- Siddhant Sinha
Media In India: The Dilapidated Pillar Of Democracy
Media is the fourth pillar of democracy. But is the pillar in ruins? Moreover, what’s the reason behind this kerfuffle? This article tries to make sense of these questions.
What is the most prestigious award in the whole world?
The Nobel Prize would perhaps be the most instinctive reply, which were bestowed upon 13 pearls of humankind recently for their contributions to the world. The Nobel Peace Prize, meanwhile, was conferred upon Maria Ressa from Philippines and Dmitry Muratov from Russia. Besides the fact that both of them are Nobel Laureates now, there’s another commonality linking them.
They are both Journalists.
There’s much to dig out from this selection by the Nobel Committee. The world is witnessing the resurgence of autocracy and populist demagogues worldwide, whether it be Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Turkey’s Erdogan , Vladimir Putin from Russia or Xi Jinping from our neighbouring giant. It is intriguing to note that the last time the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to journalistic excellence, the world was on the brink of the Second World War. It was Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist, daring to report against Der Fuhrer, who was awarded the Peace Prize back in 1935. So is the world heading towards the Third World War? Will the 21st century Hitler be from Muratov’s Russia? Will it be the invasion of Ukraine rather than of Poland that sets off a cataclysmic meltdown of the human race? We don’t know, albeit the growing conflict among the hegemonic powers of today’s geopolitical arrangement offers little to rejoice. However, what we can be sure of is the significance of the media - the fourth pillar of democracy- in such times.
The Sanctity Of Media
The ambit of the media is not restricted to reporting puny crimes. It has a much more significant role to play. You want to check the excesses of the state? Media to do the needful. Do you want to raise accountability on the part of your representatives? Media to the rescue. Raise people’s voices? Head to the media. To summarise in a single sentence, the media's role is to ask questions to those who are , otherwise, too powerful to be questioned by the people. One doesn’t need to burn the midnight oil to find examples of the same either. The role of the press in our national movement is a quintessential example of its significance. More recently, the heroics of the Indian Express , Statesman and some other publications during the National Emergency bear testimony to the same. And of course, the Nobel Laureates this year embody it too.
Going Down The Rabbit Hole
The media in India, however, is apparently going astray- moving away from the journalistic ethics it once embodied. This is not to say that the media has nothing to show vis-a-vis ethics today. Undoubtedly, there are many journalists who live and die to keep the flag of journalism upright. However, an overwhelming majority of what an ordinary Indian consumes today in the guise of ‘news’ is anything but that. More importantly, there are structural flaws at play here- defects in the actual functioning of the media industry in India today. Again, one might list a few recent pieces of journalistic excellence. Indeed, there are followers of ethics in the media even today. Unfortunately, these are exceptions.
India, the largest democracy in the world, is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Although there is no mention of ‘Freedom of Press’ in the Indian Constitution, Article 19 does guarantee the people of India the ‘Freedom of speech and expression’. However, a subclause under the same article strives to put ‘ reasonable restrictions’ on the same in the interest of ‘ the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality’. While this might sound justifiable superficially, the actual working of the sub clause is a lot grimmer.
1984 Deja Vu?
Slapping journalists, who aren’t ‘friendly enough’ with the establishment, with a sedition case against them seems to be straight out of the playbook of the State for quashing dissent. This seems to have become a lot frequent lately too. There has been a 165% increase in sedition cases against journalists in the last 3 years. The conviction rate remains abysmally low at 3.3%.
There have been a multitude of examples in the recent past to manifest this trend. The apex court has often remarked that journalists should have protection against the sedition case, while doing their job. The most recent example would be that of the veteran journalist Vinod Dua, who was
rewarded with a sedition case for his critical remarks on the Prime Minister and the Union Government. While the Supreme Court quashed this particular case against the Padma Shree awardee, there still remains a plethora of press personalities who had dared to speak truth to power and are reeling against the draconian law. And the fact remains that such cases are a tool to show others the consequences of going, or even thinking of going, against the ones who wield power.
