Rethinking the Crisis in Indian Journalism Beyond the TRP Fiasco
Biased and opinionated reporting is fragmenting the core values and principles of the nation.
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In a tweet on National Press Day recently, Union Home Minister Amit Shah wrote, “Modi government is committed towards the freedom of press and strongly oppose those who throttle it. I applaud media’s remarkable role during COVID-19”. That was in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement during an e-inauguration ceremony of Patrika Gate in September.
The Prime Minister had said, “Our newspapers and magazines should have a global reputation.” And he lauded the Indian media for its coverage for COVID-19 and government-led rural empowerment schemes such as “Swachh Bharat”, “Ujjwala” and now “Atmanirbhar Bharat”.
He also acknowledged the importance of media critiquing government actions and helping them improve.
But a glance at prime-time debates paints a strikingly different picture and the recent TRP fiasco has only made matters worse.
Today, when all the news channels are taking potshots at each other and subjecting us to a despicable display more reminiscent of a fight between pigs, one is bound to ask if this is all that is wrong with the Indian media or is there something more.
Reasons for India’s Abysmal Press Freedom Index Ranking
The state of the Indian media can easily be assessed from the fact that India did not see any improvement in the Press Freedom Index and has been quite consistent in the last six years. India has an abysmal ranking of 142 of 180 nations and is in the red zone – also known as a ‘difficult situation’.
The specified justifications for this low ranking include the archaic sedition law along with the pressure on the media to align with the government’s narrative. They also state that the index was heavily affected by the Kashmir lockdown which resulted in virtually no means for journalists to cover what was happening in the region.
One can possibly argue that Kashmir might have been a masterstroke for internal politics and freedom to report for the press could have posed a risk to national security. But, assuming that argument is valid, that only applies to 2019 – what about the years before that?
Various reasons have led to the apathetic state of the Indian media today. The systematic clampdown of the free flow of information, threats to life, TRP battles, and social media battles have changed the dynamics in the last few years.
As described in the The Indian Express, since 2014 the government has brought amendments to dilute the RTI. This dilution has created an information black hole between government policies and subsequent on-ground actions which is making research-based journalism nearly impossible to exist.
This black hole is currently getting filled by two opposite narratives. One by chest-thumping prime-time ministers and the other by those they designate as traitors. The media’s Line Of Control is becoming clearer with every passing day.
Intimidation of Journalists
Apart from restricting the flow of information, journalists are also being intimidated through threats to life and by misuse of the law. Twenty-two journalists and media workers have been killed between 2014 and 2019, according to the 2019 report of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
And the lack of any conviction in the criminal courts for any of those murders has worsened the on-ground situation. In some cases, the links of the murder accused have been traced back to various organisations with alleged affiliation to the political parties, religious sects, student groups, criminal gangs and local mafias, according to the 2019 edition of Sarkar.
In terms of misuse of law, a report from Rights and Risks Analysis Group found that nearly 55 journalists have been booked during lockdown (23 March-31 May 2020) as their narrative was critical of the government’s actions.
The maximum FIRs (about 11) against journalists were registered in Uttar Pradesh, a state ruled by BJP. During this time a photojournalist from Kashmir was also booked under the UAPA, a law generally reserved for terrorists. The recent arrest of a Kerala journalist on his way to covering the Hathras incident is the perfect example of state-administered media abuse.
Sedition is another tool that is being widely used to silence journalists.
In one such case, senior journalist Vinod Dua was booked for criticising PM Modi and the case is currently being heard by the Supreme Court of India. In the case of Kishorechandra Wangchem’s first arrest, the charges were modified and the journalist was jailed under the National Securities Act for an alleged offensive post against the Chief Minister of Manipur and the BJP, requiring the high court’s intervention to set him free after months – he is in jail once again now for a post critical of a BJP politician’s wife.
A similar incident happened on 10 September when a couple of journalists were arrested, intimidated, and harassed by the state police. Their crime? The channel’s narrative is against the state’s narrative.
The recent breach of privileged fiasco between Shiv Sena and Arnab Goswami is another fine example of state’s ability to intimidate journalists. Even though the Supreme Court’s intervention has brought some relief to Goswami, the case is not closed yet. One can only hope that other state governments take a clue – and do not walk the same path as Maharashtra government else such attacks will pose a serious threat to the future of Indian journalism.
Rather than acknowledging and reassuring safety and security to journalists, the government has used its machinery to gag media channels for broadcasting anti-government news. Two Malayalam TV channels were ordered off the air by I&B ministry for their coverage of Delhi riots. The ban was lifted eventually after it stirred the controversy.
Even after braving all these challenges, when a media outlet reports something critical of the government, the huge army of trolls hounds the outlet and the reporter alike. The comment section is filled with either communal slurs or sexist remarks and rape/life threats.
At times these threats move beyond the social media space and journalists receive threats via phone calls and emails. While India lacks a specific law to address social media trolling, some laws do exist to safeguard citizens from online harassment. But, the conviction rate is remarkably low.
It is also a well-reported fact that the prime minister himself follows some of these trolls on Twitter. This sets an unwarranted precedent that in case you are ideologically aligned with the ruling party, no one can harm you.
However, the prime minister is correct in stating that the world is listening to India – and Indian news channels become a direct source of information.
News & New Lows
Unfortunately, the quality and ethical practices of Indian news media are reaching new lows on a daily basis. In the last couple of years, various international news houses have covered the state of Indian media – and they have been extremely critical.
In 2018, The Diplomat ran the story titled: “Journalism in India: A Dangerous Pursuit?”. More recently, The New York Times ran an article in May 2020 – “Under Modi, India’s Press Is Not So Free Anymore”. Similar articles were published in other newspapers as well – and they do not reflect well on the country and its leadership.
To align with the religion-based narrative of the central government, India is seeing an increase in the targeted vilification of a particular community.
During the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tablighi Jamat was targeted and the spread of the virus in India was solely attributed to them. Some media channels even called it a “Corona Jihad”. However, the vilification was criticised by the Bombay High Court which has quashed multiple FIRs against the community.
During the same time, the coverage influenced some NRIs in the UAE which led to Islamophobic tweets. This resulted in major international embarrassment as the Princess of UAE questioned Indian values and principles. Subsequently, the Indian Prime Minister and ambassador to the UAE tweeted against linking communal hate and COVID-19.
If the PM is Serious About Media Reforms, Here’s What He Should Do
The Indian media, specifically electronic media, need to understand the consequences of their actions. Biased and opinionated reporting is fragmenting the core values and principles of the nation.
It is time that journalists stop the prime-time cacophony and turn towards serious and meaningful journalism. It was only in the last week that finally some action was taken against the media outlets for their substandard and unethical reporting in Sushant Singh Rajput’s murder case.
But, the TRP fiasco has raised a far more prominent question: “Is journalism even ethical anymore?”
We need to understand that for world-class journalism the state needs to create a conducive environment to ensure that such journalism can germinate and grow.
If the Prime Minister is serious about changing the state of Indian media, he will have to walk the talk. He needs to start acknowledging journalists who are awarded globally even if the coverage was against his party.
He needs to instill confidence in the journalists by creating provisions to ensure their safety and security. He will have to unfollow all the troll army members and probably make provision in law for the prosecution of such people. He must face the media in an open press conference and must address the uncomfortable questions.
However, as the TRP fiasco unravels itself, it is imperative to ask: “Is our media ready for this?”
(The author is a public policy analyst with extensive experience in the development sector and corporate. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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