US President Donald Trump made his conservative attitude clear with his indecent remarks against the media recently. In response to his comments, Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler issued a guidance to journalists urging them to employ their skills of reporting in authoritarian and conflict areas while covering the Trump administration.
Adler used “Turkey, the Philippines, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Thailand, China, Zimbabwe and Russia” as examples of how the new administration must be covered. These nations face issues of censorship, legal prosecution, visa denials and even physical threats to journalists.
Adler’s statement is anything but hyperbolic, as it comes in response to Trump and his media advisory’s tirade against journalists, referring to them as “among the most dishonest human beings on earth”, “the opposition party” or “a terrible group of people”. There are several instances where journalists were thrown out of press conferences addressed by Trump.
Such an attitude is only one step short of putting reporters behind bars, as has often been witnessed not only in authoritarian regimes but even some developing democratic countries where journalists lose their jobs and are even murdered. India is no exception.
The tussle between the media and the new administration in the US is a cause for worry not only for the media but for democracies across the world, because this is happening in a country which – despite all its intrigue, attacks and plots to overturn power in several developing and underdeveloped nations – claims to be the most vocal patron of democracy and human rights in the world.
Despite the US’s controversial record of punishing whistleblowers under the ‘spy detention law’, it ranks 41st among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. India stands at 133.
A comparison must not be made between the freedom of the press in the US and India. But the debate surrounding the challenges before the media that arose during Trump’s election campaign and eventual victory is equally relevant to the situation in India.
Freedom of press has never been a major issue for the mainstream media in India, except for a handful of seminars and debates. No other democratic society seems to have neglected the ever shrinking press freedom as India has. The Indian media, on the other hand, applauds itself for being the ‘fourth pillar’. Fourth pillar of what, one may ask, the administration or the democracy?
Like the US, the Indian media has also been corporatised, though it happened much later. However, freedom of press is interpreted differently by journalists in the two countries.
The American Press Corps, a group of journalists stationed at the White House, in an open letter to Trump, wrote, “You may decide that giving reporters access to your administration has no upside. We think that would be a mistake on your part, but again, it’s your choice. We are very good at finding alternative ways to get information; indeed, some of the best reporting during the campaign came from news organisations that were banned from your rallies.”
The letter also said that it is the media which decides how much “airtime and column inches” to give to the president and his spokespeople.
On the other hand is India, where “access” to top authority has been considered for decades a mark of good journalism by all prominent media houses, outlets and journalists, with a few exceptions.
Barring these exceptions, media owners in India have made a habit of using editors and journalists to their commercial advantage. Any editor who disrupts this habit is shown the door.
Cronyism is not the only issue affecting media and democracy in India. Crony capitalism has also become a major problem. Many private TV channels have been funded by real estate traders, havala traders, industrialists, babas and politicians with undisclosed assets.
This vicious cycle of investments in the media plays a major part in stifling the press. Most of the private news channels sell distasteful entertainment and packages in the name of news instead of real and useful information. The trend has crept in print media as well.
The US constitution shields its journalists and the press in a big way. Compared to it, India does not have a separate provision for press freedom in its constitution. The only article concerned with the media is article 19-1A, which guarantees freedom of expression for individual citizens and also includes the press.
Our constitution has another law which is often used to harass reporters – the defamation law. But is this the only reason why freedom of press is curbed in India?
In spite of such structure, laws and regulations, we have seen a relatively better picture of journalism emerging in specific areas, time frames and media platforms. We have also witnessed dedicated journalists working objectively and earning public attention with their work while most others are busy sticking with the system.
The Emergency period goes down as a black chapter in India’s history of individual and press freedom. But even when the picture looked grim, some bold moves were also recorded. Regarding journalism in that period, L.K. Advani had remarked, “When asked to bend, the media crawled during Emergency.” But as a senior member of the Marg Darshak Mandal of his party, Advani has nothing to say about the current situation. Today, even without being asked to bend, the media has bowed down before the administrative and political bosses instead of serving the people.
In this backdrop, is it not right to believe that along with the powers that be, media owners and directors are also against free media or real press freedom?
In recent years, worthwhile efforts for freedom of press have been seen at the governmental level. The information technology department’s parliamentary standing committee published a report in May 2013 on the internal structure of paid news and the media based on a detailed study. Public pressure was one reason behind such a study. Today, the media is more frequently questioned over its role. Media houses in several states have been severely bashed for publishing “paid news”.
The parliamentary committee report gave several important suggestions in its report. As per the rules, the government had to take a decision based on the report but no action was taken either by the UPA or NDA regimes. In addition, no step has been taken on the 2008, 2011 and 2014 reports by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
In its final report of 2014, TRAI gave key recommendations to the government after an intensive study of relevant questions on investment in the Indian media and ‘cross-media ownership’. But the report was not even discussed. In this cronyism, both partners – media owners and the government – have rendered the Indian media powerless. Of the many dimensions of diminishing freedom of the media and ever-increasing challenges, this is one.
Urmilesh is a senior Hindi journalist and the presenter of Rajya Sabha TV’s Hindi weekly programme Media Manthan.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.