From Watchdog to Lapdog, Weaponisation of the India Media

Indian Media

The Pope may launch his Interdict,

The Union its decree,

But the bubble is blown and the bubble is pricked By Us and such as We.

Remember the battle and stand aside,

While Thrones and Powers confess,

That King over all the children of pride Is the Press -the Press -the Press!

– Rudyard Kipling


James Augustus Hickey is considered the father of the Indian press. He started the Bengal Gazette in the year 1780. But it was seized in the year 1872 as it was critical of the British Government. With the increasing number of newspapers, the government became accountable.

At the time of the first war of independence, any number of newspapers was in operation in the country. Many of these like Bangadoot of Ram Mohan Roy (before this he published Sambad Kaumadi),  Rastiguftar of Dadabhai Naoroji and Gyaneneshun advocated social reforms and thus helped arouse a national awakening. Other newspapers and journals like Payam e Azadi, Samachar Sudarshan, Doorbeen, Sultan ul Akhtar, Hindi Patriot, Neel Darpan, Indian Mirror, Gyan Prakash, Kesari, Maratha, Deccan Star, Pratap, Swadesamitran, Kudiarasu, Bombay Chronicle, Hindustan etc played a stellar role in the our fight for independence from the British.

Even after Independence, the press played a major role and the role of some of the newspapers during the Emergency was noteworthy. Things however began to change soon after 2014, when the current government came to power. The government started targeting media houses which were critical of its policies. Also, some media houses were co-opted into not only toeing the government line but acting as a propaganda arm of the government.

A slow drip of poison was also injected into the minds of the people through managed prime time debates, the sole aim of which was to demonise minorities. A combination of these toxic news channels and the WhatsApp forwards and social media posts, managed through proliferation by the IT cell of the ruling party was used to spread hatred towards minorities. Media persons who were critical of government were systematically targeted. The modus operandi was right out of the Nazi playbook. As Joseph Goebbels used to say, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” This is known as the big lie. big lie is a propaganda technique used for political purpose, defined as, “a gross distortion or misrepresentation of the facts, especially when used as a propaganda device by a politician or official body”.  In another context, the term was also applied to Donald Trump‘s staged efforts to discredit the results of the 2020 United States presidential election, which he fairly, lost; “the big lie” was the claim that the election was stolen from him through a massive fraud. More robust independent institutions like the offices of the Election Commission and the Judiciary saved the day for American democracy.

The code of business ethics is also titled ‘Living our values’ and it has eight governing principles: honesty and integrity, respect, humility, excellence, consumer focus, transparency and fairness, neither favour nor discrimination, and finally, commitment to social good.

If journalism is about maintaining a fair balance between what is in the public interest and what the public is interested in, the ethical business practice for a news organisation in its pursuit of a sustainable revenue model is to refrain from interfering with editorial practices. To ensure professionalism in editorial functioning independent of shareholder interference so as to maintain an impartiality, fairness, and objectivity in journalistic output.

“Is it right to give space to those who misguide and invent a mythical past and present? Why are we using the term ‘alternative facts’ for what are outright lies???”  It is well-documented that misinformation is germinated, incubated and nurtured by those who wield power. What should be the nature of reporting that is socially responsible? We must remember that it is not only journalism, but journalists, too, who are facing these existential questions.

In an interview with Newslaundry, Sodhi revealed that the Republic TV channel had devised a special term for harassing people to provoke dramatic reactions. “We used to call it ‘chase sequence,” “Go and do a chase sequence with whoever did not follow the ideology which they wanted.” Sodhi described the footage that this often yielded, “where the other person is getting irritated, he is trying to push you. So, that was the result of those chase sequences, because most of the time people are not comfortable.” The channel’s choice of targets was selective. “My job here was as a hit man,” basically to find out everything that the parties which are not following the ideology of a particular political party find out what they are saying, find fault in it, and report it that they are anti-national”.  “You had to find an angle by which you could bash a particular political party that was out of power”. We never touched the part wherein they used to say good things about the country, wherein they used to say good things about people, good about other communities. But yes, the one thing which they used to say which for our channel was anti-national, pro-lobby or whatever you call it, we used this to go against them. This is how things worked for us.”

The institutions once expected to play that role have failed to measure up to what is required. The Indian Express’s conduct during the Emergency is often cited as a model of how institutions should act in the face of an autocratic government, but it is difficult to make the same case for the newspaper’s conduct under the present Modi government.  The likes of Republic TV have done made an enormous effort to spread the extreme views of Modi and the BJP, and of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that created them both.

