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Journalism In India Is Already Creaking, And Govt’s New Plan Will Make It Worse

Posted on March 20, 2015 in Media

By Karthik Shankar:

I have some experience with propaganda. As a freelancer with The Times of India, I’ve worked on write-ups for several clients. Most of them are usually educational institutions who wish to tout their ‘world class’ facilities or hospitals which want to highlight their devotion to social causes (providing healthcare at a gargantuan cost is apparently an altruistic endeavour). Last April, as usual, I was requested to do a full page article for a client. This one was different though. It was Tamil Nadu’s ruling party AIADMK and I had to construct an article on how their rule had benefitted Chennai. I had to wax eloquent about the city’s meteoric urbanisation while the roads were getting congested, rains washed away layers of road, garbage disposal was deteriorating and city buses were creaking under their age old bodies. The article was going to appear in a clearly designed special advertorial supplement, but it still felt wrong. I swallowed my feelings and painted a rosy picture. After all, I am a journalist.

So, I was more than a bit alarmed at the news that the Modi government is planning to set up a Journalism school in the style of China’s Communication University of China. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry claims that it zoomed in on the Chinese model because it is superior to the Western system which are schools of journalism. What this means is that the government wants to churn out ideologues rather than whistleblowers. The Communication University of India churns out over 15,000 students a year. Most of them enter Xinhua, China’s official news agency. It’s a tightly controlled propaganda machine that churns out articles that hew to the Communist Party’s stance. During the Hong Kong protests for instance, articles presented a skewed version of events that made protestors seem like a disruptive minority than an outpouring against China’s harsh hand in Hong Kong.

It’s a scary thought if all journalism institutes are forced to come under the ambit of this new university. Will we then have to deal with enforced curricula and acceptable topics, which don’t stray too far from the government’s point of view? Will Gandhi be cast in the role of villain and Godse as the misunderstood hero?

The thought of government control over the version of events is a sobering one. Human rights abuses will be buried, government excesses will go unchecked and the depictions of popular uprisings will be recalibrated. This is just the latest step in Modi’s government taking a leaf out of the Chinese handbook. Censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani has been so authoritarian of late, the Chinese censors seem tame in comparison. Y. Sudershan Rao, the current head of the Indian Council of Historical Research has been vocal about Hindu mythology being sufficient rather than facts to understand ancient history. Adding journalism to this mix underlines the fact that Saffronisation is well underway in our country.

Journalism in India is already creaking. Unlike the west, our fourth estate developed simultaneously alongside unchecked corporatisation. Crony capitalism has already wreaked havoc on our journalism ethics. I’ve attended property developer events where journalists were given envelopes stuffed with money to present the new project (in an area with a glut of properties) in a positive light. I remember having a negative question about education in the UK being cut out from an education article and later on finding out that there was a tacit agreement between an education agency and the newspaper.

Modi’s rise has already been noted for what it spells for press freedom in the country. Last year Modi famously uttered the lineJournalism should be like a honey bee, and not a housefly, as housefly sits on filth and spreads it around.” These are not the words of someone who believes in the importance of media in demanding accountability or transparency from the government. Journalism is meant to uncover truths, most hidden in plain sight. The reason they are hidden mostly has to do with a breach of ethical or moral codes.

What makes this even more disconcerting is that there are already strong ties with Modi and several mainstream media outlets. Modi got more than three times the coverage of Arvind Kejriwal and seven times the coverage of Rahul Gandhi on primetime television before the elections. Prominent journalists such as Sagarika Ghose of CNN-IBN were given instructions not to criticize Modi in the weeks leading up to the elections. This was at a point when Reliance already controlled Network 18 (which controls a whole host of broadcast channels, print media and websites) by proxy, and just a couple of months before it completed its hostile takeover of the media conglomerate. When Vivian Fernandes, a prominent journalist tried asking Modi a question about water conservation in Gujarat, Modi, who was caught off guard, angrily asked a public relations executive “Are we not paying for this interview?”

There are several people who probably agree with Modi that journalism is in a rut in our country. Many resent the media’s coverage of him and think that journalists are out to corner him. These are indicators of the increased level of political polarisation in our country. But it doesn’t matter what party you support. Education is meant to open us up to diverse points of view and journalism education, in particular, is meant to inculcate values of honesty, integrity and impartiality. The environment of propaganda that Modi seeks is one that will not be conducive to free speech. In a fantastic piece on Indian journalism, Vinod K. Jose astutely noted: “Many of our journalists have no allegiance to any higher calling; they are content to serve as lesser gears in the corrupt machinery of power.”

Our fourth estate is ailing. With corporates already controlling the coverage of issues, especially those related to business and finance, the last thing we need is the government pulling the strings on the rest of our content.