Valery Legasov, the chemist who investigated the Chernobyl disaster, and the protagonist in the show ‘Chernobyl’, eloquently said, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
The power of truth is intricately linked to the welfare and progress of humanity. Truth is necessary to know what we are, to know what we want and to know what are our priorities. Truth is inadvertently connected to the media– referred to as the fourth pillar of democracy. Free, independent and unbiased media helps give voice to the people, acts as a bridge between the people and those in power, promotes deliberation on diverse ideas and makes people in power realise the power of people. Media thus has power to make democracy resilient, vibrant.
On the flip side, the media has the power to shape people’s perspectives, set agendas of debate, determine priorities and manipulate the opinions of people. This makes it necessary that the media should not be controlled by any individual or a group of individuals. Worst still, when media ownership is connected to business or political affiliations, the outcome is debilitating for both media freedom and democracy. This makes it crucial to have legislative mechanisms to regulate and monitor media ownership.
India is one of the largest media markets in the world, with more than 1 lakh registered publications, over 550 FM radio stations, over 880 satellite TV channels. However, despite this vast amount of media outlets and the inherent diversity of India, according to research by Reporters Without Borders, there is a concentration of ownership of media and a handful of people own and control Indian media.
The data of 58 leading media outlets with the largest audience shares in India indicate that there is media audience concentration and most of the leading media companies are owned by large conglomerates that are still controlled by the founding families and that invest in a vast array of industries other than media.
Take for instance following statistics as reported in The Caravan. Data from the registrar of companies in the ministry of corporate affairs shows that five Indian news media companies—NDTV, News Nation, India TV, News24 and Network18—are either indebted to Mukesh Ambani, the richest Indian and the owner of Reliance Industries, or to Mahendra Nahata, an industrialist and associate of Ambani’s, who is also on the board of Reliance’s new telecom venture, Reliance Jio.
Through loans and investments, Ambani, Nahata, and industrialist Abhey Oswal have given the five media companies funds that range from tens to hundreds of crores of rupees, the report says. As a result, the control that the three businessmen wield over these media networks varies from 20 to over 70%. Republic TV, accounting for 50% viewership for English news at prime -time, is owned by Asianet news which is owned by BJP MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar.
This is an inevitable recipe for crony capitalism. In this context, Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) highlighted that the ownership of media companies by a handful of entities would increase the “possibility of misuse of the rights of the media for interests that are not in the larger public good.”
TRAI has released a recommendation paper giving guidelines on media ownership that includes, among other things, control of ownership at 20% shareholding, or over 50% voting rights or half the members in a media company’s board. TRAI also suggested, if a media firm was dominant in a market both in print and television, its owner should be made to bring down its equity holding to 20% over time. It recommended regulations on cross-media ownership be reviewed every three years after rules were framed. However, no action has been taken on TRAI’s recommendations, as the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has continued to sidestep this issue for more than five years now.
Media played a crucial role in the freedom struggle as it was a tool for educating and mobilizing people. Our Constitution makers recognised the need for free, fierce, and independent media as an ultimate safeguard of public opinion and democratic rights. Now, it is time to reimagine their vision. This calls for a renewed look at the state of media ownership and comprehensive legislation to ensure the credibility of the press and sanctity of democracy.