Meenakshi Ganguly is the south Asia director for Human Rights Watch since 2004. She was previously south Asia correspondent for Time magazine, where she reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. You can follow her on twitter at @meenakshi
Please tell us about your educational journey. Tell us a bit about your family background?
I did most of my schooling and university in Delhi. My father has retired from the civil service, so growing up, we were transferred every so often. I did my graduation from Miranda House and Masters from Delhi School of Economics.
What motivated you to pursue a career in mass com? Did you go for any degree in journalism?
While I was in university, like everyone else, was extremely confused about what I wanted as a career option and how to go about it. Bits of theater, writing, and other efforts outside the syllabus helped to build confidence. I did not get a degree in journalism. But a willingness to do the research and ask the right questions, was hugely helpful when I did start work as a journalist. Also, what helped was a habit of reading, keeping abreast of news developments, and an ability to report in a neutral, objective manner, without mixing personal views into professional duties.
Where did you get your first job? Please tell us a bit about it?
I started my first paid job while still completing my Masters at Delhi School of Economics. It was to assist in a research project on development communication. While still in university, I also interviewed for a job with Press Trust of India, and started as a reporter, after graduation.
How you came working with the Times Magazine as south Asia Correspondent? Please tell us your experiences there.
I was at PTI when a friend mentioned a vacancy at Time magazine. Later, I was told by my Time magazine bureau chief that I was selected, not just for my writing, but because I knew consumer price index! It was a steep learning curve at Time, particularly because it was such a period of transition in the world. The Cold War was ending and the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. Democracy movements started up in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. In Sri Lanka, war resumed, and the IPKF was withdrawn. The first Gulf war happened. In India, a violent movement began in Kashmir, there was the agitation around the Mandal recommendation, while LK Advani started on his rath yatra. Don’t forget this was a time before the internet or cell phones. It was a really interesting to be a young reporter, and to learn from some of the best talents. Time magazine’s South Asia bureau used to be run by a magician called Deepak Puri, who in the days when Indian Airlines bookings were impossible, land phone lines often failed, many areas inaccessible, would ensure that we could get to the story, and submit our reports on deadline.
As per you in which way Indian media is moving and its condition today?
I value my training in not just reporting facts, but corroborating them. At Time magazine, in those days, we were not permitted to publish without fact checking. Now journalists permit themselves to be opinionated, to be a little loose on their interpretation of facts. Instead of neutral reporting of news, they take positions, often acting as both police and judge. This, of course, is particularly true in television news, where presenters are under pressure to entertain, not just inform. Social media and other internet sources, of course, has bourgeoned access to information—though sometimes it risks misinformation.
Several journalists lower down the rung quit journalism routinely. What do you think its reasons are? How you come working with Human Rights Watch?
In 2002, I was witnessed the horror of the riots in Gujarat. In 2003, I saw how the Bush administration forced the war in Iraq. While reporting these incidents, it became clear that journalism was now far too vulnerable to external pressures, where personalities are willing to damage principles for their political end. At Human Rights Watch, a key to making change is to ensure credibility. I like that we insist only on fact based claims rooted in international law.
What do you think is the future of career in Human Rights in India?
Human rights, as part of law, is a concept that gained strength because of the horrors Hitler visited upon the world. We assumed that after the millions of unwarranted deaths in the 40s—including in India/Pakistan in 1947—human beings would never again permit such hate and suffering. Yet, we are witnessing again, devastating populist movements, where people feel empowered to attack others for their faith or their race. Human rights can longer just be a career. It has to become a life choice.
What are your main responsibilities as the director of South Asia at Human Rights Watch? What does a typical working day looks like you?
As South Asia director, I work with colleagues on India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. All these countries have serious human rights challenges. A typical day is almost always too long. For most of us, managing a healthy work-life balance is a battle.
How much impact do you think the human rights organizations has made, in safeguarding the human rights of people in India; especially in conflicted areas like South Chhattisgarh and Kashmir? What are the role and responsibilities of Human Rights Watch in these areas?
Human rights organizations serve a key role. They are able to highlight abuses by all parties, and to call for the protection of civilians who inevitably suffer the most in these conflict situations. Human rights includes political, social, economic and cultural rights. In each case, it is the role of civil society to point out discrepancies between policy and practice, hold those responsible to account if they fail to uphold rights.
Sometimes it seems with all their untiring efforts, Human Rights Organizations are not able to change the fate of the civilians? How do you look at it?
We have to keep trying. Almost always, even a dictator worries about a time when there will be justice and accountability. Many leaders think they are being ‘tough’ because it is necessary to create disciplined societies and end criminal acts, but unfortunately, they can end up allowing violations of the very laws they say they are attempting to uphold.
On what skills, a student willing to take human rights activism as his career, should focus on?
Knowledge of law, an ability to work hard to determine facts in an objective manner, and to write clearly and promptly.
Is there any way through which students in India can contribute to the work of Human Rights Watch as a volunteer or Intern?
Human Rights Watch offers internships and fellowships. They are posted on our website www.hrw.org
What would be your message to students who are willing to take human rights activism as their career and who are confused between Human Rights Activism or Journalism?
I would encourage every student, every young person to become a human rights activist in whichever career they choose. Doctors, engineers, farmers, traders, bankers, soldiers—ensuring the protection of rights has to be key to a job well done. For journalism students, it is important to remember the very principle of an independent media is to be credible andfact-basedd.
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