Independence of the Media in India

Independence of The Media in India

“Where the press is free and every man is able to read, all is safe”, says Thomas Jefferson. The Media is often regarded as the fourth pillar of our democracy; the other three are the Executive the Legislature, and the Judiciary.  The Media reflects the mood and aspirations of a nation. A free and vibrant media is a prerequisite for the smooth and proper conduct of a democracy with its healthy criticism of the policies of the government and continuous inputs on issues relating to the common good. In other words, mass media will ensure checks and balances in the functioning of the institutions of the state. Discussion and dissension are crucial to a democracy, in which the media is expected to play the role of an interlocutor between the leaders and the public.

Though there is no specific mention of a free press, Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, ensures the freedom of expression for all citizens which includes the freedom of the press as well. India boasts of the presence of a relatively free and vibrant media in the public domain. There are about 70,000 newspapers published in different languages and about 1,600 satellite channels in the country. This estimate does not include numerous news websites and other news outlets. India is also the largest newspaper market in the world –about 100 million copies of newspapers are sold every day. Despite all such tall claims, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders ranks India at 136 out of 180 countries. A rank as dismal as 136, can only be a blot on the largest democracy in the world.

Indian media traces its origin back to the British Raj. A number of newspapers were founded during the National Freedom struggle. These newspapers were instrumental in disseminating the views of national leaders and in arousing a sense of patriotism and nationalism among the masses. Despite severe curbs imposed by the colonial government, these media outlets continued to challenge the government, much to its chagrin. Except for the dark days of Emergency (1975-1977), during which severe draconian restrictions were imposed on the media by the government, the Indian media has left no stone unturned in the process of exercising its mandate.

However, of late there have been some worsening trends in the independence and impartiality of the Indian media. Most of the media outlets in India are either directly owned or subtly controlled by powerful business and political interests. Over the past few decades, the domination of a few corporate groups over the mass media has grown to alarming levels. Politicians or individuals with a hidden agenda have begun to call the shots, making the media a mere puppet in their hands. One finds it hard to distinguish between what is true and what is projected as being true.Such a trend raises serious questions on the transparency and accountability of the media.

In the recent past, one of the instances that tarnished the transparency of Indian media, was the “paid news” scandal. It simply refers to the systematic indulgence of mainstream media outlets in publishing or broadcasting news items in favour of politicians, businessmen and celebrities to boost their image and popularity. One of the immediate consequences of the fallout of this scandal was the stringent measure by the Election Commission to disqualify those found guilty of this unethical practice.

The freedom of the press in India now has acquired an unprecedented importance in the era of Modi, which is characterized by the advent of aggressive nationalism propagated by right-wing elements. Modi and his team have been manipulating the media to further their cause and to project him as an unquestionable leader of the country, much at the expense of an independent and robust media.  The Media reflects the pluralism and diversity in Indian society better than any other institution. It strengthens the ethos of a liberal democracy by espousing and encouraging views contrary to that of the ruling elite and the majority. This is exactly what the incumbent regime does not want the mass media to perform.

Most of the media outlets have become relatively dependent on government advertising.  This has made them uncritical and pliant, thus depriving them of sharp teeth and nails to tear them to pieces. It may be noted that some serious issues like the beef banthe crisis in Kashmirdissent in universities and even the unrest in societies where Dalits have been discriminated against or killed, have received scant mention in media coverage.The news reports of the day are marked by a sudden spurt in shrill nationalism, toeing the line of the government This is further aggravated with a growing temptation to self-censorship because of fear. Those who do not yield to the pressure tactics and those who dare to question the regime are intimidated with raids and probes. Me-experts reckon CBI raids on the NDTV 24×7 Channel a “defining moment” of the loss of press freedom in post-independent India. The tone and tenor of some ministers give the impression that still more measures to muzzle the press are in the pipeline.

Given the multiple challenge that apparently infringe on our freedom of the press, the need of the hour is a culture of a free and responsible press. We are in the midst of monumental changes in the socio-political and economic scenario of our country. This calls for all of us, citizens of Mother India, to be informed and aware of the day-to-day affairs of our nation.  We ought to think critically about all the events and connect ourselves with those citizens on the same wave length. We need to provide a platform for an independent media. Such a platform is inevitable if we want to further develop and sustain a stable democracy. We must encourage and tolerate the voices of dissent. “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, says Voltaire.

By Sch. Ivin Tomy