By Seema Mustafa
New Delhi: The media is the fourth pillar of democracy — the watchdog for the people in place to keep a check on the executive, the legislature, the judiciary. And to bring the voice of the people, of the poor and the marginalised and the victimised to the corridors of power.
Free, independent media is essential
A free, independent media is essential to democracy. Necessary to protect it from periodic onslaughts by a reckless executive, weak legislatures and unresponsive judiciaries. And hence when the media starts crumbling, and surrenders its independence to wear the garb of propagandists it is, or at least should be, cause for deep worry. More so when it moves from the side of the people to that of the rich and the powerful.
This does not always happen voluntarily. The media does not turn rogue without a history, even if it is short and inexcusable. It happens with excessive temptation of money and power placed its way, or fear, or both. During the emergency the media crawled because of fear. The crack of the whip in the form of paper lockdowns and arrests had mighty publications following government imposed censorship without a murmur, and came out of the period shamed and exposed.
In subsequent years governments learnt to censor through corporate control, as money became the driving force for the media obsessed with high ratings and higher salaries. The shift away from the people of India to rich and powerful cronyism was almost dramatic, and was visible to the working journalists after the advent of television in particular, when they brought back stories from the field that were rejected. All seemed to have succumbed to the temptation of the money that didn’t just trickle in, but actually flooded media houses with several industrialists supporting their political cronies by investing in the media from ‘behind’.
It became difficult for journalists who were worried by the trend to expose it, as the money was not invested legitimately, remained a trade off between the investor and the media owner in return for control.bControl that actually rested with the political rulers, who the business houses were proxy for.But managed to remain out of the picture even as they pulled the strings from behind. And hence stories that were uncomfortable to the political establishment of the day were censored. By the editors, under directions from the money bags, receiving their orders from the governments. which then rewarded them by facilitating and supporting their businesses.
A nexus that journalists knew of but were finding difficult to expose. Simply because there was no proof at the time. No track of the monies invested, no political instructions on the record, just phone calls to editors and proprietors that stopped important stories and killed investigations.
Individual journalists and erring publications started feeling the heat as this new order starts stabilizing, through direct threats, blacklisting and of course withdrawal of advertisements. Many senior journalists who should have been top of the bracket found themselves unemployable because they were seen as too independent or too honest for the system that was growing tentacles rapidly.
As the control was established the gloves came off. The money bags invested more directly and gained almost complete control, the professional editors were discarded for touts masquerading as journalists, and the political establishment stopped pretending to keep a distance from the news gathering industry. And this is when the rot exposed itself, and where news disappeared from many channels with fake news and lies, as those feeding the media of course had little respect for the facts or the truth.
Journalism disappeared from the news rooms —which by the way became more and more abusive from within as many young reporters testify— and was replaced by propaganda for the government and the crony capitalists. Television, always in need of more money than print, was the worst impacted given its reach and hence power.
In the process journalism was defiled, and those propagating it reviled. More so as many used the space of ‘journalism’ to target and hurt individuals and organisations in a manner that defied the law, and the tenets of free speech.
Journalism cannot claim cover if it defiles the basic rights of others, and crosses the boundaries to try and hang individuals without a slot of evidence except prejudice. Journalism cannot claim freedom if it crosses into the privacy of others, uses fake news and allegations to build cases against persons simply because they oppose their political or corporate masters. Journalism cannot be shrill and hysterical in abusing basic accountability and responsibility. Journalism cannot claim freedoms to run amok and break every rule of ethics in the book. It then cannot be defined as journalism.
And when this happens, journalism gets such a huge knock that it crumbles as the fourth pillar for the people it exists for, then withdraw support. It is seen, as it is today, as a bought and sold entity; compromised and irresponsible; with the profession fast losing the trust and confidence of the people who really are supposed to be the bulwark of good journalism. The disintegration emboldens political rulers to further threaten the media, to arrest, to assault and subjugate with impunity. This feeds into a vicious circle held together by fear and threats.
Tweets and crocodile tears from politicians are not a credential for good and honest journalism, in fact quite the reverse. Tears from the people, and support from the ordinary person determines good journalism and differentiates it from the hysterical propaganda that corporates fund, and politicians support.
Journalism is anti-establishment
Journalism is anti-establishment but not anti-people. It is anti-hate but not anti-love no matter what caste and religion it assumes. It is anti-war and not anti-peace no matter in what nationalist garb this is clouded. It stands for justice and equality, and lends its weight to those who find it difficult to speak for themselves, or whose voices are not heard by the rich and the powerful.
Journalism stands for the Indian Republic by speaking for her people, and not for those in power.
India ranks 142 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index released by the Reporters Without Borders far below Myanmar and Sri Lanka in the region.
The views expressed here are personal to the writer.