When we have a political environment which wants more authority, we slowly see the eradication of media, just like the others.
The last few weeks or should we say months have really shown Indian media in poor light. It is not just about the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case and the hounding of his former girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty. Right from the time, the pandemic broke out the Indian mainstream media has selectively highlighted certain issues and ignored the larger picture.
The coverage of Sushant’s suicide itself from the start was not keeping in line with the way other suicides are covered. Yes, he was an actor and that does make a difference. Then it became political, but the fact is, from suicide to suspected murder, abetment of suicide to now a drug case is what we have seen. The media meanwhile has been dictated largely by the agenda set by the Union government, mainly spearheaded by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah (who has been in the hospital for a few weeks). Now obviously, their agenda is driven by none other than Arnab Goswami, who owns and heads the Republic TV channel. The other news channels meanwhile, look like sacrificial lambs as they compete with the Republic TV. The war is in the open, while Arnab claims victory on his channel, the deputy of Times Now took to Twitter, to pat her back and the head of India Today slammed Arnab. Such news value and information they have broken, the nation is shocked and still recovering.
The situation in the media has reached the lowest low. Wait can we even say that? Considering every time it falls to a new low, many of us media professionals believe there is little scope left for our sector to fall any lower. But then voila, we get another new low. This has led to complete distrust of television news in India. What the channel owners and editors forget, is the media is the fourth pillar of democracy. When we have a political environment which wants more authority, we slowly see the eradication of this institution, just like the others.
Noam Chomsky, the renowned American linguist and the author of ‘Manufacturing Consent’, has written in his book about the election propaganda and frameworks, freedom of speech and the press. When you are in a political environment where the disposition is evidently seen to manipulate the public discourse and the administration, agencies and media are working to ensure it is done, please remember it is nothing but manufacturing consent.
I do not think the central government, public or media should be concerned about which citizen, who is not employed by the government hires which lawyer and who pays those fees. It should not be a national agenda or topic on the streets that a woman who has been going for questioning is allowed to be hounded by the media. What is worse is, a suicide of a person who had psychological and emotional issues apart from consuming drugs has become the core election campaign. Much worse is, it is being manipulated by the media which have allowed themselves to be used. We never know how many of these will become advisors to the government, politicians or even join the government, eventually. They are running amok right now as even the proprietors have been co-opted by the government.
The problem is not just of now, or five years from now. This is going to have severe ramifications on the new entrants if at all there will be. The inertia about mainstream media will remain, in a sector that is already facing job loss. What is also happening is, this round the clock manipulated agenda now has few takers from within the reporters too. But the fact is, right now there are not enough jobs. Most are complaining, while some in the midst of this have quit the channel claiming to be number one. One such is a young female reporter who said she had enough of this forced agenda thrust on the reporters and resigned. She shared her anguish on social media.
The fact is this change of narrative has resulted in a conflict within the sector.
The first impact, all channels seem to follow the one that sets the agenda. Right now it is Bihar elections and the Bharatiya Janata Party launched their campaign with their poster boy, Sushant Singh. All this while the country was more interested in Rhea’s arrest, few more intellectuals and members of Kabir Kala Manch a cultural were called for inquiries and arrested. Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor Jyoti Jagtap were arrested. Till now 15 people have been arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case. In fact, Varavara Rao’s sons in law have been called for questioning. The way this case is developing, mainstream media is least concerned. A journalist in Andhra Pradesh was arrested and some trade union in Delhi too were called for questioning.
Meanwhile, the Indian government’s internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest ever in Indian history. Kashmiris still do not have 4G, they cannot watch YouTube or share their videos. Their one hope is Instagram stories with Twitter, which rest of the world follows. However, this internet clampdown was not restricted to Kashmir only. It was also enforced in Aligarh following the #CCA-NRC protests, Meghalaya, Tripura, Assam, New Delhi after Jawaharlal Nehru University attacks on students and the Shaheen Baug protests. In fact, the internet shutdown tracker noted India has become the world’s leader in internet shutdowns and blames the media here for being pliant and not questioning the ruling government and Modi for these policies.
During this entire period that we were subject to some loud screaming television news demanding the arrest of a woman, in two separate incidents of caste violence, two Dalit young men were brutally attacked and murdered in Maharashtra. In both cases, the families of the victims have accused the police of not following procedures and being unresponsive. This reminds me of the first time the caste killing was reported on September 29, 2006. Only one newspaper, that was newly launched then and now shut had a one column proper news of caste killing, but was pushed to the inside pages. Another television channel, known to be left of the centre had a flash of ‘crime news’, but not another television channel which claims to be holier-than-thou now even bothered to flash the news of the killing.
An entire family belonging to the Scheduled Caste were murdered by politically dominant caste in Khairlanji in Vidarbha. The head of the family, Bhaiyalal Bhotmange had gone out when his wife and daughter were stripped naked and paraded in the village. The two were raped repeatedly and killed. The two sons who could not watch it tried to help, too were tortured and killed. The whole family was massacred. Only Bhaiyala survived as he watched from the bushes. This entire case came to light only after the Dalit network shared the horrifying photographs and story of the massacre on the internet. The fact is, media had failed the nation even then. Today, the case is pending a final hearing in the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, two incidents of killings occurred within two days. A man who had sent his daughter to live with the relatives faced this violent end after rumour mongering began of a man selling his daughter.
Poet Munawwar Rana’s daughters, Sumaiya Rana and Uzma Parveen have been put under house arrest for calling on people to protest outside chief minister Adityanath Yogi’s residence to make their voices heard. This comes just after News Director of India Today complimented UP being ruled by the CM in India.
In the meantime, a co-founder of Alt-News which is an established go-to site for verifying fake news was falsely charged under POCSO Act. Two cases have been slapped on him which are said to be false. Except for a few independent media sites, none of the mainstream media thought it wise to have discussions on how independent voices are being thwarted. The importance of being ‘watchdogs’ especially in these times is pertinent but has no space. He was released on bail, that too was not thought worth reporting.
Sadly, no media is questioning the CM of UP let alone holding him responsible for the failure of law and order. The problem is Shiv Sena that has been thuggish in its approach is now facing a rather belligerent media pushed by the two main leaders who are ruling. Yet again, politics over real news prevails. The PM may say the Indian media needs to go global, at this rate, there will be no media left. However, the power lies with the Indian audience, they can stop subscription to these channels if only they choose. It is never too late
Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.
(Views Expressed Are Personal)