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regular-article-logo Saturday, 22 June 2024

A crippled fourth estate

According to the latest report from the global media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, India’s ranking in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index has declined to 161 out of 180 countries

Anjali Chauhan Published 26.08.23, 06:14 AM
Numerous news entities, including Dainik Bhaskar, Bharat Samachar, The Quint, The Wire, The Caravan, Newsclick, and Greater Kashmir, have faced scrutiny by investigating agencies.

Numerous news entities, including Dainik Bhaskar, Bharat Samachar, The Quint, The Wire, The Caravan, Newsclick, and Greater Kashmir, have faced scrutiny by investigating agencies. Sourced by the Telegraph

“If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?” — 1984, George Orwell

In 2017, on World Press Freedom Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Twitter, now a regular platform for major policy-decision announcements, that “World Press Freedom Day is a day to reiterate our unwavering support towards a free & vibrant press, which is vital in a democracy.” Unfortunately, the condition of both press and democracy is critical today.

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According to the latest report from the global media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, India’s ranking in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index has declined to 161 out of 180 countries. The same stated that on an average, three or four journalists are killed annually because of their work. A disturbing total of 256 instances of violence against journalists was recorded between May 2019 and August 2021 in a comprehensive study, “Mapping patterns of violence against journalists in India,” conducted by The Polis Project’s Watch the State.

As far as democracy is concerned, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute’s 2021 report categorised India as an “electoral autocracy”, suggesting a decline in democratic standards. This classification implies that while India holds regular elections, the quality of its democratic institutions and processes has weakened, leading to a concentration of power and limited political freedoms. Additionally, India slipped two places to the 53rd position and was described as a “flawed democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, 2020. Access Now had also reported India to be the biggest internet shutdown offender in 2022. With internet shutdowns on at least 84 occasions, India recorded the highest number of internet shutdowns among any country in the world for the fifth consecutive year. Very recently, the government in Manipur had resorted to an internet shutdown for 83 days to contain violence and misinformation. As has been reported, violence and misinformation not only multiplied and remained concealed from the rest of the country but also increased the hardships of common people.

On July 27, Lokniti and CSDS launched their report, “Indian Media: Trends and Patterns”. The report brings to the forefront what many of us have sensed for years — the distressing and steadily declining state of media in our country, mirroring the challenges faced by society itself. This in-depth report presents a comprehensive analysis based on an extensive online survey involving 206 journalists from various media sectors, including television, print, and digital platforms. Its findings lay bare the pressing issues that not only corrode the media’s quality but also leave a profound impact on the lives of those it touches.

Among the participants, the report reveals a significant representation of Hindi journalists (41%), English journalists (32%) and those who use other regional languages (27%). The report’s timing couldn’t have been more crucial, considering the escalating scrutiny of media freedom nationally and internationally. Instances of censorship, self-censorship, and attacks on journalists have raised serious concerns about the sanctity of press freedom in India. At its core, the report underscores the pivotal role the media plays in shaping public opinion and discourse. As media consumption patterns evolve rapidly in the digital age, the report urges stakeholders to confront the emerging challenges head-on. The need for introspection and reform within the media industry becomes increasingly apparent.

According to the report, a staggering 80% of journalists believe that the media exhibits a bias in favour of the Narendra Modi-led government, while 61% feel that the media treats the Opposition unfairly. Additionally, the report highlights that 73% of journalists perceive media houses to be leaning towards a specific political party. Among this group, a significant majority (82%) identified the Bharatiya Janata Party as the beneficiary, with only 3% suggesting any favouritism towards the Congress. Interestingly, 89% of independent journalists and 81% of those working for news organisations concurred that the media portrays the Modi government favourably.

These disconcerting findings evoke parallels with the seminal work of Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, first published in 1988. In this influential book, the authors meticulously examine the mass media in the United States of America and shed light on its role as a propagandistic system, shaping public opinion and serving the interests of the powerful. Chomsky and Herman introduce the concept of a “propaganda model”, positing that the media acts as a tool for manipulating public perception rather than providing impartial information. Their argument centres on the influence of corporate interests, which drive the media to cater to dominant political and economic elites. Remarkably, this perspective holds relevance for the Indian landscape.

Numerous news entities, including Dainik Bhaskar, Bharat Samachar, The Quint, The Wire, The Caravan, Newsclick, and Greater Kashmir, have faced scrutiny by investigating agencies. The Lokniti-CSDS report also confirms the same: 72% of journalists said they believe news channels are “less free to do their job properly these days” while 71% of independent journalists are of the opinion that newspapers today are “less free to do their job properly.” Additionally, 16% of journalists disclosed that individuals in their organisations were asked to resign from their jobs due to their political leanings and over half of the respondents expressed concerns about facing potential job loss based on their political affiliations. These actions collectively cast a shadow over transparency, freedom of expression and the health of democracy in the country.

In these distressing times, our nation is grappling with communal conflicts, the insidious takeover of fake news, an alarming surge of misinformation in the digital age, arbitrary overhauls of educational materials and syllabus revisions along with a disturbing increase in assaults on women. The mainstream media seems to have reached its lowest ebb too, with journalists finding themselves either under official scrutiny for merely carrying out their duties or choosing sensationalism over matters of genuine significance. In the face of these challenges, one cannot help but wonder: what remains of our democracy?

It is incumbent upon the government to provide answers and take responsibility for the state of affairs. And as citizens, it is imperative that we unite, for when hate is rampant, love and solidarity are the need of the hour.

Anjali Chauhan is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi

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