Another way of stifling press freedom, which is rapidly gaining traction, is raids. The recent instances in India include Income Tax raids against media organisations like Dainik Bhaskar, Bharat Samachar, NewsClick and Newslaundry. It is important to note that these measures are not even unique to India. A quick look around the world will show a similar trend in many countries- not just in dictatorial regimes, but also under the banners of democracies. Maria Ressa’s own website- the Rappler- faces a nauseating number of lawsuits from the Filipino regime.
Violence against journalists is yet another issue altogether. India doesn’t stand behind in this regard either. Nearly 200 journalists faced physical violence last year alone. ‘Mysterious deaths’ aren’t uncommon, nor are murders in broad daylight. Gauri Lankesh, Shujat Bukhari & Rakesh Singh are just some examples of a non-exhaustive list. Again, these measures are not novel in any sense. Journalists killed worldwide last year have doubled in number from the year before. Dmitry Muratov, the other Nobel Laureate, has witnessed quite a few murders of his colleagues in Novaya Gazeta- his newspaper.
It’s not all though. The recently alleged Pegasus snooping scandal, if true, might land us in a place which would not be much different from “Big Brother’s Oceania”. Are Sushant Singh(Indian Express), Shishir Gupta(Hindustan Times), Vijaita Singh(The Hindu) and many other journalists and renowned personalities, who were purportedly spied upon, the Winston Smiths of 21st century India?
Clash Of Interests
The hurdles to high journalistic standards are not restricted to lawsuits and violence. The mainstream sources of revenue for virtually every content on television, internet or any other mode today are sponsorships and advertisements. Whether it is your favourite TV show, sports, movies or news, you're going to see ads-and a lot of them. Even in the print media , the major source of revenue is advertisements. While this might be fine for entertainment or sports, it certainly gets a lot trickier in the case of news.
The issue of conflict of interests takes no time to arise under such conditions. The sponsors are no wonder going to be big conglomerates and billion-dollar enterprises. How is a media organisation supposed to be trusted in matters involving its own sponsors?In fact, the sponsorships aren't limited to private companies. A major chunk of revenue also consists of government money and patronage-The problem of conflict of interest deepens. Indeed, there has been a trend of masquerading sponsored propaganda as ‘unbiased news’.
The drawbacks of this flawed business model goes beyond a trust deficit in media organisations. As a majority of media firms are dependent on advertisements for revenue, they need to maximise their viewership, which seems obvious. But how do they do it?
News Or Soap Opera?
They do it by dramatising any and everything which runs on their platform to the extent it gets difficult to distinguish between a spoof and the news itself. Vile and abhorrent ‘debates’ which run on TV news daily are not a mockery of merely the word debate or even of journalism, but of our democracy itself. Obnoxious communalism, chauvinism and utter bigotry which are served on many ‘news’ platforms on a daily basis, are deliberately designed to provoke jingoistic tendencies among the viewers, who come back to such platforms just to justify their own prejudices. Even the screaming of anchors- which has been made quite fun of- is a tool to emanate the propaganda.
So, finally, are we all doomed? Are we already living in an Orwellian dystopia, where doublespeak is the norm and truth is whatever the dispensation desires?
However, the larger question to ask is ‘What’s in our hands?’- the answer to which is not a straightforward one.
Taking no refuge in any euphemism, let’s get this straight away- there’s very little we can do on an individual level. However, aggregated efforts on a larger scale might prove a little more helpful. Unsubscribing to hate mongering platforms might be a good start. Besides, there are many budding news organisations which are replacing the revenue from advertisements with subscription charges. While this might not be a solution to every issue plaguing the media industry today, it surely seems to be a better option when seen in the light of relatively less clash of interests. Being aware of the obstacles to free press and spreading this awareness might be some other steps the general population can consider.
At last, apart from all the mayhem and commotion, it is, at the end of the day, our own conscience which will dictate the happenings around us. It is only by fostering a habit of asking questions to every point of authority- the State, the bureaucracy, the media, local leaders and even ourselves- that we can even contemplate bringing a change of any kind or capacity. Only then can we possibly try to preserve the largest democracy in the world, else rest assured of the dilapidated pillar shattering soon and the citizens of India having a fate similar to that of Winston Smith and his compatriots of 1984’s Oceania.
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