Troubling times for Indian media: Truth does not always prevail
A low credibility, a disdainful government, uncertain revenue models, challenges of technology, vindictive agencies and a slowdown in the economy have led Indian media to abdicate its role
Narendra Modi’s thumping victory, aided and ably monitored by his strategist-in-chief, Amit Shah, in 2014, marked the beginning of major changes in the Indian media.
Unlike most of its rivals, early in the new millennium, the BJP had understood the importance of India’s language media, in particular the Hindi media and the nascent social media for winning friends and influencing people in the vast Hindi belt. It had also shrewdly sized up the well-networked oligarchies that our major media corporations had become, and seen how they used their media businesses to advance various other businesses they owned.
In the following period, these owners were systematically charmed or coerced through the vast resources governments have, into getting their media platforms to vociferously support the BJP and Modi’s candidature for prime ministership for a second term.
It was also during 2014-19 that cheap smartphones and low initial mobile tariff rates got available to Indians. Reliance launched a near free introductory period for 4G phones; other service providers in a highly competitive market followed. This led to a 65 per cent growth in multiple media with 500 million users.
Then Facebook (with 294 million Indian accounts already in existence) acquired the popular messaging service WhatsApp adding 200 million more users.
With Reliance launching its 4G telecom services, internet penetration grew beyond all expectations and all major publishing houses jostled to launch e-papers and digital news platforms. With media owners more or less tamed, the government then began to craft a whole new template for interaction between the media and the government.
Perhaps taking a cue from the US President Donald Trump, Modi began to mock his media critics in all his public meetings, thus effectively delegitimising a large number of seasoned liberal and secular journalists as untrustworthy.
He also used and continues to use social media services like Twitter copiously along with his influential political friends. Their offices follow and monitor both his supporters and critics in the social media carefully.
The near-delegitimised media has, of late, been forced to pick PMO-related news more often than not, from the digital sites or his monthly programme on All India Radio, Mann ki Baat.
But in this programme, he talks mostly on non-political subjects: building toilets, getting daughters to school, helping women with household chores and more recently the need to conserve wildlife and the planet.
According to the information available on his site in August 2019, Modi has 49.5 million followers on Twitter. And his personal account and Modi Mobile App also show a further 2.2 million followers.
With the owners complicit, editors ordered to be compliant and the professional media denied direct interaction with the Prime Minister, the government’s previous day-to-day engagement with the media has been drastically pruned and reshaped in the last five years.
The demonisation of the liberal secular media was accompanied by a slow and inexplicable ouster of well-known editors and media hands like Bobby Ghosh (Hindustan Times), Punya Prasoon Vajpeyi and Suparna Singh (both TV) and the rise in the number of embedded journalists and regular participants on TV panels.
A spate of obituaries followed the recent death of a powerful former minister in which at least two prominent media personalities virtually confessed that they took their orders directly from the minister each morning as they were creating their news flow charts.
Obviously, active censorship is no longer needed except for the really stubborn ones who still quote the Constitution-given freedom of expression in defence of their profession. The lure of copious amounts of advertising money available through
the DAVP may not have attracted the earlier breed of editors and owners. But times have changed.
Today in the mainstream media, the board rooms are full of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who care more for bottom lines than headlines. Media laws regarding multimedia ownership and responsibility still remain fragmented and largely incoherent. And this has allowed the formation of a few large multimedia corporations that network closely with each other and are largely protective of the government’s interests.
Small wonder then that, according to ‘Reporters Without Borders’, in the field of freedom of press, India, that stood 80th out of 139 countries, today stands at 140 (out of 180 countries), even below violence-ravaged Sudan and Afghanistan.
Not only the owners (in many cases also wearing editorial hats) but even the Press Council of India (PCI), a quasi-judicial, statutory autonomous body created to protect free and independent journalism, chose to oppose Kashmir Times editor Anuradha Bhasin’s petition pending in the apex court, before it was forced to change its stance in the face of scathing criticism.
