“Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy; it is democracy.” -Walter Cronkite.
We are often told that knowledge is the new rich but try imagining a scenario where you are bound to be sceptical of the bits of information fed to you in the form of news. Unfortunately, this is the new normal of the Indian Republic. Our democracy is going through a credibility crisis of journalism, and the irony is that we have fallen so far where even raising questions concerning the same are deemed as jeopardy to the nation. All we have accomplished in recent years is waning down the list of the World Press Freedom Index. The situation is so worse today that the amelioration of Indian Journalism seems like a mere bluff.
In a groundbreaking study by Arvind Rajagopal, Politics after Television- Religious Nationalism and the reshaping of the Indian Public by Cambridge University Press points out how, for the first time, National Television attempted to create a single visual regime throughout the country. The Congress Party wanted to seize this advantage, but by playing the Hindu card, Hindu Right succeeded in changing the definition of political debate and thus entered into an era of ‘authoritarian populism’ which suited the new world of economic liberalisation. After the Indian economy’s opening in 1991, market forces started to become more and more influential, which made journalists remunerative to write partial truth. Another major development since then was the technological advancement of India; the introduction of the internet and remarkable growth in the use of satellite and cable networks commenced the blurring of lines between entertainment and news. Certainly, the inclination toward infotainment over serious journalism started to rise. With this new wave of a combination of liquidity and infotainment, our country witnessed a completely new phase of journalism where news analysis started to be overlapped by news creation and ended up creating ‘informationless’ journalism in the present time. Since money played a significant role in news dissemination, the media became subordinate to a handful of people and, in most cases, politically affiliated people. A good example of the same would-be BJP-backed MP Subhash Chandra, who owns Zee Network. Or, if we take the case of Republic TV, it is founded by Arnab Goswami, whose father, Manoranjan Goswami, was a BJP member and whose co-founder, Rajeev Chandrashekhar is now a BJP MP. After journalism became a business where news was sold, we started to revert to a century-old system of ‘propaganda journalism which was used during World War I, but this time with graver intentions of spreading hoax news. It is thus commented that today’s media is just an elitist bourgeois construct that reflects the interest of the same and never serves the genuine interests of people and produces indolent journalists.
Social Media’s Strafe
Not only this ruthless competition was witnessed in television journalism but it was also observed on platforms that were launched to connect people. Social media, precisely speaking, Facebook, was launched in India in 2006 focused on ‘giving people the power to share and make the world open and connected’ but was nothing more than an advertisement company. With a 3G network and inexpensive smartphones, the number of people joining Facebook raised drastically from 8 million in 2010 to 112 million in 2014. Facebook soon became a model of information consumption, and it did not take much time for it to showcase itself as a revolution in journalism.
For news websites that looked at Facebook as an app for higher revenue generation, no one guessed how Facebook’s algorithm will fall in line with the news? The anomaly this app created made it impossible for the consumer to distinguish between facts and delusions. At the same time, it was provided with the content solely based on his likes and dislikes. Because the access to information (not news) was becoming facile and free, people shifted from reading a newspaper to such social media platforms for their daily news consumption, and that’s when journalism became completely biased and dependent on what its customer wants to hear rather than what needs to be told. And this medium, like all the other news distributing sources, became politicised and was used from spreading misinformation to political campaigning. Looking at WhatsApp’s growing popularity, political parties that had a higher budget for spending on advertisement used it for propaganda spreading. A fact-checking website, Quartz India, stated that during the recent parliamentary elections, the spread of misinformation increased by 40 per cent compared to non-election times. And soon, propaganda replaced the definition of news, whereas television media reverted its ethics and replaced debate with abuse. But what about those who still had the guts to stick with their morals?
Spotted and Executed
In a single sentence, being a journalist in India and not submitting to the authorities is noxious. Forty journalists were killed between 2014 and 2019, of which 21 are confirmed to be related to their journalism. One hundred ninety-eight journalists who chose not to remain quiet and uphold the ethics of their job were seriously attacked between the same period. It turns horrifying once we get into the nuances of these tales. Gauri Lankesh was killed in Bengaluru, Karnataka, for speaking against right-wing Hindutva politics on 5th September 2017. Shivraj Singh Raju, a journalist of a vernacular newspaper in Punjab, was thrashed by Charanjit Dhillon, president of Truck Operators’ Union, just because he was annoyed by, a report published in his newspaper over a marital issue. The brutality was restricted to this, but he further forced Raju to drink alcohol-laced with urine, and at gunpoint, he was forced to do sit-ups and rub his nose on the ground. Narendra Yadav’s throat was slit by an unidentified person because he ran a campaign against Asaram Bapu. Ram Chandra Chhatrapati was killed in 2002 for accusing Dera Saccha Sauda’s chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, of rape, and justice was delivered in this after 17 years. Thence, how would the fourth estate function in such a lethal environment, or I ask, why would they think of sticking to a definition of news that says that it is the information about current events that rests on facts than opinions?
What we are observing today is an inseparable fusion of media and political power. We breathe in a society that is not at all concerned about the vulgarity of popular media and have bowed down to their own belief system which is dangerously strengthened by social media platforms. Today, the fight is no more between facts and hoaxes, but our arena has been made so adulterated that now we are squabbling over ‘your facts and my facts.’ In this overload of information, news has become indistinguishable, and this indistinguishability is what we carry to our polling booths for choosing what the future of our democracy would be. In the end, I want to quote Geraldo Rivera, who said, “The Courage in Journalism is sticking up for the Unpopular, not the Popular.”
By Nishant Kumar