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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 9, February 16, 2013

Media Scene Today

Monday 18 February 2013, by Anees Chishti


[(To mark fifty years of Mainstream, a panel discussion was held at the India International Centre, New Delhi on January 29, 2013; the topic was “Indian Media Scene Today: Potential and Reality”. Those who spoke on the subject were Kuldip Nayar, Nikhil Dey, Medha Patkar, Bharat Dogra, and Suhas Borker was the moderator. Anees Chishti, one of the panelists, could not attend as he was indisposed, but he sent the following piece as his contribution to the discussion. However, it could not be read out at the meeting due to time constraint. It is now being belatedly published here for the benefit of our readers.)]

It is a matter of great satisfaction, indeed a matter of pride, that I am associating myself with the event to celebrate the completion of 50 years of publication of Mainstream. As I have said elsewhere, the beginning of Mainstream seems to be not very long ago—may be a year or little more—because of the continued association with the journal during all those five decades.

When I got introduced to Mainstream, I soon realised that it was not merely a journal commenting on the developments in the country and the world for the benefit of its readers. It was, in fact, the ‘Mainstream culture’ that simply overawed a new entrant. A small group of committed people, led by Nikhilda—and including C.N. Chitta Ranjan, D.R. Goyal, Sheila Sandhu, D. Sumitra Bai, and some other senior journalists, academics and political activists helping in different ways—was very ably assisted by H.D. Dhoundiyal, Aasan, Balan, Sain Singh and an associate from Kerala keeping accounts whose name I am not able to recollect now. To get associated with such a unique group was indeed a privilege.

As is well known, the founding of Mainstream was immediately followed by the first great shock to the country after independence in the form of the Chinese attack. It became a challenge for Mainstream to espouse the cause for which it was founded in view of the handle having been given to the anti-Left elements in the country to spew venom against progressive forces. But the challenge was also an opportunity for Mainstream to play a constructive role in giving confidence to the committed and moulding the fresh minds for the hard tasks ahead. Mainstream played such a role admirably and happily continues to do so even In the absence of Nikhilda. The frontiers of Mainstream have got extended during the last decade or so and Sumit Chakravartty deserves all praise for it.

As I am not in a position to share the joy of today’s celebration due to indisposition I would like to share some observations with the participants of the discussion on some aspects of ‘The Media Scene Today: Potential and Reality’ through this brief communication.

The scope and extent of the media have, during the last two decades, got enormously expanded and we have, in fact, started to live in a global village, something that seemed to be a fond dream when the idea of a village was put forth. And, it would not be possible to take a holistic view of the media scene today in a brief submission. I am sure the participant’s of today’s discussion would do full justice to the subject.

The freedom of thought and speech, demanded by the exponents of the media, does include a great responsibility to be understood and shared by members of any medium team from top to bottom. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru have, on many occasions, spoken about the duality of freedom and responsibility. When the late Chanchal Sarkar invited Nehru to inaugurate the Press Institute of India, Nehru in his characteristic frankness laid emphasis on the fact that whereas the Press should have been an industry in itself, unfortunately, a large component of the influential Indian Press was owned by industry. This remark of the powerful Prime Minister was a signal to all those concerned that the Fourth Estate had to be given freedom of expression subject to the decencies of a responsible conduct being held dear. The Press—including the electronic media—is indeed free today and, aided now by the tool of Right to Information, many distortions and evil practices in the society are coming to light with positive effects. An important dark feature of the contemporary media scene today is what has come to be known as ‘Paid News’. This practice has always been a feature of the Indian media, but, due largely to the efforts of P. Sainath of the The Hindu, this practice was given a name and some very useful revelations and findings were openly discussed starting with The Hindu initiative. The team of Paranjay Guha Thakurta and K. Srinivas Reddy appointed by the Press Council of India, worked very competently. One came to know the details of what is known in the corporate world as ‘Private Treaties’ that is quite shocking.

The ‘Paid News’ discourse was mostly in the context of elections, but the Zee case has given it a new focus. What comes out of the matter after a legal scrutiny would be of great relevance with regard to perceptions about both, the media and the industry. The findings in this case would be immensely vital for the electronic media.

