprietors in the print and broadcast industries to comply with their provisions. ‘The Programme and Advertisement Codes’ prescribed under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994, which contrastingly, do possess statutory authority, have their compliance by TV channels uplinking and downlinking in India monitored exclusively by the Electronic Media and Monitoring Centre (EMMC) set up by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (GoI).

Even if we ignore the largely missing enforceability of existing media regulations, it is pertinent to note that none of these regulations, whether independently adopted by the media or legally imposed by the Central Government, provide for safe and responsible suicide reporting. This only evidences mass ignorance amongst stakeholders in the news industry about the beneficial effects of sensitive reporting in terms of lowering the risk of suicide contagion and saving precious farmers’ lives. Much politicking over farmer suicides in India has taken its toll over our ability to recognize and correct what currently plagues our news, whose proprietors in the absence of proper oversight or accountability are vulnerable to causing the very issues they raise.

[1] Ravi, Shamika (2015). “A Reality Check on Suicides in India,” Brookings India IMPACT Series. Brookings Institution India Center.

(Raj is the founder and former editor-in-chief of The RMLNLU Law Review Blog. He’s currently a postgraduate student at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.)

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