media, information, the contemporary

Media Objects and Testimony

Susan Sreemala

February 2021- August 2022

For the past two years I have been closely following various human rights investigations attempting to document, interpret, and pursue claims of justice for people who were affected by the communal violence that broke out in North-East Delhi in February 2020. While this began with my MA dissertation from Ambedkar University Delhi, my research project expanded the media contexts at The Sarai Programme of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, Delhi (CSDS) with a project supported by the Thematic Module 7 ‘Media and the Constitution of the Political’ (TM7) of M.S. Merian – R. Tagore International Centre of Advanced Studies ‘Metamorphoses of the Political’ (ICAS:MP). During the process I discovered a keen interest in the way claims for addressing injury were mobilised by inquiries of fact through testimony and evidence.

My project proceeded in three phases. I first documented the methods of various independent human rights inquiries in mobilising testimony and media evidence into the events of February 2020. My MA thesis worked closely with the first question by looking at the testimonies in the report of the Delhi Minorities Commission Fact-finding Committee on North-East Delhi Riots of February 2020. The report itself is of an indeterminate legal status so I came to see that such forums, while valuable, are rare and created under conditions of tremendous political struggle and an enduring infrastructure of public truth. The expansion of my interest in human rights practice then came from the understanding that the experience of victims exceeds legally recognisable narratives of injury, and necessitates alternative spaces for memory and resistance. So, once my dissertation was completed, I felt I needed to expand the scope of my inquiry to look at independent human rights and journalistic investigations into communal violence.

During my initial days under the ICAS:MP programme, I greatly benefitted from scholarship on humanitarian anthropology to understand the political and ethical stakes that inform the public inquiry of ‘fact’. And through interactions with Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan and the law and media projects of the research cohort at Sarai, I was able to develop an understanding of the institutional and material conditions of witnessing and evidence in making claims of injury.

As I assumed a more full-time position as a researcher in the project, I formulated my project to better understand how the tradition of fact-finding as a form of truth telling is transformed after widespread media proliferation with a focus on public commissions of inquiry into the North-East Delhi Riots in 2020. This project seeks to understand the nature of political, humanitarian, and legal claims made in the presentation of witness speech and evidence in these independent investigations. In the second phase I paid special attention to practices of ‘modern’ fact-findings, hoping to understand how the proliferation of new modes of witnessing and evidence create new pathways for investigating and articulating injury. These media objects, while compelling in creating a narrative of the targeted violence, do not have simple ways of entering the court due to questions of admissibility and selective use by police investigations. By developing an understanding into practices of open-source investigation, I was able to consider the evidentiality of new media objects in creating claims of public truth.

In the later part of my research, I sought to understand how certain forms of human rights speech and investigative aesthetics create communities online, destabilising the institutional structure of human rights and humanitarian witness. The research diaries from this period demonstrate the tension between the affective force of the testimony of witnesses and the uncertainties introduced by media objects through user generated content, fact checking, YouTube documentaries, Reddit discussions, and leaks from courtroom proceedings. This tension is derived from the messy interplay of the testimonial encounter and the investigative practices that create evidentiary objects as part of the infrastructure of public truth. I was able to use these insights to publish a paper on the practice of fact-finding that remains of interest to me for illuminating the conditions of articulating injury.

Working Paper:

“Open Questions: Fact-Finding within Borders.” LAWASIA Academic Papers, (October, 2022): 1–33.

Research Collections

This archive was built between February 2021 and August 2022 and supported by the collaboration between The Sarai Program at CSDS and ICAS: MP on thematic module 7 entitled, ‘Media and the Constitution of the Political’. This project details how truth-telling is transformed after widespread media proliferation with a focus on public commissions of inquiry into the Northeast Delhi Riots in 2020. The project seeks to understand the nature of political, humanitarian, and legal claims made in the presentation of witness speech and evidence; how to assess the temporality of the report in negotiating these often-competing claims; and what the handling of media evidence discloses about the politics of caution, care, and self-care. In detailing how investigations assemble evidence and articulate the evidentiary value of media, special attention is given to practices associated with open-source investigations, online publication and archiving, and the management of risk associated with such human rights media work. Research collections include fact-finding reports and books, documentary films, collections of film and photo documentation, news reports, web archives, and social media threads.