Over and over again, the Express has allowed right-wing columnists publish on its pages outright lies that further the agenda of both the government and the RSS. Their writing may be presented as an ‘opinion’, but that is no excuse for disregarding basic norms of verification when the factual claims they make purport to be real. By allowing these lies to appear under its imprimatur, the Express makes it seem as if they pass the scrutiny of sound processes even when they do not, and so puts its own credibility at the service of passing falsehood off as truth. The responsibility for such deceit falls on both the columnists as well as on the leadership of the newspaper.

The 2019 media ownership monitor report on India, published by the international watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders and a local partner, identified the country’s top eight media companies in terms of audience share and “potential influence on public opinion”: the Zee Group, TV Today, the ABP Group, Network 18, HT Media, the Times Group, the Dainik Bhaskar Group and Prasar Bharti. The owners of four of these—Zee, Dainik Bhaskar, the Times Group and HT Media—come from a single sub-caste, the Marwaris. Network 18 is owned by Mukesh Ambani, a Gujarati Bania who belongs to a trading class closely affiliated with them. The Marwari clout over the media extends to other prominent media companies north of the Deccan too: Jagran Prakashan, Rajasthan Patrika Group, Lokmat Media and the Express Group.

Organisations such as the Times Group, Mukul said, have learnt to work with whichever government is in power. “Focussed on profits, most major media organisations do not want to annoy anyone,” he explained. “But with the current regime, things go beyond this paradigm. For many Marwari owners, profit and conviction have now come together; it is a win-win situation.”

In March 2020, hours before Modi put the country under lockdown in response to the coronavirus, he spoke via videoconferencing with many of the owners and top executives of the country’s largest media companies. He also personally called several of those who attended afterwards. According to the prime minister’s website, those in attendance committed to “work on the suggestions of the prime minister to publish inspiring and positive stories.” They included, among numerous others, Shobhana Bhartia of the HT Group, Rishi Darda of the Lokmat Group and Vivek Goenka of the Express Group.

Parliament passed a sweeping revamp of labour laws later that year, including a watering down of the Working Journalists Act, which governs the employment conditions of all print journalists. Earlier provisions for a six-month notice period for editors and a three-month notice period for all other journalists were dropped in favour of a one-month notice period across the board. This further strengthens media owners’ hand, and erodes journalists’ ability to stand up to them.

The veteran editor Harish Khare noted: -The “unmanageable” editor is a vanishing breed in India. Most of India’s political class, including the central and state governments and their opposition parties, finds strong, independent editors undesirable. Corporate bosses remain disdainful of professional editors. Owners of media houses, who handpick pliant journalists, are most unhappy if an editor turns out to have an intrepid streak.

Drawing on his experience at the (ABP) channel, Punya Prasun Bajpai wrote of “a 200-member monitoring team which duly functioned under the additional director general of the ministry, who reported directly to the minister concerned. 150 members were involved only in monitoring the channels; 25 members gave it the shape the government wanted; and the remaining 25 reviewed the final content. Based on this report, three officials of deputy secretary rank would prepare the report to be sent to the [Information and Broadcasting] minister, through whom the officials at the PMO [prime ministers’ office] would get activated and send their directives to the editors of the news channels about what was to be done and how.”

If editors remained firm on journalistic grounds, Bajpai noted, “then the officials at the ministry or the PMO would communicate with the concerned proprietor-they would send a file with the monitoring report, detailing how Prime Minister Modi’s statements, ranging from his election promises of 2014 to his claims on demonetisation, surgical strikes or GST could be shown again. Or how, in a report on an on-going scheme, the prime minister’s old claims could be included.” If this approach was not entirely successful either, BJP and RSS representatives would stop appearing for debate shows on the errant channel—as happened at ABP News while Bajpai was still employed there—dealing a blow to its primetime programming.

The final step was the boycott of a high-profile public event hosted by the channel. Bajpai wrote that “both the BJP and the Modi government declined to attend the programme—which meant no ministers at the meet. And when those in power are conspicuous by their absence, how can a programme be organised with just the presence of the opposition? The message, sharp and clear, to every news channel was this: go against us and your business will suffer.”