The present Chairman of Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, has spoken of some measures to meet the challenge of evils like ‘Paid News’. One hopes those steps would be effective and make the goings-on in the media less unpleasant. It has to be seen whether combining the print and electronic media into one body and the punitive measures against the defaulting mediapersons or media houses, as desired by Justice Katju, produces some good results.
The increasing role of the social media (as demonstrated by the mobilisation of protesters following the gang-rape case in the Capital), and the power of Twitter and blogs (that do not have even the checks on the print media units by way of their registration with the Registrar of Newspapers and the mandatory submission of annual statements to the Registrar) too could come under some sort of mechanism that would assess, possibly from time to time, whether the now humongous media’s role as promoter of social consciousness and change was effective and, if yes, to what extent. This would enable the government to make policy formulations, in collaboration with mediapersons and media units, according to the needs of the time.

Coming back to the traditional media, one should keep in view the fact that it is the regional language and regional dialect newspapers that are influencing the people of the country more than very resourceful English newspapers that are read in our big cities and towns. As pointed out by veteran Hindi journalist Mrinal Pande in an article, “India’s largest selling daily, The Times of India, now stands outside the big 10, at no. 11. And, according to IRS 2008 (Round 2), its total sales (133.4 lakh copies a day), is but a fraction of the vast numbers sold by the top four Hindi dailies: Dainik Jagaran (557.4 lakh), Dainik Bhaskar (338.3 lakh), Amar Ujala (293.8 lakh) and Hindustan (266.3 lakh).” It is expected that these figures must have gone up considerably during the period after this survey was made.
The situation in South India had always been marked by the longer reach of regional language newspapers compared to English newspapers. One assumes the situation in the case of other regions would be more or less the same. Such trends need an encouraging attitude of govern-ment and business houses by impartially giving advertisements and other facilities to the regional language papers, according to their reach and influence.

Apart from established regional language papers, some laudable efforts are being made in different rural parts of India to run newspapers in local languages or dialects and concentrating solely on the problems of the villages and their people covered by such papers. Sevanti Ninan, the noted media analyst, in her excellent book, Headlines from the Heartland: Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere, talks about the good work done by a fortnightly newspaper called Khabar Lahariya, brought out in Bundelkhand, in the Bundeli dialect. It is run by a group of rural and small town women, some of whom are Dalits. “Almost all their stories originated in villages and a steady focus was maintained on news about Dalits and Adivasis,” Ninan writes.

One has come to know of many such regional newspapers doing excellent work in different parts of the country and they have a reasonably good circulation of 20,000 to 35,000 copies per issue. In most cases the distribution and management work of such newspapers are handled by local men and women with voluntary zeal to provide service to the rural people without any commercial concerns.
Priscilla Jebaraj, in a recent article in The Hindu, introduced to us the work of a community radio service being run in Mewat district of Haryana, almost next door to Delhi (a Muslim majority area). The radio service caters to the needs of the people of the area by way of providing information on their economic and other needs along with healthy entertainment. run by an NGO, has motivated the area’s Senior Superintendent of Police, Pankaj Naina, to devote half-an-hour of his morning work every day to answering questions related to law and order and cases of crime, thus being accessible to the rural poor who never get access to senior officers for submitting their complaints and grievances. Cases of illegal and criminal activities of anti-social elements have attracted immediate action through the medium of Radio Mewat. Develop-ments are reported by staff consisting of local youth. And a good number of young men and women have offered their services for Radio Mewat. Almost the entire village population listens to the radio’s features.
Jebraj says: “Started in 2006 the community radio movement has taken off over the last couple of years with over 130 stations across the country. The government plans to give licences to over 230 more units.” This is a very encouraging development.

Newspapers like Khabar Laharia and broadcast units like Radio Mewat are very pleasant realities. They also have immense potential of extended work with increased official and non-official support.

In these days of proliferating social media, Twitter etc., the local enterprises need to be encouraged by all concerned. May be, an extended Media Council under Justice Katju would fructify and conduct a survey of such media units and find out what technological and other assistance can be extended to the zealous rural youth to make their work wider and more effective.

Vast developments in this area of activity would be in line with the aspirations of Mainstream and its illustrious founder, Nikhil Chakravartty.

The author is a veteran writer and journalist who was associated with Mainstream as its Assistant Editor in its early years.

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