In ‘Democratic’ India, Honest Journalism is Under Attack

In a parliamentary debate in 1787, on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons of Great Britain, Edmund Burke, a member of that House, attributed the term ‘Fourth Estate’ to the press (news media). The three wings of any capitalist state with a parliamentary democracy in place are the legislature, executive and judiciary with their respective delineated jurisdictions. The term ‘Fourth Estate’ was used to view the status of news media or press as a fourth branch of parliamentary democracy. The concept stemmed from a belief that the media’s responsibility to keep common people informed of the ongoing happenings and developments in the various fields was essential to the healthy functioning of democracy. Since information is the key, the informed citizens, considered sovereign in the founding principles of parliamentary democracy or bourgeois democracy were expected to play their due role in governance of a republic by voicing their desires and opinions based on facts. But those were the days of rising capitalism and period of putting in place adequate ‘check and balance’in governance in parliamentary democracy, the political superstructure of capitalism. The role of the press or news media was thus perceived to be a part of the process of this ‘check and balance’. With passage of time, following the inexorable law of social development, degeneration of capitalism premised on exploitation of man by man and hence the inherent inequality in it became more and more pronounced. Obviously, systemic erosion of democratic values and subversion of the proclaimed codes of parliamentary democracy also began to take place in tandem. When capitalism reached the stage of imperialism, the highest stage of development in the beginning of the twentieth century, it lost all its progressive role, turned utter reactionary and corrupt and posed a stumbling block before social progress. From then onwards, the barest precepts of parliamentary democracy are being trampled underfoot. Now, the very term democracy in dying capitalism has become a mockery— with merely its facade stripped of all its essence, remaining.

Assault on freedom of media

This brief introduction has been considered necessary to understand the socio-historic cause behind systematic curtailment of the autonomy of the media, more and more control of moneybags over not only mainstream media, both print and electronic, but newly emerged social media networks as well. Alongside, driven by its sinister class necessity to misrepresent facts and suppress truth so that the murky face of dying capitalist system, the various misdeeds of those at the helm of power and the surfeit of aberrations, deprivations, deceptions, injustice, and repression, do not surface. So, the ruling monopolists have been trying in every possible way to gag the voice of truthful journalism which seeks to unravel truth, promote transparency,  expose reckless abuse of power by the members of the ruling dispensation as well as aforesaid three wings of the bourgeois state machinery and protect fundamental civil and democratic rights of the common toiling people.That is the reason that in capitalist India, attack on free media, which once was viewed as a staple of democracy, is so glaringly manifest.

First of all, with most of the media houses now being owned by the monopoly houses, they have become an instrument of the ideological apparatus of the ruthlessly oppressive ruling capitalism. Hence, an unwritten censorship on news reporting is getting in-built in the system. With dominance of corporate barons over media houses, journalism, considered to be an ethical communicative practice in a healthy democracy, as well as the freedom of press so eulogized once as the “Fourth Estate”, is now in thraldom of money power. Secondly, many news agencies known for authentic circulation of updates of happenings in the real world are either being dwarfed or banned. Just the other day, Prasar Bharati, the Public Service Broadcaster of the country, decided to end its present subscription with Press Trust of India (PTI) and United News ofIndia (UNI), two reputed news agencies whose feeds are valued as authentic not only in the country but also abroad. Sources in the Prasar Bharati board are reported to have told that the decision was taken to rationalise the Doordarshan (DD), the government Television network, and All India Radio’s (AIR’s) “expenditure on news agencies”. But a section of the media is of the opinion that PTI has incurred displeasure of the Prasar Bharati, or for that matter, the central government, because of some of the “discomforting” news covered and reported by it in the recent period. The Editors Guild of India said it was dismayed and concerned over the “vindictive manner” in which government and its administrative agencies have acted against truthful journalism recently.  In another incident, Jammu and Kashmir authorities have sealed the Srinagar office of The Kashmir Times, one of the region’s oldest and most prominent English-language newspapers, on 19 October last. “Today, Estates Department locked our office without any due process of cancellation and eviction… Vendetta for speaking out! …How peevish!,” twitted Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the newspaper. Regretting the incident, The Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG) said in a statement that “In the last 10 years, successive regimes have created a very unpleasant history as far as operations of the media in Kashmir is concerned. Preventing circulation of newspapers, blacklisting the newspapers from getting government advertisements in Srinagar and Delhi, and interrupting negatively in the routine operations have adversely impacted the media. These are in addition to the issues that reporters face on a daily basis while gathering information.” Many other TV channels as well as news magazines like NDTV, the Quint, Citizen and Caravan have been cuffed with frivolous cases reportedly filed just to embroil the targeted media in endless litigation that they could ill afford or to enable the law enforcement officials to turn up in pursuit of obscure cases with a view to harassing and intimidating the concerned media houses. “We are facing a dozen defamation cases from some of India’s most powerful businessmen in which they are seeking Rs 11,450 crore, or $1.5 billion worth of damages! Read the list, it’s a who’s who of the government’s backers: Industrial barons like Gautam Adani, Anil Ambani and Subhash Chandra, BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Hindu spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravishankar and BJP president Amit Shah’s son, Jay Amit Shah”, said Siddharth Varadarajan of The Wire  in his Reuters Memorial Lecture in February 2019. In fact, growing resort to legal means – sedition law, the Official Secrets Act, Strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) suits etc. – as well as many other extra-judicial means are reported to be used as a way of penalising individuals and media who refuse to fall in line with the power that be. While delivering the 2020 BG Verghese Memorial Lecture on ‘Preserving and Protecting our Fundamental Right to Protest’ organised by the Media Foundation, Former SC Judge Madan B Lokur said that one of the worst forms of curtailment of the freedom of speech is charging a person with sedition. “Authorities found various ways of ‘weaponizing’ it to curb free press as well”, he added. It is also pertinent to recall that the Madras High Court had in October 2018 made a strong case in favour of freedom of the press and media, observing that “India is a vibrant democracy and the Fourth Estate is indubitably an indispensable part of it. If the voice of the Fourth Estate is stifled in this manner, India will become a Nazi State, and the hard labour of our freedom fighters and makers of our Constitution will go down the drain.