The government’s scrutiny does not leave any sector of the media untouched. Of the diminishing set of journalistic outfits that examine Modi’s rule critically, a large number operate as digital platforms. It is no surprise that the government is moving to regulate their work. As an editorial in The Hindu noted, the fear that bringing more rules is a euphemism for censorship cannot be brushed away. These questions are all the more important because there has been a wave of investments in the digital news media space in recent years. A large number of these media sites and magazines pursue legitimate journalism initiatives, which not only have the proper mechanisms to deliver quality but also operate with a high degree of accountability.

Therefore, soon afterwards, the government brought online news platforms under the purview of the ministry of information and broadcasting. It also applied a new cap to foreign direct investment in them, of no more than 26 per cent of total ownership. Among the first casualties was HuffPost India, one of the few outlets to carry reportage scrutinising the government. Its parent company, finding itself on the wrong side of the new norms, abruptly shut it down in November 2020.

In the BJP’s view, the Tamil television media is an unusual beast. Its anchors and editors tend to be more critical and professional—and far less dependent on pleasing the central government—than their counterparts in Delhi, for instance, where the party can sway channels almost at will. But there is also another trait, perhaps more profound, that sets the targeted journalists apart. Karthigaichelvan, Nelson Xavier, Gunasekaran and others on Maridhas’s hit list belong to a particular generation of Tamil journalists with a vastly different social composition to the upper-caste elite that dominates newsrooms in places such as Delhi. Their backgrounds, reflected in their journalism, feed the Hindu Right’s distrust.

The media has always been one of the most caste-segregated industries in India. A 2019 study by the international not-for-profit, Oxfam showed vast under-representation of Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in newsrooms, especially at the leadership level. The media in Tamil Nadu is something of an exception. From the very beginning of large-scale print media in Madras Presidency, non-Brahmin activists recognised the danger of a Brahmin-monopolised press and actively fought against it.


Advani’s words, uttered then, now ring true in the ears of every Indian, decades after the Emergency was lifted. He had addressed the media and said: “You were asked only to bend, but you crawled.”               


But as Princeton historian Gyan Prakash noted recently “as someone who wrote a history of emergency, I can say that what’s happening in INDIA now is much worse”

Before and After 2014, the Indian Media Story

The table below in a nutshell shows some of the important points -comparison of the media before & after 2014



Paid media

Godi media

Arnab Goswami was questioning the Central UPA government

Arnab Goswami is now the chief propagandist of the Central NDA government

Rightists are negative, criticising the ruling dispensation

Rightists are positive praising the ruling dispensation

Rising prices of essential commodities-Petrol, LPG, diesel was raised by the media & the opposition

Rising prices of essential commodities are linked to international prices of crude oil, is acceptable for the rightists now

UPA parties are corrupt, BJP a party with a difference

All the opposition parties are corrupt, promote dynastic politics. BJP is honest, transparent, and free of corruption & does not promote dynastic politics. Modiji is honest to the core & respects democratic values

Scams, scandals, crime rate especially rape is the order of the day

Scams, scandals, crime rate especially rapes even as they occur, are the legacy of the previous INC led UPA government, a conspiracy against the ruling dispensation

CNN/Washington Post/Time/New Yorker Times/NDTV-Good news media

CNN/Washington Post/Time/New Yorker Times/NDTV-Anti-India-conspiracy against India

Needs revolution to throw out the corruption ridden INC led UPA central government

In case the BJP led NDA central government is accused of corruption-it is anti-national, urban naxal

Films like Jaane bhi do yaaro, PK, OMG are enjoyed

PK, Tandav hurts Hindu sentiments

Media questions the government

Media questions the opposition

Nathuram Vinayak Godse is a terrorist & anti-national

Nathuram Vinayak Godse is a patriot

Open press conference, questions asked freely on wrong doing, factual reporting, authentic data, unscripted interviews

Scripted press conference, fake news, fudging of data, no questions to be asked on the wrong doing. Prime Minister holds no press conference

Decentralisation of powers in true spirit of federalism

Centralisation of powers against the spirit of federalism

Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Isayi-Bhai-Bhai are all Indians first & Indians last

Except Hindus, remaining Muslims, Sikhs, Christians are anti-national

Unity in diversity, Secularism is fine

Uniformity is Unity-Secularism is a taboo

Multi-party democracy respecting regional parties, pluralistic

One party democracy consuming regional parties-singularity

Hinduism is most tolerant of all religions

Hinduism replaced by Hindutva

Comedy actors were enjoyed

Comedy actors are behind bars

News, debate on print & electronic media added value to the listeners. Decency & choice of words added decorum to the debate. No personal attacks & no loud decibels to speak over one another

Social media, Troll army set the agenda, News, debate have become an entertainment channel. The strong decibels, speaking over one another & personal attacks are the rule of the day.

