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Citizen Social Responsibility (CSR): Indian Media Makes a Mockery of Freedom of Speech

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India’s media universe is enormous, perhaps the world’s largest: Over 17,000 newspapers, 1 lakh magazines, 178 news channels on television, and numerous websites in dozens of languages. Thousands of Facebook pages – all calling themselves news sources, and local YouTube channels with alerts on everything from developments in real estate to police raids.
In our childhood days, we were taught that media is one of the pillars of democracy, an essential way of communicating with the government for the general public. The history of India’s print media and electronic media has been exceptionally glorious. From the days of English law, many progressive journalists used their ideas to burn the flames of democracy in society, but now the courageous and unbiased pen has been sold, TV news has become a toy in the hands of political parties. Indian media is facing a significant credibility crisis. If it does not reform itself, its greatest asset will quickly be devalued and eventually disappear. It seems to have been robbed of authenticity, reliability and credibility and is becoming only a source of cheap entertainment and amuse. This can be a huge tragedy and a terrible disservice to both, democracy and to the causes of public enlightenment and empowerment.
The media in our Country was never in such a poor state. If you are in line with their philosophy, there’s nothing wrong with supporting a political party, but it’s a tragedy if we sell our lives to them. Today’s media houses seem to operate only for their own gains and interests. The effect this can have on a common man or on the Nation is not given any consideration.
Political parties are so lost in their selfishness that they don’t care what the Indian media reveals, each one of them just wants to see their highlights even though our country falls down the drain. They don’t seem to realise that power is a double-edged sword, today it’s your turn, tomorrow it might be someone else.
Since attaining independence in 1947, India’s press has played a crucial role in protecting democracy. But journalists here now feel under threat. In recent years, several Indian journalists have been killed, ranging from a Kashmiri newspaper editor fired outside his office to a young Jharkhand journalist who was abducted and found unconscious in a woodland.
There is no denying a well-known psychological quirk which means we pay more attention to the worst things happening around us. A person’s weaknesses are often more visible than their strengths, losses weigh on us more heavily than gains and fear is more motivating than opportunity. Our Government and News Media organizations seem to have built this into their policies – torn between providing the public with a positive or negative incentive, the latter is much more likely to attract more eyeballs.
Vivid depictions found in televised media are to be blamed to a large extent. When the television set is playing in the background, you’ll find that the same story is being repeated over and over again with the same images. You’ve got this loop of images being drilled into your brain, repeat, repeat, repeat and repeat. What we are looking at is not a fictional horror film. We’re looking at things in real life – and I think the repetitiveness is why they have such an effect. News has never been just about faithfully reporting one event after another. It’s a form of entertainment that the media uses to contend for our precious time. Almost all media organisations are dependent on advertising revenue, so they add a sense of drama to hook viewers and keep them watching. As a result, there are great rewards for being the most watched.
Today it’s possible to partake in collective trauma from anywhere in the world, affecting us in every possible way – from our finances to our romantic relationships as though it were happening next door. And this is a real challenge for our mental health.
These days, the news media is all about scandalous crime stories, Bollywood, movies and current affairs, and it is tailor-made to draw attention and distract people from real issues. The government is pleased because the economy, GDP, job losses and increasing coronavirus figures are not being challenged by anyone.
Ideally, the role of media should be to check and balance, provide reliable and relevant information to its audience and inform people to help them make the right decisions. However today, the media is all about manipulating people with inaccurate and fake news.
Maharashtra is going through one of the toughest times in politics. The global crisis has been overshadowed by a suicide case involving a movie actor and credit goes to our most talented media. It is rather sad to see news anchors present the news in a way that they seem to have forgotten that they are newsreaders, not artists! The media depicted this dramatic event in such a way that the public almost began to believe that these news reporters and anchors were present with the actor at the time of the incident.
In this suicide vs murder case, the media’s conduct with a woman victim has not been humane. Defying all social distancing norms and respect for a woman, media frenzy surrounding the woman victim should be considered a crime, but this is not possible because the case of murder vs suicide has now become a case of Centre vs State Government. Media alone is playing the role of judge, jury and executioner. They are charging the accused long before the investigating agencies can complete the investigation and the honourable courts can convict the accused.
