Academic journal article Social Justice

Indian Media and the Struggle for Justice in Bhopal

Academic journal article Social Justice

Indian Media and the Struggle for Justice in Bhopal

Article excerpt

THREE DECADES AFTER THE 1984 GAS LEAK FROM THE PESTICIDE PLANT OF US multinational giant Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in Bhopal that killed over 8,000 people and left more than 150,000 severely injured (Amnesty International 2004), the Bhopal saga has become far more complex. It now comprises difficult and overlapping histories of multiple ongoing disasters: the second-generation effects, shoddy rehabilitation, a contaminated factory site, groundwater contamination, a long and tricky legal history with Dow Chemicals, the owner of UCC since 2001, and an ever elusive justice.

Both the discursive climate in which the Bhopal disaster unfolded over the last 30 years and a rapidly shifting Indian mediascape were shaped by the trajectories of India's political and economic policies, which in turn were tied to the world polity/economy. In that period, the Indian mediascape emerged from the context of a national movement for independence (Ghosh 1998) and was gradually transformed into a vehicle of capitalist modernity (Kohli 2003; Jeffery 2000). Meanwhile, the survivors' movement became transnational and positioned Bhopal as a powerful example of corporate violence (Zavestosky 2009).

In postindependence India, the gradual shift from state-owned to corporate media evokes serious questions about the coverage of critical public issues. Although the subject remains understudied in India, the market's impact on Western media coverage is well reported. Specifically, I refer to news selection and coverage based on market considerations (McChesney 1999; Croteau and Hoynes 2003), the promotion of sensationalism, drama, and dominant hegemonic interests that maintain the status quo (Gitlin 1980; Carroll and Hackett 2006), and the propaganda role of corporate media in manufacturing consent (Chomsky and Herman 1994). How did the media respond to Bhopal? Although the alternative (specialized or minority) media, such as the Economic and Political Weekly, provided reasonably critical and consistent coverage of Bhopal over the years, the mainstream (corporate) media coverage has been vital in building the public perception and memory of the disaster.

This article focuses on how movement actors (survivors and activists) interpreted the mass media discourse on Bhopal. They experienced it through four time frames that involved different "mediascapes," especially in terms of its limitations and challenges. Within Marxist analyses, the political economy of media (focusing on ownership and economic control) is a determining factor in shaping media discourse (Golding and Murdock 1997; Chomsky and Herman 1994; Parenti 1992). In the Gramscian approach, however, the cultural role of media is pertinent in influencing public consciousness and maintaining ideological hegemony as common sense (Hall et al. 1978; Gitlin 1979). Political economists argue that the dominant class determines the nature and power of media messages, but in Gramscian terms there is a dynamic alliance of social classes (see Gramsci 1971), instead of a single dominant class. Media, therefore, becomes a site of competition between different social classes; the dominant class tries to set the discourse to suit its terms/interests and the dominated classes attempt to advance their truth claims. The analysis in this article combines the two perspectives. By focusing on how the dominated/subordinate class (in this instance, movement actors) experiences media discourse, this article reveals the constraints they face and have faced while interacting with a mainstream media that is aligned with the ruling elites. I argue that media representation and contestation of the Bhopal conflict are intimately connected with its legal trajectory, demonstrating the influential and intersecting relations between politics, business, law, and media within a highly unequal global economy.

Because audiences react and respond to media narratives that have meanings for them in particular contexts (Silverstone 1994; Bird 2003), media reception here is explored by probing the processual and contextual dimensions (Dahlgren 2006) of "interpretive communities" (Fish 1980) of activists. …

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