Impartial field reporting based on hard facts

Biased reporting

Moulded public opinion

Public perception based on biased fake news portrayal setting a wrong narrative

SM infiltration not much still in nascent stage

SM rule the roost, need for fact checkers

Credibility of the Indian media

Lack of credibility, censorship, victimisation etc


Contemporary media today

There are more serious problems than built-in disparity and unevenness in the development path within the Indian media. Increasing concentration of ownership in some sectors; higher levels of manipulation of news, analysis, and comment to suit the owners’ financial and political interests; the downgrading and devaluing of editorial functions and content in some leading newspaper organisations; the systematic dumbing down, led by the nose by certain types of market research; the growing willingness within newspapers to tailor the editorial product to subserve advertising and marketing goals set by owners and senior management personnel; hyper-commercialization; price wars and aggressive practices in the home bases of other newspapers to overwhelm and kill competition, raising fears about media monopoly; private treaties with corporates that undermine the independence and value of news; rogue practices like seeking favours, paid news, rent taking for favourable coverage, positive reviews all have eroded the moral & ethical values of the media as the fourth pillar of democracy.

The three major defects in the present-day Indian media are frequently diverting attention from serious socio-economic issues to non-issues and the trivialising of news, dividing the people by putting out communal or other divisive messages, and promoting superstition and obscurantism instead of rational and scientific ideas. This may also be due to the relatively low intellectual level of a majority of journalists, their poor general knowledge in the subject, lack of uncanny desire to probe deeply and their lack of ‘desire to serve the public interest’ but serve their political masters for a rosy life. 

Certain real life examples are (a) During and after demonetisation, especially while ordinary Indians suffered hardships and the informal economy was destroyed, many media houses carried out sensational news such as a chip has been embedded in the new two thousand rupee note (b) Human life can exist in moon during the failure of the landing of the rover launched by ISRO to the moon-a TV news anchor coming in a space suit added to the ‘entertainment’ (c) A famed news anchor in one of the channels stating that the full form of the Chinese army(PLA) as Pakistan Liberation Army during the Chinese intrusion into Ladakh when it is the People’s Liberation Army showed their obsession with Pakistan (d) Character assassination of Rhea Chakraborty in the Sushant Singh Rajput case with the reporters barging into the private space of their apartments putting awkward questions to security guards, neighbours, courier boys fanning out a spectacle which would put any news channel to shame. (e) Another anchor did not know elementary mathematics while quoting wrong figures. (f) A Pakistan missile with clear markings were shown as an Indian missile.

The proliferation of multi-channel private satellite television, without any regulatory framework in place, has certainly made a major difference to the electronic media landscape. On the face of it, satellite television delivered to homes by cable or direct telecast, with its plethora of channels, close to 600 of them, including more than 100 news channels.  For one thing, the satellite television channels lack the journalistic experience of the press and function in an immature environment. For another, the 24×7 cycle puts tremendous pressure on the values and methods of newsgathering, analysis, and comment. However, the satellite television does not necessarily offer a better and richer choice of content. It has promoted increased fragmentation of the television audience & this also may be one of the factors in polarising society as visual impact leaves a deeper impact on the minds of the audience.

The content too has raised concerns about veracity, accuracy, taste, decency, rationality, and of a brazen class bias. While bringing some worthwhile and occasionally excellent news, features, sports, and educational programming to tens of millions of homes, Indian satellite TV contributes, in disproportionate measure, to the sensationalisation and trivialization of news, the class bias, and the other ailments that have recently drawn a lot of public criticism. 

‘A newspaper that can really depend upon the loyalty of its readers is as independent as a newspaper can be, given the economics of modern journalism’, which is an economics overwhelmingly dependent on advertising. This insight from Lippmann (1922: 206) is as valuable today as it was when he presented it in his acclaimed study of public opinion nearly nine decades ago. How to retain the loyalty of readers who are migrating away from the printed press and the broadcast media to digital platforms – where there is weak or inadequate advertising support for content that news organisations offer – is another matter. But trust remains the key.