Arm-twisting tactics to bully media into submission

Next is the rising attack on the journalists and camera persons of the media houses. A few days back, Sidhique Kappan, a contributor for a popular Kerala-based website, and three others who had gone to Hathras, UP,  to cover the horrific rape and murder incident  of a 19 year poor dalit girl were arrested in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura over alleged links with an organization which the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government of UP wants to be banned. KN Ashokan, editor of a popular Malayalam website Azhimukham, who worked with Mr Kappan told: “He is a contributor with our website. As far as my knowledge goes, he does not have any such links …He informed us yesterday (Monday) morning that he was going to Hathras. After that we were trying to reach out to him, but we could not. We got to know about the detention from reports.” The Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) has filed a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court against the arrest of Sidhique Kappan.  In Manipur, a journalist has been sent to prison for a year under an administrative order for allegedly using harsh language in a Facebook video that was critical of the prime minister and the state chief minister. A TV journalist was recently arrested in Odisha on charges of circulating an obscene video, which OTV, his employer, has alleged to be a ploy to target the journalist for his work exposing some wrongdoings of the BJD-led state government.  The Editors’ Guild believes that such actions threaten, as well as undermine the independent functioning of the media organisations.  This kind of legal and extra-legal overkill has also been used across the country to arrest and intimidate ordinary citizen-critics – individuals who would otherwise be celebrated as ‘citizen journalists’ and who use social media to voice sharply critical, or satirical, views against the ruling establishment. Two English dailies with their ground-level investigative reporting (one of which is known for its investigative news stories) covered the plight of the migrant labourers in suddenly clamped Covid 19-induced lockdown with more empathy. Many others also attempted to show the disastrous reality following the abrupt decision to impose lockdown. But they all faced the wrath of the government. Many journalists are denied access to specific information or simply barred from entering certain offices in the pursuit of their professional duties. Many media managements are threatened with legal notices and other forms of bullying the moment there is an ‘uncomfortable’ report. Extra-legal pressure on media agencies and journalists who try to remain out of the clutches of regimentation perpetrated by the capitalist state and its servitors is on the rise. It bears recall that World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, the global organisation of the world’s press, in a detailed report some years ago slammed the pernicious practice of  “abusive allocation of government advertising to reward positive coverage, and punish critical coverage is doubly pernicious, as taxpayer money and public wealth is used and abused to promote partisan or personal interests”. This, it said, is nothing but “soft censorship”. India is no exception to this malevolent practice.

The governments are found to be not ready to listen to any rational criticism. In fact, the central government sought a direction from the Supreme Court on 31 March that “No electronic/print media /web portal or social media shall print/publish or telecast anything without first ascertaining the true factual position from the separate mechanism provided by the central government”. Also, just before the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, the prime minister reportedly called upon the owners and editors of the mainstream print and electronic media of the country, who control most of the news  coverages at the national and regional levels, and asked them to support government efforts to combat the pandemic and also advised them to present “positive news” related to COVID-19. Plainly put, they were advised to abide by the official narrative and present information as provided to them by the government about COVID-19. Which media houses would follow government diktat rather than investigating the real state of affairs, unless they have associated business interests? This reveals  how the “Fourth Estate” is “honoured” in capitalist India. Likewise, it is often seen that a large section of mainstream media gives inexplicable priority to and extensive coverage of trivial issues while important news concerning people’s interest are relegated to the back, if not dropped altogether. Also, sometimes artificial sensation is created over some inconsequential incidents or topics so that people’s attention could diverted from the real issues. These all are done to comply with class dictates and class desires of the ruling monopolists thereby militate against the very ethics of journalism.

