By: Dipak Kurmi
“If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?” – 1984, George Orwell
The state of both press and democracy is critical today, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2017 declaration on World Press Freedom Day via Twitter, which has become a common platform for significant policy announcements. He stated, “World Press Freedom Day is a day to reiterate our unwavering support towards a free & vibrant press, which is vital in a democracy.”
As per the most recent update from the international media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, India’s position in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index has slipped to 161 out of 180 nations. The report also highlights that, on average, each year witnesses the tragic loss of three to four journalists due to their professional pursuits. In a comprehensive study titled “Mapping patterns of violence against journalists in India,” conducted by The Polis Project’s Watch the State, a concerning total of 256 incidents of violence against journalists was documented between May 2019 and August 2021.
In the realm of democracy, India’s standing has witnessed significant shifts. According to the 2021 report by the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute, India was designated as an “electoral autocracy,” signifying a decline in democratic norms. This classification underscores that while the country continues to hold regular elections, the quality of its democratic institutions and procedures has eroded, resulting in the concentration of power and restricted political liberties. In a similar vein, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2020 saw India’s ranking drop by two positions to the 53rd spot, labeling it a “flawed democracy.” The year 2022 witnessed Access Now’s report dubbing India as the foremost perpetrator of internet shutdowns. With a staggering count of at least 84 instances, India secured the ignominious title of having the highest number of internet shutdowns globally for the fifth consecutive year. Notably, Manipur’s government recently imposed an 83-day internet shutdown in an attempt to quell violence and disinformation. Regrettably, this strategy not only exacerbated the challenges faced by the general populace but also concealed instances of violence and misinformation from the broader national view.
On July 27, the “Indian Media: Trends and Patterns” report was unveiled by Lokniti and CSDS. The report sheds light on what many of us have perceived over the years – the disheartening and progressively deteriorating state of media in our nation, reflecting the trials encountered by society itself. This comprehensive study delves deep into the matter, offering an all-encompassing analysis drawn from a comprehensive online survey encompassing 206 journalists across diverse media domains, spanning television, print, and digital platforms. The report’s revelations expose the immediate concerns that not only erode the caliber of media but also wield a profound influence on the lives it touches.
Among the participants, the report discloses a notable representation, encompassing 41% Hindi journalists, 32% English journalists, and 27% professionals employing other regional languages. The report’s release couldn’t have been timelier, coinciding with the heightened global and national focus on media freedom. Instances of censorship, self-censorship, and assaults on journalists have prompted grave apprehensions about the integrity of press liberty in India. At its core, the report accentuates the pivotal role that media undertakes in shaping public viewpoints and dialogues. With the swift evolution of media consumption patterns in the digital era, the report advocates for a proactive approach in addressing the emerging obstacles. The necessity for soul-searching and reform within the media sector becomes progressively more conspicuous.
As indicated by the report, an astounding 80% of journalists express the belief that the media demonstrates a bias in favor of the Narendra Modi-led government, while 61% sense that the media showcases unfair treatment towards the Opposition. Furthermore, the report underscores that 73% of journalists perceive media establishments to incline toward a specific political party. Within this category, a substantial majority (82%) pointed to the Bharatiya Janata Party as the recipient of such inclinations, with merely 3% indicating any partiality towards the Congress. Intriguingly, 89% of freelance journalists and 81% of those affiliated with news organizations shared the consensus that the media presents the Modi government in a favorable light.
These unsettling revelations draw striking parallels with the seminal contribution of Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman, as presented in their groundbreaking work “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” initially published in 1988. Within this influential tome, the authors conduct a meticulous dissection of the mass media within the United States of America, illuminating its role as a vehicle for propagandistic endeavors that mold public perspectives while aligning with the interests of the influential. Chomsky and Herman introduce the concept of a “propaganda model,” positing that the media functions as a mechanism for steering public perception rather than offering impartial information. Their argument revolves around the sway of corporate interests, propelling the media to cater to prevailing political and economic powerhouses. Notably, this viewpoint resonates significantly within the context of the Indian landscape.
Numerous media outlets, including Dainik Bhaskar, Bharat Samachar, The Quint, The Wire, The Caravan, Newsclick, and Greater Kashmir, have encountered scrutiny from investigative agencies. The Lokniti-CSDS report corroborates these observations: 72% of journalists indicated a perception that news channels currently experience limitations in conducting their responsibilities, while 71% of independent journalists hold the view that newspapers nowadays encounter constraints in fulfilling their roles effectively. Moreover, 16% of journalists disclosed instances where individuals within their organizations were compelled to resign due to their political inclinations, and over half of the respondents expressed apprehensions about the prospect of job loss based on their political affiliations. These collective actions cast a pall over transparency, the freedom of expression, and the overall democratic vitality within the nation.
Amidst these troubling times, our nation is wrestling with communal strife, the stealthy infiltration of false information, a worrisome upswing in misinformation in the digital era, capricious alterations to educational content and curriculum adjustments, along with an unsettling rise in attacks on women. Concurrently, mainstream media appears to have hit a nadir as well, with journalists navigating either official scrutiny for their routine tasks or prioritizing sensationalism over matters of authentic import. In light of these formidable hurdles, one can’t help but question: what vestiges of our democracy endure?
The government bears the obligation to furnish explanations and assume accountability for the prevailing circumstances. As citizens, it becomes essential for us to come together, recognizing that in times of widespread animosity, fostering love and unity is the urgent requirement. (The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)