There is yet another issue that needs serious discussion, especially in the current Indian context. It is the propaganda or manufacture of consent contribution of the press and the other news media. This can be seen to be the subversion of the two central functions, the credible-informational and the critical-investigative adversarial. Liberal democratic theory asserts for the most part that in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, the media are free, independent, respectful of a diversity and pluralism of views, strive to report the news fairly, fully and without undue bias, play adversarial roles, and act as watchdogs of the democratic and public interest. The propaganda model conceptualised by Herman and Chomsky (1988) in their influential book, Manufacturing Consent, is a frontal challenge to this liberal theorising on the media and democracy. 

Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, Chomsky (1989) explains that the propaganda model shows how ‘the media serve the interests of state and corporate power, which are closely interlinked, framing their reporting and analysis in a manner supportive of established privilege and limiting debate and discussion accordingly’. The propaganda of state-controlled television and radio is widely recognised and ridiculed in the Indian public arena, but the press too can be seen to manufacture consent from time to time in relation to sensitive, contentious issues. Two major cases in point are the complicit role of influential sections of the Hindi as well as English language press during the aggressive Ayodhya communal mobilisation by the Hindu Right between 1990 and 1992, and the propaganda role played by much of the press on issues and controversies raised by the post-1991 experience of economic liberalisation. In the case of Gujarat in 2002-2003, a similar point can be made about the differential coverage by the English language and Gujarati press. While ‘national media’ coverage has justly been applauded for truth-telling and blowing the whistle on a state-sanctioned genocidal pogrom, it was a sobering fact that the dominant Gujarati print media in the State performed the manufacture of consent function with a vengeance, attracting censure from various fact-finding exercises, including a report done for the Editor’s Guild of India (2002). ‘The mischievous role of certain Gujarati newspapers’, the fact-finding mission concluded, ‘cannot be glossed over. Some of them have been named for irresponsible and unethical journalism in the past but have regrettably learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Wilful incitement to offence, propagation of hate, and fuelling disorder are criminal offences. In the event, these newspapers went scot-free. The New York Times may continue to print on its front page the claim, ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’, patented in 1896. n C.P. Scott’s much-quoted dictum, ‘Comment is free but facts are sacred’ (Scott 1921).

Journalism in India is facing a serious crisis. The mainstream media is increasingly vested in the hands of a select few and refuses to question authority. Even the late president of India Sh.Pranab Mukherjee had said that “discussion and dissension” are crucial for a vibrant democracy, and it must hold public institutions accountable for all their actions and inactions”. “There should always be room for the argumentative Indian, and not the intolerant Indian. The media must be the watchdog, the mediator between the leaders and the public,” Mukherjee emphasized while delivering a seminal lecture honouring former press baron Ramnath Goenka. Commentators criticize how in recent years the media has lowered the quality of India’s public discourse. Media expansion has led to a shrinking of the public sphere, resulting in the spread of elitist and socially conservative values. The true test of a robust democracy is the independence of its media. Over the past few years, the Indian media has become the mouthpiece of the party in power. Coupled with the fact the corporate owners of media houses share close links with the government, the Indian media has tragically lost its voice. Serious issues like the beef banthe crisis in Kashmir, demonetisation, GST, dissent in universities and even the unrest in societies where Dalits – the lowest level of India’s caste system – have been discriminated or killed, have received scant mention in media coverage.

In fact, given the current state of how the mainstream media works it will be difficult to expose tweaked data and opacity in government functioning. A new note of muscular nationalism has crept into media discourse.  Also conspicuous is the curbing of dissent and the rise of the surveillance state – developments that bode ill for the independence of the Indian media. The TV debates have lost value & adding to the knowledge with the panelists shouting over one another & the points made are lost in the cacophony of high decibels in some of the channels.

One reason why we do not see much criticism in the media is that the government, in the person of the Prime Minister, has the ability to completely dominate the media’s agenda, by saturating the public and media sphere with the message, image, and his voice. Thus, the media is bound to only react to the news agenda offered by the government, rather than investigate its action independently. The present government is a social media driven government with paid WhatsApp groups, telegram groups, twitter troll armies who set the agenda in all the debates, discussions & the narrative is set rolling. Facts go for a toss as the audience is dished out half-baked facts bereft of truth & impartial views. Filings with the registrar of companies in the ministry of corporate affairs have revealed that five Indian news media companies – NDTV, News Nation, India TV, News24 and Network18 – are indebted to either Mukesh Ambani, the richest Indian and the owner of Reliance Industries, or Mahendra Nahata, an industrialist and Ambani associate, who is also on the board of Reliance’s new telecom venture, Reliance Jio. What more do you expect when the media industry is dominated by such big players? The Indian media is now the B team of the Bharatiya Janata party and the Modi government & has become a propaganda machinery. 