Victimizing the journalists

It is not uncommon for individual reporters and columnists to be subject to death threats either. Even the journalists who dare to honestly bring out the truth are also wiped out by the establishment and its hirelings. Gauri Lankesh, a courageous editor in Karnataka who was a staunch critic of the doctrine of Hindutva and communal politics was gunned down two years ago allegedly by a Hindu fanatic group.“I was told in May 2017 I had to kill someone to save my religion. I agreed”, confessed the accused who pumped in four bullets into Gauri. Shujaat Bukhari, editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir, who wrote in 2018 that prime minister Modi’s “emphasis on development alone goes against the past and present reality of Jammu and Kashmir, and does not hold any promise unless the political nature of the conflict is accepted”, was assassinated in busy Lal Chowk area of Srinagar in 2018. Citing Bukhari’s killing as a sign of ‘falling law and order’, the BJP withdrew itself from the Jammu and Kashmir coalition government with PDP of Mehbooba Mufti. The onus of killing was passed on by the ruling quarters to three members of ‘militant outfits’ who straightaway denied any involvement. Then the police killed one alleged culprit and the case was closed. But the question still remains as to how could three militants armed with assault rifles manage to go undetected in the busy area, which was bubbling with Eid festivities? How is it that police security cameras and CCTVs had either been moved or were not functional? The police itself arrived at the scene after more than 20 minutes. Who was the person seen in footage recorded by onlookers stealing the pistol of Shujaat’s bodyguard? Many such questions remain unanswered even today.

A new study  in the last five years has revealed that there have been more than 200 serious attacks on journalists in the country in the period between 2014 and 2019. It also reveals that attacks on women journalists reporting from the field have increased over a period of time.The targeted attacks on women journalists covering the Sabarimala temple entry were sustained and vicious. As many as 19 women journalists were attacked as per the study. Conclusion of the study was: “The perpetrators for the killing of journalists and the attacks on them have got away with their attacks, aided by poor or indifferent police investigation. Often, law enforcers disbelieve the claim of the journalist, families or colleagues of killed journalists that the reason for the attack was not due to some personal dispute or corrupt practice on the part of the journalist.”

With journalism and journalists now being attacked more aggressively than ever before, India has fallen to 138th place in the Press Freedom Index put out by Reporters Without Borders. In 2019, The Committee to Protect Journalists had placed India, for the 12th time, on its list of countries with worst records of bringing to book the killers of journalists. That showed how impunity for violence against the fearless media-persons  has become deeply ‘entrenched’ in the system.

Other trickeries to promote media pliant to the establishment

As we have said above, both commercial interestas well as pressure of compliance with directives of the ruling party and the state, has made the media sector being dominated by the giant corporate houses in the country now.  Besides moulding public opinion in favour of the ruling dispensation, the corporate media is also after reaping hefty financial gains even if that necessitates dispensing with all scruples. Latest example of that is the ‘TRP’ scam. TRPs (Television Rating Points)  are viewed as measure of acceptance of a TV show or channel by the audience. If TRP is found to be high, it is construed to be a mark of larger viewership. More viewership means more inflow of advertisement  revenue. Naturally, many media houses owned by the monopoly houses in connivance with the bourgeois governments want to anyhow jack up TRPs of their channels and programmes. Now the Mumbai police have claimed to have busted a mega TRP scam in the city. It has come to the fore that three media houses were manipulating TRPs by bribing owners of the buildings or houses where ‘TRP’ barometers (a specific technology to capture viewership of a channel or programme, similar to cell phone towers on many rooftops) were installed. Among the three networks involved in the scam, the big name is Republic TV, a media house founded in 2017, which is known for its pro-BJP pro-Sangh Parivar leaning and airing TV shows constricted with open loud partisan sparring and theatrics to establish that anyone who “breaks Hindu traditions” and criticizes the present ruling dispensation is “anti-national”. Nationwide Broadcasters Affiliation (NBA), in the last six months alone, is reported to have sent over 20 letters to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) chairman in opposition to Republic TV’s occupying a number of ‘logical channel numbers (LCNs)’ in violation of the TRAI laws that restrict a TV channel to just one LCN or slot on a cable or DTH platform. By giving a slip to law, Republic TV thus considerably enhanced its TV score factors. NBA President has even gone to the extent of alleging that “the corrupted, compromised, irrationally fluctuating data is creating a false narrative on ‘What India Watches’ and has been putting pressure on our members to take editorial calls that run counter to journalistic values and ideals.” But what actions have been  taken by TRAI on such complaints are not known.

