If the media speaks to power, then only a functional democracy could exist with accountable governance. Such an ideal situation could only be possible if the mainstream politics is proud of being secular, centrist or left of the center. The day mainstream politics begins to whip up ‘nationalism’ replacing the people’s issue, populism gallops to the center-stage for pandering the majority to build a vote-bank from the majority section of the society. India has gone through the process of morphing the version of Western democracy into a majoritarian rule. And this dispensation has come to stay leaving a little space even for centrist politics and free media.

Politics and freedom of the press always go in tandem. We can comprehend this in a historical perspective right from India achieving Independence in 1947. Three different ‘nations’- India, Pakistan and Bangladesh- that emerged out of British-administered India rarely had a free press for a long period. Each of them allowed critical media for a different duration soon to be shut off. Pakistan sniffed off the democracy so freedom of the press. Bangladesh born later in 1971 also got soon hitched to the army rule with an attendant scuttling of the freedom of expression.

Beginning with taller democratic promises, India enjoyed a long stint of a relatively free press before rightist Hindutva politics came to power in 2014. Now the entire Indian sub-continent is having the more or less the same type of ‘press freedom’. However, English print media enjoyed more freedom and better standing in Pakistan as noted down by eminent analysts like Noam Chomsky than its counterpart in India. Reason: The English-knowing ruling elite of Pakistan well-connected to the West including the USA has been patronizing the English media there. In India, an English-knowing middle class has relatively lesser clout in the corridors of power.

The arrest of Mir Shakil ur Rehman, editor-in-chief of the powerful Jang media group in Pakistan on March 12 last attracted a world over criticism. Scores of internationally prominent scholars in various disciplines including Noam Chomsky and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen have protested and a half a dozen global media bodies—Reporters Without Border and South Asia Media Defenders Network (SAMDEN) stood behind Rehman. Though technically he was arrested and sent to solitary confinement in a 34-year old property dispute, in reality, his non-compliance to the official line made him a ‘culprit”. Similarly, electronic media has frequently been officially browbeaten in Pakistan.

In fact, the media of India and Pakistan have been thriving by indulging in fake and communal propaganda against each other country. With the rise of rightist politics in India, a larger section of vernacular print media, particularly of Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi languages covering a vast cow-belt began slanting towards communal and hyper-nationalism in the early 1990s and ultimately saw the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The private electronic media excluding the government-controlled TV- Doordarshan saw its fast growth after 1995 at par with– rather in consonance with the rise of rightist politics in India. Communalisation of politics and media feeds each other which could be ascertained from the turning of Indian democracy into a majoritarian dispensation. This development has now come to stay permanently in India forcing all mainstream political parties to pander to the Hindutva forces and not be seen slightly favoring minorities to secure a pie in the larger Hindu-vote-bank.

In nutshell, the morphed Indian democracy has necessitated the existence of the pro-Hindutva media. That is why a large section of media has boarded the band-wagon of the Moditva propaganda with a smaller section left attempting to stick to the journalistic ethics. That section has become the target of official wrath. Modi enjoying the fictional representation of 130 crore population has succeeded in creating a large constituency of the Hindutva-obsessed population whose number is sufficient enough to formalize ‘Hindu Rashtra’ without caring for a substantial number of secular, rational and well-meaning people among the Hindus.

The present threat of coronavirus pandemic that helped the Modi regime to encroach upon extra-ordinary powers has virtually reduced the residual democracy to a one-man rule. This development has also sipped out the remaining vitality of the media. Without any qualm, a large section of media has played up the BJP’s polarising politics even during the lockdown/ curfew propagating that Tablighi Jamaat was mainly “responsible” for spreading corona infection in the country. Good luck, barring some isolated incidents of harassment, the terrified Muslims have escaped any violent reaction. The lockdown has made the people mortally afraid as they are being cowed down doubly by the threatened corona infection and looming large police rod which forced them behind the door.

With the lockdown catapulting rulers to assume authoritarian powers, the Wire editor Sidharth Varadarajan has been booked in the police case in Uttar Pradesh and several other journalists are facing similar charges at different places. Protests against lodging an FIR against Sidharath by hundreds of prominent persons failed to cut ice with the authorities. Similarly, Andrew Sam Raja running a news portal, SimpliCity has been put behind the bar in Coimbatore for pointing out corruption in the delivering of food officially to the poor. An Andaman journalist was arrested for merely pointing on the twitter ‘why the people phoned a corona patient has been sent to quarantine’.

The corona followed by abrupt lockdowns and curfews has severely impacted the media which certainly will now bounce back to its earlier, say, early March 2020 position even after the pandemic is contained. The main reasons could be identified easily. The print media bore a severe brunt. The circulation of newspapers sharply came down with scared people fearing that newspapers and delivery boys could be corona-carrier and they restricted the paper supplies. Some urban pockets even blocked the entry of newspaper hawkers. With the stoppage of transport vehicles, the newspapers’ delivery in rural areas was stopped. The print order of each newspaper came down to 10-15 percent as a national daily reduced the printing from 14 to one lakh.

The electronic TV outlets continued to reach the audience, shut off in their homes as usual. But their coverage/ debates dwindled as the movement of their reporters and camera teams also got restricted or stopped with the imposition of lockdown/curfew. As a result, the media houses first resorted to steep wage-cuts and sending the staff on unpaid indefinite leave. Some media houses ordered a large scale termination of their both journalist and non-journalist employees. For example, Times of India scrapped its Sunday magazine laying off the entire staff even some of them served the media house for the past 26 years.

The lockdown saw a major chunk of workers from the 400 million Indian workforces with 95 percent employed in the informal sector either losing their jobs or denial of payments/ wages to them. The media sector too faced a similar situation. Taking undue advantage of the lockdown situation the media houses doled out lay off threats, some of them resorted to inhuman exploitation of the reduced staff. TV channels forced their staff to go into the field for ‘bites’ and on the spot coverage without providing them adequate protection against the infection. As a result, scores of media workers tested positives in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, and several other places.

Now, three media employees’ bodies –National Alliance of Journalists, Delhi Union of Journalists, and Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists – have jointly filed a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking immediate relief against the wage-cuts, firing of journalists, and inhuman exploitation at the work. They also pleaded that several managements had taken to unilateral anti-staff measures ignoring the Labour Ministry’s advisory asking all private industrial and business establishments to pay their workers/ employees during the lockdowns/ curfews periods.

As past developments show the media workers/ employees do not stand to gain much even from the SC intervention since the owners’ organizations–the INS and News Broadcasters Association- are well-placed to prolong the issue with no matching resistance from the working journalists. The Wage Board Act, which provided job security and better working conditions to the journalists and non-journalists before the dawn of the era of neoliberalism in India, has now been rendered infructuous and meaningless by the media owners blatantly refusing to implement the Board recommendations. The media sector is no better than other informal sectors resorting to hiring and firing policy with open and hidden support of the governments.

Hence, the media today stands to be changed beyond recognition as the current Indian politics is poised to assume more autocratic powers. During the past 45 days of lockdown, most people now switched over to digital platforms and news portals and social media sites in the absence of availability of newspapers in the morning. With tightened grip of the rightist politics, India will not allow a critical/ democratic media to function. Such politics unabashedly strengthens propagandist journalism and suppresses freedom of the press as the exigency warrants.

Jaspal Singh Sidhu, an independent journalist could be reached at Jaspal.sdh@gmail.com


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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Dr. P. S. Sahni says:

    In full agreement, comrade.

  2. Avatar Jaspal Singh Sidhu says:

    Thanks Dr Sahni