Many noted journalists in their quest of truth have been stifled or silenced by the powers to be when they tried to expose the fact check from the ground. Many such impartial journalists have started their own YouTube channels & now the government has started to spread its wings for control & censorship of the online channels too by way of a proposed regulation. Another aspect is the sensation above sense with the media viewing the actions of citizens through the lens of nationalism, condemning those who question the state narrative as “anti-national”, “Urban Naxal”, “tukde tukde gang”, “Lutyens Delhi”, “Khan market gang” so on & so forth. The latest term added to this vocabulary is “Andolanjivi”. There is a credibility crisis and a tendency of the television news media to put sensation above sense in search for the Television Rating Points (TRP) ratings & breaking news. The recent Arnab chats expose during the investigation by the Mumbai police of the TRP scam is a point in this direction. The unwillingness across the media to not only robustly challenge the official narrative on key issues partly out of its own failings but also largely out of fear of being denied access to those in power. Debates on private news channels have been censured for being strident and shrill. India has one of the world’s most vibrant and competitive media environments. It is now time to conduct a reality check and ask whether all is well with it. Many journalists have been attacked & some of them are not reported as the reporters often succumb to threats, pressures from local politicians, law enforcing agencies & most important the self-appointed vigilantes.  Journalists are watchdogs—not cheerleaders. They ignite dialogue on essential issues. They share the truths that powerful people would rather conceal.

Freedom of the press is important because it plays a vital role in informing citizens about public affairs and monitoring the actions of government at all levels. While the media may be unpopular —43 per cent of Americans say the media supports democracy “very poorly” or “poorly,” a Knight Foundation/Gallup report found — this role should not be forgotten.

When Donald Trump was president of USA, he had re-tweeted violent memes against CNN and railed against reporters and news outlets that criticize his administration, even stating that certain media outlets should lose their broadcasting licenses. He has called the press “enemies of the people,” a phrase also used by 20th century authoritarians. The same is being followed by our right-wing sympathisers/supporters in India. The recent farmer’s protest which was highlighted by the international stars such as Rihanna, Greta Thunberg is a point. The script from Nagpur was re-tweeted by our international cricketers, Bollywood stars verbatim proves it.

The drop in India’s ranking in press freedom has been linked to the existence of a sedition law that encourages self-censorship particularly in a period of heightened nationalism. In the latest ranking of the World Press Freedom Index of RSF or RFB (Reporters Sans Frontiers or Reporters Without Borders) 2020, India is ranked 142 just ahead of Pakistan at 145. Even Sri Lanka is ranked above India at 127( There is no doubt that the media freedom is under greater threat. “Freedom after speech – that is really what freedom of speech is all about”. He emphasised that “you are allowed to speak, speak as much as you like, but there is a fellow waiting there to nab you and out you in so you can’t speak again”! Even the RWB points out that hate against the differing views of journalist is dangerous for a democracy.

It is a vicious cycle. The owners of the print, electronic media are big business houses who do not give freedom to the editors. As it becomes a costly proposition, their business interests are to be safeguarded. The media depends on advertising, tenders etc & the government is the major contributor to the advertisements & tenders being published in the newspapers. Newsprint is the second largest expense for small papers after human resources costs, according to the National Newspaper Association of USA. Hence, the business houses here in India have to depend on the government for their survival. The fact that many of these have contributed to the PMCares during the corona pandemic either as a part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) voluntarily or by coercion even though many of them could not pay salaries to the staff owing to massive job cuts. The inherent perils of a business that should not have been a business has resulted in prime-time news was (and is) littered with advertisements which at times come with the power of submission to a corporate agenda. And every other daily gave up the sanctity of their mastheads and front pages to put business in the form of ads, way ahead of news.  Many journalists have started to lose their objectivity, getting as excited by a tax cut as a consumer would, describing budgets as ‘dreams’; expressing elation by the fanciness of a new car entering the market or the rank of India as a country to do business and the rise in the GDP or the success of Indians who had left the nation.

