The launch of Hickey’s Bengal Gazette, India’s first newspaper heralded the arrival of an age defined by media. Since then, public opinion has never remained the same. It is widely acknowledged that newspapers and radio became handy tools with the crusaders of the Indian freedom struggle.
So, if MK Gandhi reached out to the illiterate masses through periodicals and newspapers like Indian Opinion and Young India, Bal Gangadhar Tilak invested in the vernacular newspaper Kesari and English newspaper named Mahratta as vehicles for the propagation of his political ideas. Dr Ambedkar chose to rekindle the spirit of self-awareness and emancipation among the Dalits of India through an influential Marathi fortnightly journal named Mooknayak (Leader of the Mute) in reference to the voiceless existence of Dalits within the Hindu society.
The era of the freedom struggle not only brought up several novel journalistic ventures to the fore in India but slowly laid the foundation of a bustling media. The press in the pre-independence era gave spark and fodder to revolutionary ideas and ignited discussions and debates around themes of British subjugation and exploitation. The British administration attempted to reign in the nascent Indian press bypassing several regulatory legislations.
By some accounts, village folk started gathering around a commonplace in the village to discuss the political trends. The freedom struggle movement brought the cherished ideals of democracy and liberty out of the cabinet and confines of privileged gentry and created a threshold for the voiceless masses and the dispossessed to speak up and be counted in the growth story of India.
In the post-independence era, this trend took a definitive turn with the arrival of mass media. Mass media included the dissemination of news through modern gadgets like television and radio and TRPs suddenly started to matter when private players entered the domain of broadcasting and newscasting, in particular in the last decade of the 20th century. New players entered in the entertainment and media industry.
A PricewaterhouseCoopers(PwC) report of 2005 notes that one of the most significant entry was of Reliance Group. As per the report, “The Reliance Capital bought a majority stake in Adlabs which enabled it to have a presence across the entire value chain of the filmed entertainment segment ranging from film production, exhibition, and distribution. Through Adlabs, Reliance also made its entry into the radio segment by bidding for over 50 FM radio stations across the country with aggregate bids of over ₹1.5 billion.“
The internet proved to be a game-changer in the 21st century as it reshaped the media like never before. Media influence on our lives stands at an alarmingly disproportionate level concerning our health and sanity in general. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are the new and fancied public engagement sites. The face is important. Reason and rationale more than often lose track in the glib talk which goes on unendingly on the “idiot box”.
The absurd and irrational elements in news reporting find safe refuge on social media platforms even as these have become virtual battlegrounds for participants craving for 2 minutes of fame. Ideally speaking, this should be empowering and emancipative in character, but regrettably, the 24X7 news format currently in vogue has killed the news.
What is newsworthy is decided more by economic considerations and TRP (Target Rating Point) ratings. Indeed, it marks a step backwards in Indian democracy when the incumbent Government informs the parliament that there is no data on the number of migrant deaths during the pandemic ensued lockdown.
Did this news achieve traction in media circles? Was it the central theme of discussion in the “prime time feature segment” of leading television channels. Again, regrettably, no. Maybe because the poor souls of migrant workers deserve a quiet burial, after all, the deaths of migrant workers do not count as much and the news is certainly not binge-worthy.
So, whatever is not binge-worthy is not newsworthy. Indian media in its present avatar is stooping low by forfeiting its intellect and reason to a 2-minute byte on triviality and gossip. Press freedom is integral to a thriving democracy. Why the media doesn’t go into overdrive or atleast discusses on prime time when a Dalit girl is raped and burned alive? Is the life of a Dalit girl less important than say, the life of a celebrity. Both are citizens of this nation. Why is the cry for justice muted and feebly mentioned in case of a poor Dalit girl?
Let’s take another scenario. Farmers of a particular region face drought. Does this not deserve sustained media coverage on the efforts of the Government to preempt the fallout of such a scenario? How much more visual hours of transmission will the media devote to the sundry details of the ongoing investigation into the Sushant Singh Rajput death case? The news coverage is somewhat struggling to register its meaningful presence in the present era.
Press freedom is a recognised facet of a democratic culture. A vibrant democracy gains strength from responsible media. Press freedom has not been separately provided in the Constitution, but this freedom is traceable to Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, 1950.
An important document of international significance sheds light on the role of media contemplated in democratic societies. The document is famously known as The Madrid Principles on the Relationship Between Media and Judicial Independence which stipulates that democratic culture hinges on a delicate balance to be maintained between the media and the process of justice delivery. In this document of international significance, freedom of the press is recognised as a fundamental feature of any democratic society. However, it also prescribed reasonable restrictions on media.
Under Article 10 of the document, it prescribes: “Laws may restrict the Basic Principle in relation to criminal proceedings in the interest of the administration of justice to the extent necessary in a democratic society.
Freedom of the press has been valiantly guarded by the Indian judiciary in several cases. However, in a few past instances, the Government of the day has attempted at times to silence the media through draconian measures for political ends. Most mainstream media houses were proscribed during the national emergency declared in the year 1975 by the Indira Gandhi led Government.
In the case of Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. and Ors. Vs Union of India and Ors(1986), Supreme Court of India held: “It is the primary duty of the Courts to uphold the freedom of the press and invalidate all laws or administrative actions which interfere with it contrary to the constitutional mandate. The freedom of expression has four broad social purposes to serve; (i) it helps an individual to attain self-fulfillment, (ii) it assists in the discovery of truth, (iii) it strengthens the capacity of an individual in participating in decision-making, and (iv) it provides a mechanism by which it would be possible to establish a reasonable balance between stability and social change.“
However, with every privilege and power comes great responsibility. This protection and privilege afforded to the media may start losing significance by a restless and directionless media reportage of events. Media cannot always survive by spinning personality centric drab stories, but rather it must foray to weave stories around genuine and real issues affecting the lives of millions of people in India. This requires the fourth estate to tread responsibly. As Abraham Lincoln observed, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.“
Suppose we take a long look at the recent l’ affaire of Sushant Singh Rajput. It will become inescapably clear to us that the media frenzy is slowly eroding the basic principles of justice. We notice that every single step taken by the investigating agencies is X-rayed by a crazed media leading to speculations and absurd half-cooked conjectures and surmises. The media appears to be going over the top in this and is failing to maintain the balance between the individual rights of an accused and the prerogative of reporting facts.
Further, the accused person and suspects have almost been declared guilty even before a fair trial. This scenario is indeed deplorable. Well established constitutional principles of fair trial guide the justice regime of India. In cases like the Sushant Singh affair, it appears that the victim is no longer the prime accused, but the process of justice.
The ongoing method and manner of media coverage undertaken in the case is not doing the media any good. There is a need to exercise restraint and media must rise above class bias and caste bias and behave more responsibly. Media has the potential to become the beacon of change and reform once again. It must focus on the principles of justice administration and unbiased reporting and must not indulge in sensationalism.
In the present scenario, as things stand, media is projecting a narcissistic image of itself in popular perception. Indulgence of this kind can set off public sentiments pivoted around half-baked information, gossip and rumours. There is nothing “exclusive” in killing the spirit of freedom of expression because the core ethic of freedom of speech and expression doesn’t revel in sensationalism and narcissism, but dwells on reason, logic and facts.