Its head issued a statement supporting the government’s stand of totally restricting the media in Jammu and Kashmir ‘in the interest of the integrity and sovereignty of the nation’.
The venerable English daily, The Hindu, described this stand as, “brazenly contrary to its mandate and purpose”. The editorial reminded the nation that the PCI had supported the Punjab Press in the 90s during the turbulent times of terrorism, and had also chastised communal bias in writing of several local papers.
At least 11 of the 22 members of the PCI reportedly demanded an explanation as the PCI chairman’s unilateral move was strangely not even mentioned at the last PCI meeting on August 22. A few members were learnt to have explored the option of filing petitions to counter the PCI chairman’s unilateral decision that violates the Council’s basic principle of consensual decisions.
To reprimand those who will still not comply with informal orders on self-censorship, a few colonial era laws are shockingly being used.
Mahatma Gandhi, after being released from Jail, had called for the people of India to rise against the law which in his words, “...was established by the naked sword, kept ready to descend on us at will of the arbitrary rulers...”
But the same colonial law (Section 124A of the IPC) that the British had used against Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1922 (for his writings critical of the colonial government in his paper Young India), was used a century later (2019) to file a criminal case in Bihar, against a group of some 50 highly respected artists and intellectuals. The charge is that the open letter they had written to the PM recently was violative of various sections of IPC like 124A (sedition), 153B (assertion prejudicial to national integration), 290 (public nuisance), 297 (trespass to wound religious feelings) and last but not the least, 504 (intentional insult). The cases of defamation were earlier filed as civil cases, now the trend is to file them under the criminal category which is infinitely more serious and involves prolonged litigation.
Mindful of the changing media ecology and the importance of social media, the Election Commission of India (ECI) created a special committee in 2018, to identify gaps in the regulations regarding election campaigning and suggest measures to plug them.
The committee examined various aspects of the (1951) Representation of the People Act (revised in 1996), in particular Section 126 of Tte Act, that defines a 48 hour “silence period” prior to voting which bans all political campaigning. The committee consulted various arms of the media including the all-important Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and major social media companies: Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Google. The report was submitted to the ECI in January 2019, prior to the Model Code of Conduct that came into force in March. But the contents of the report were not known until after the election results had been announced. It was an RTI filed by a Hyderabad-based independent researcher and analyst, that managed to get this report out in the public in July, 2019.
In the absence of clear legal framework during the 2019 General Election, a highly-polarised political debate found its way into the public domain via the “intermediary media” because it was argued that digital platforms were not covered by Section 126 of the RPI Act. So, digital platforms could go on streaming news, after they had informed the users that they were not to upload illegal and harmful content. If informed of any such content, the digital intermediaries said, the platform would remove it within 36 hours.
The election period saw many run-ins between the intermediaries and the government. In April, even a number of civil society organisations issued a statement that found fault with the way the ECI was trying to combat the twin dangers of misinformation and unaccounted mass campaigning through social media.
Their letter also appealed to political parties to monitor compliance of money spent by political candidates on media campaigning through IT cells specially set up by some political parties. But since there was no clear regulatory framework, a timely regulation of online content remained impossible to implement.
On the eve of elections, a Hindi news channel by the name of NaMo was launched on YouTube, which was seen to telecast Modi’s speeches and electoral rallies nonstop. Later, it even appeared on Tata Sky, a DTH platform, and disappeared without a trace when the electoral process ended. The Tata Sky CEO has since described it as a free special services channel. And that was the end of the matter.
From science to politics, great inventions begin with one pointed question. In 1919, Gandhi had asked a question: “How can India gain Swaraj?” But simultaneously, he had also asked a second one: “How can I create a method and a format within which Indians can do it ethically?” A century later, Mark Zuckerberg asked a vital question: “How can the Net create infinite connectivity?” We are yet to hear the second question from him.
In 2019, what is striking about our system is that, just as Zuckerberg used the word ‘connect’ to justify the methodology and the format, the system uses the term ‘national security’ to justify what is being done across the media. It is as if the idea of national security itself were sacred and beyond ethical questioning