The Indian government’s decision to stop buying adverts in newspaper groups has drawn a spotlight on a system that critics say is used by the state to control media coverage. The administration had frozen all advertising spending with the publishers of the Times of India, The Hindu and The Telegraph, three of the country’s highest circulation English-language outlets. The decision appears to have come after all three papers published articles or a series of articles that irritated the central government. The government has strongly denied using advertising expenditure to influence editorial content, saying the existence of critical stories in Indian media is evidence enough that this does not happen. Rewarding or punishing media outlets through the allocation or non-allocation of advertising by the government is common practice, and an effective way to make them toe their editorial line. This political leverage over the media that has seen India under Modi constantly drop places in the organisation’s World Press Freedom Index. In 2002, India ranked 80 in the same index.

An explosion of media took place, turning the Fourth Estate into an industry of competitive market forces. Price points of media defied actual cost and inflation, lending to greater competition and the trivialisation of content, particularly news. No wonder headlines changed, becoming as attractive as ad lines, aimed at garnering eye-balls, chasing audiences defined largely by marketing departments.  This also meant the representation of news was bound to change. Journalists disengaged from the farmer and other minorities and powerless sections of India, reporting less and less from the ground. Journalists began to don the role of government propaganda machinery & started to give the entertainment industry a run for their money. The Press is the voice of people, it is considered to be the voice of the voiceless. The Press existed even before independence and it certainly proves that any sort of media or press is by the people of the state not by the ruling body. The media acts as a bridge between the government and the people as it tends to inform people about the functions performed by the government. It also informs the government officials about the problems faced by people in their respective constituency. Hence, the democratic system is only fully efficient when the state enjoys a free press, though the Indian constitution doesn’t have a separate article for freedom of the press in the Constitution like the United States. The free press is a term used for the media which is not controlled or restricted by the government for propagating political agendas or ideological matters among the masses. May 3rd is celebrated as world press day or world press Freedom Day. 

The realities of running a business hit several media houses. Some opted for private treaties and others openly allowed paid news legitimising the same with a pricing menu. Others sold their equity to large industry. With no policy framework in place, this was waiting to happen. For example, Reliance Group was allowed to own the Network 18. It was called a ‘bail out’ for the then promoter, Raghav Bahl, but it eventually cost the large corporation a voice and say in public opinion. Coupled with the growing reality of cronyism between industry and governments, the media was quietly emerging as a critical weapon that the two could share in a self-serving manner. It is no wonder why corporates have bought into or bought out several media houses. Another instance is of Rajeev Chandrashekhar, a MP helping Arnab Goswami start the Republic TV channel.

The White House is calling for tariffs of up to 32 per cent on uncoated ground wood paper. That would be a major blow for an industry already suffering from layoffs and downsizing: From January 2001 to September 2016, the number of newspaper jobs fell from 412,000 to 174,000, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. Thomas Jefferson once quipped that he’d rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers. He changed his mind, however, after the presidential campaign of 1800, when he endured the scrutiny of the press. Politicians from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton to Donald Trump have complained about the media, which means the press is doing its job. Journalists are watchdogs—not cheerleaders. They ignite dialogue on essential issues. They share the truths that powerful people would rather conceal. They are the force that holds our leaders accountable for their actions. When our leaders threaten journalists, they are threatening the First Amendment, along with our most basic rights. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press,” said Jefferson, “and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

The respected N. Ram, was quoted in The Hindu saying, “Nobody has figured out a viable business model for quality journalism”. While quality of journalism has to improve significantly, why should there be a business model if the media is the Fourth Estate and critical pillar of democracy? Think of it – the government runs without profit and loss as its prime criteria. It is to govern and provide certain services. The same applies for the judiciary and the legislature in different measure. The fourth pillar should remain unobliged and unapologetic if it is to remain free with a purpose of service to the nation. Conflict of interest is not taken seriously in the Indian scenario.

There still remain some silver lining in the dark clouds-Ravish Kumar who won the Ramon Magsaysay award, Faye D’souza, Abhisar Sharma, Sakshi Joshi, Punya Prasun Bajpai, Prashant Kanojia & many more who have stood their ground that speaks volumes of their courage & conviction.

Now the government is trying to regulate the online content of channels started by some journalists in the garb of censorship. Even the social media microblogging site twitter is not spared although this government has relied heavily on twitter to have connect with the citizens. In the on-going farmers’ protest, twitter was directed to take down an estimated 250 twitter handles which were later restored by twitter owing to the public opinion maintaining constant pressure which made twitter see the light of the day.