Another phenomenon dominating media coverages for long is “Paid News”. Last year, Cobrapost, a small portal, ran footage of a sting operation it conducted on a range of large and small media companies where its reporter posed as a “godman” who wanted ostensibly programmes which sing paeans for a particular religion to be used to build support for the ruling BJP and polarise voters on the basis of religion. The camouflaged sting operator also showed willingness to pay cash for this. Only two of the two dozen media houses approached showed him the door. The rest were only too happy to engage with him. Since such ‘paid news’ is subject to threat of regulation of, cross-media holdings etc., one cannot rule out tacit approval of the ruling party and government behind such unethical and illegal acts.

If a vested interest in creating artificial social polarisation is allowed to prevail in mainstream media, the negative effects on society could be as broad as that of misinformation spread through social media. Many wild claims or motivated feeds either on TV news or in print media cause immense harm to society as people at large gulp such distortions and twists as truth. More broadly, hate-ridden programming which are on the rise in recent period endangers social harmony, especially in a diverse, multicultural country such as India. But regrettably, one powerful and influential section of the media has already crossed over to the dark side, and is actually complicit in the ruling establishment’s design with a view to scoring both in earning dominance in the industry and making fabulous financial gains.

What could be silver-lining in this all-pervading gloom and doom

This is in a nutshell the spectacle of the “free Press’ in India that many political leaders sickeningly subservient to ruling capitalism, often boast of. If journalistic ethics is to be upheld, the honour of being called “Fourth Estate” is to be treasured and fast waning democratic values and practices are to be rescued and restored, the media fraternity ought to overcome all lure of the lucre, of spruced up prominence, and fight for establishing truth. Today, when capitalism is enmeshed in a growing insolvable crisis endemic of the system, it is on a mission to corrupt and pollute every walk of life pending which it cannot prolong its decadent moribund existence. Alongside, it is determined to destroy rational thoughts and an analytical bent of mind and instead anchor itself in distortion of facts and travesty of truth. At such a time, governments servile to ruling capitalism are seen to discard democracy and freedom and embrace autocracy and despotism. In such a situation, honest fearless journalism has a historic role to play as a platform for objective information and critical-rational discourse that would enable people to know the truth and be in pursuit of correct remedial action against the ills and evils tearing their life and livelihood into pieces day in and day out.

In India, the checks and balances on the exercise of vindictive power by the executive are dwindling rapidly. Given the systematic manner in which one institution after the other has been undermined in India over the past five years – the CBI, the RBI, the Election Commission, the CAG, the UGC, even the judiciary – it is possible that the system of checks and balances will see further erosion. If journalism, instead of taking up cudgels against this rotten system opts to capitulate to the power that be,  it will be hard to think of a silver lining when an all-pervading gloom and doom is casting its ominous shadow. It is the creation of strong bondage between readers-viewers-right-thinking citizens-truthful journalists and conscientious analysts which alone can work as bulwark against vicious attacks and attempt to subvert autonomy of media and impede circulation of proper information. It is heartening that disdaining all threats, intimidation, life risks as well as offer of material incentives in exchange of showing undue favour to the ruling quarters, that a section of media houses, reporters, cameramen, news editors and bloggers are making a laudable effort to keep the countrymen abreast of the correct news, necessary informations and truthful representation of facts. As crusaders against all guile attempts to convert the esteemed profession of journalism into a greedy privilege-seeking business, and committed to uphold the cause of people and society they are the torchbearers of “Fourth Estate”.  Our appeal to these torchbearers is that they give maximum coverage to the news of mass movements against various anti-people policies of the government and conscious ideological-political-cultural struggles initiated to rouse people along correct line against the capitalist order which, along with other things, are trying to smother journalistic ethics.

[References: prsindia 16-11-2011, law.yel.edu 22-11-16, medium.com@ubuntuFm  02-12-17, Times of India 16-06-18, 03-12-18, 18-10-20, 19-10-20, 20-10-20, The Diplomat 23-01-19, thesun.co.uk 30-07-19, The Wire 07-03-19, 13-06-19, 14-06-19, 02-08-19, 29-10-19, 26-12-19, Quartz India 12-03-19,  Economic and Political Weekly  Vol. 55, Issue No. 16, 18 April 2020, The New Indian Express 06-10-20, NDTV 06-10-20, 09-10-20, newslaundry 16-10-20, Hindustan Times 16-10-20, 21-10-20, The Print 15-10-20, 19-10-20, Indian Express 17-10-20, enewsexpress 20-10-20, Livelaw News Network 2020.]

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