Loose talk and unethical conduct have become common phenomena in the name of freedom of expression. In this matter, our newsreaders have been at the top of the list and some are seen breaking all boundaries, crossing all the limits of decency. They seem to think that it is important to talk in loud voices and use obscene language to mislead the public and increase their popularity ratings. The media and the political leaders feel that the common man of our Country can be roped in any which way they want. I believe each one of the 138 crore people of our country is to be held responsible for such a grave situation.
If you look at how we are affected by the news reports of the Covid-19 pandemic, I do think that a significant number of people would feel some long-lasting effects. The nation is facing an epidemic. From symptoms, statistics to treatment of this epidemic, we rely on print, electronic and digital media but I guarantee that no one in our Country has the right information about this pandemic and the virus. The general public is facing this calamity with insufficient and incorrect information and this might be the reason why the epidemic is becoming more frightening and alarming – rather than decreasing – with each passing day.
The BJP government has tried to dominate the news media since they came to power in 2014, particularly the airwaves. They have successfully manipulated the media to create personality cults that depict them as the selfless saviours of the country.
If a political party gives a slogan and promotes India as a Hindu nation as part of its political agenda and advantages, it is not so much an issue but it could be fatal if the media of our Country gets involved in making India an assertively Hindu nation from a secular, religiously diverse country.
A couple of stories that took everyone’s attention away from the country’s real issues were the Rafales and the GST.
It wasn’t the first time nor the last that we were delivered some kind of fighter aircraft. It is a routine process since our independence in 1947. We got Sukhoi, MIGs, Gnet and what not. Why did it become an event this time? 5 Rafales were the point of conversation for this Nation when Corona was at its peak. Talks with China were in phase 4 and we were all fed the Rafales. Indians sensed patriotism and felt more empowered and secure than ever, little did they know about the Chinese infiltration (which the Union Ministry of Home Affairs blatantly denied in the Rajya Sabha) and half a million stranded migrant workers after the lockdown, some of whom were dying along the highways. It didn’t bother anyone because there was hardly any media coverage on it, and so it was enough for Rafales to feed our Fluke nationalism and patriotism. Our media nicely hid many such issues which were crucial and sensitive. India’s news fraternity might be of the belief that it is important for them to stay firmly with the central government at this juncture rather than finding faults.
The ministers of the current government were counting on business leaders to cut back on independent media funding, steadily strangling their operations. Media owners are forced to fireside journalists who have questioned the Government on any issues and ordered them to prevent running features like hate-crime trackers that embarrassed the government.
Our Prime Minister and the cabinet ministers, like other populist leaders, bristle at any public criticism, whether from business tycoons, international leaders, or perhaps from school children?
Indian news outlets seem to possess the notion that since our Prime Minister is supported by majority of the public, they must display support, too. Even sceptical journalists censor themselves, frightened of being branded anti-national by a government that’s equating patriotism with supporting the Prime Minister.
This government has imposed the strictest restrictions on foreign journalists, abruptly and without warning. Visas were tightened and international journalists were barred from conflict hotbeds such as north-eastern India and Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region that was stripped of its statehood in August 2019 and placed under extreme crackdown.
The tale of Kashmir was dramatic, but many Indian journalists, if they look back at it, would feel they ignored significant abuse of human rights.
Justice was not done to the big story. The media should have gone out there and vigorously and independently reported the situation from the ground.
The autocratic media houses exploit liberty and either work for the government or their own selfishness and ego. Whether it’s the electronic media, print or social media, differentiating between reality and the lie is difficult. Earlier, the channels used to compete as the first outlet to bring the right news to viewers. Now the rivalry is not to deliver the right news first, but to be the first to sensationalise any news. As the concept of democracy has changed, seeking absolutism from the media would be impractical. How will the press remain untouched while the whole country is on the privatisation trail? In the present state of the nation, the situation of our media world has become like the ruling party. There is a severe lack of strong opposition. The media behemoths must acknowledge that they are not the country’s supreme authority. They have issued verdicts by setting up trials in many cases, called people guilty before they are proven to be, and abused people’s privacy and dignity. The media on its own sees itself to be the contractor of justice. This is a dangerous sign for the country. Unbridled public autocratic authority is fatal for both democracies.
Can we then conclude that the largest democracy in the world is quickly sliding towards dictatorship?

The author, Amit Upadhyay, is Editor-in-Chief of The CSR Journal 

To read more articles by the author, click here

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