Attacks on journalists

According to Getting Away with Murder – a study by Free Speech Collective, 198 serious attacks on journalists have been documented in the period between 2014-19, including 36 in 2019 alone. The study also states that there has not been a single conviction in attacks on journalists in India, targeted for their investigative work. In India, since the BJP has come to power, we have seen an escalation in attacks against journalists. The legitimacy of stories by reporters have been challenged by prominent people including politicians and it has always been followed by violence.

Journalists across the world are risking their lives to gather news and information during the COVID crisis. However, in India since 25 March, when the nationwide lockdown was announced, police and authorities have questioned, filed cases or arrested at least 10 journalists for reports critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Interestingly, this trend isn’t just limited to states under the BJP government. Cases have been filed against journalists by the Congress government in Chhattisgarh, AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the Shiv Sena, NCP & Congress government in Maharashtra.

Although journalism and media activities have been declared essential services during the lockdown period, a number of cases of assault on media freedom have come to fore. Two FIRs have been filed by the UP administration against the Co-founding Editor of The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan for very routine reporting of facts. The present dispensation has expressed open disdain or almost a contempt for the freedom of press and for the functions of press. They find a tailor-made solution to either cow the journalist into silence or effectively put them out of business. The government consistently seem to deny the role of press scrutiny as an important pillar of democracy. Women journalist in India face severe online harassment and bullying while reporting. They often face death and rape threats and are stalked and doxed with their personal data shared online. Women have been seeing a lot of harassment. There is documented online harassment of women journalists. The sexualised abuse, the misogyny that they face from troll armies, these are ways of policing them and punishing them for speaking out. Lodging of FIRs against women journalists and the direct physical attacks are also a threat to free speech or factual reporting. Journalism continues to be a risky proposition in the present-day scenario in India. This culture of cracking down on dissent, on questions, it permeates to every level. Siddique Kappan is another example of a journalist incarcerated when he covered the Hathras case.

The present-day ruling dispensation is insecure either by accident or design. This stems from the fact that these people do not understand the function of criticism, do not understand the function of press scrutiny and think that the function of the press is to be a cheerleader to power rather than hold the power to account. The media fraternity too is polarised like every section of the society into good & bad journalists. Media houses reporting truth based on facts are dubbed as anti-national or the bad media and the good media is the one promoted by the state.


Factors which threaten the freedom of press or media

It stands for the civic rights, political rights and religious rights of the people. Media plays a vital role in forming opinions and influencing decision making by the people, comparing present and past experiences, actions, works etc. done by different governing bodies. It also helps in giving feedback, exposure and conduit mechanisms by the people to the government, so that the representatives can work according to their needs and requirements.

Citizens receive the information about the new policies, projects, schemes, laws, amendments etc. through media, by which they can assess the working of the government and analyse if the deeds are beneficial for them or not. The Press also acts as a crucial instrument for accounting. A person can forget the promises made by their leaders but a printed newspaper, video, or audio recording will act as a piece of reminding evidence for both citizens and the government. The people who work in the press must be unafraid. Some brave journalists do perform string operations, do investigations and find out the reality. It tends to fight against corruption, unfulfilled promises, disloyal behaviour or misuse of power in public or private life.

  1. Corporate Sector: Not only does the government try to control the press but sometimes, even the corporate sector tries to control it in order to increase their business sales or other personal users may control the press by paying the editors, writers and reporters.
  2. The killing of Reporters and Journalists: Many a time, reporters and journalists are killed for presenting a piece of news or covering a story by the supporters of a particular group, organisation or political party. 
  3. Targeting: Press workers are often the targets of hate campaigns, trolling, character assassination etc.

Though journalists have the choice to publish or not publish names with their reporting, choosing to remain anonymous depicts a sense of fear in one’s own nation.  India has the world’s largest democracy, and it is absolutely necessary that the press is not controlled by the government or any other sector of society.  The Press is the voice of the voiceless and should promote the rights of the minority; it is the duty of the press of any country to ensure that the government is functioning properly and no section of the society is left behind or is not treated well. It ensures the proper functioning of the executive Legislature and the judiciary because it raises questions!

“The press is the only tocsin of a nation, when it is completely silenced, all means of general effort are taken away.”-Thomas Jefferson




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