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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 20 New Delhi May 4, 2019

Media, Myth and Election

Sunday 5 May 2019

by Santosh Kumar Biswal

Let the politicians use names for the media like bikau,presstitutes,matlab pliable journalists or information middlemen. Let them say that they will ‘bury the media ten feet under the earth’ or ‘will jail journalists’.

Politicians are indulging in campaign verbosity such as main bhi chowkidar or chowkidar chor hai. Accumulation of political chicanery is at its best form now. However, the role of the media in a democracy, especially at an electoral juncture, is imperative for truthful and objective information to the people. It equips them to form rational opinions, which is a sine qua non in a democracy. Telling truth is absolutely not a treason. And journalism is not a crime. Rather, it is a receptacle of undistorted truth in the times of political upheaval. Media literacy has become the pressing need of the hour, to reorient the medium and the message, for the greater interest of national development.

The upcoming 2019 general election has been scheduled in seven phases, starting from April 11 to May 19. Around 90 crore voters, including 1.5 crore young voters who are in the 18-19 age group, would exercise their franchise in this largest democratic nation in the world. These millennials are going to opt for the narratives on peace, equity and cultural diversity or on religion, casteism and fanaticism. Along with general elections, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Sikkim will go to polls for the Legislative Assembly elections simultaneously with the general election. Making of numerous pre-poll alliances among political parties are like full of Black Swan events.

India is at an electoral juncture with an array of fast developments—political conversations on Mission Shakti and Nyuntam Aay Yojana (Nyay) scheme; dialogue over the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) report on jobs or jumla; the Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee government’s women reservation in Lok Sabha elections; confrontations over Pulwama incident and Balakot air strikes; electoral equations among political parties; blatant flow of freebies; the demand for media observer in West Bengal; and non-stop minority appease-ment plans.

Political parties are sharpening newer campaign strategies for maximum penetration of political messages. No wonder, political parties are indulging in tu-tu mein-mein activities. Political abuse and making a mockery by resorting to the barbs like pappu and chaiwala has been disgracefully the hallmarks in the Indian electoral battle. To political pundits, like the chaiwallah jibe in 2014, chowkidar chor hai in 2019 is going to boomerang on the Congress and reinvent Narendra Modi in a better manner. As if Rahul Gandhi is doing Mani Shankar Aiyar’s job this time.

Freedom of the media is inevitable for the democratic design of a nation. However, it is often projected that the media is muzzled. Diatribe against the media from political parties is at its zenith. Recently, the Kashmir media went blank on the front page in protest of the advertising ban from the Government of India. Journalists are being targeted for their objective and impartial reporting.

The abuse of the Official Secrets Act, often dubbed as a colonial law, has been rampant. There are umpteen numbers of cases of defamation act to threaten, bully and silence free speech. Surprisingly, the criminal defamation law is abused more than it is used. Defamation laws are often used to oppress the media. Unlike any other politician in the entire country, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa, had reportedly filed over 1000 defamation cases during her six terms as the Chief Minister.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned the killing of journalists in India. The journalists are getting slain and killers are going free. Its findings have claimed that 48 journalists were killed in India between 1992 and 2018.

In a reverse swing and with this murky background, once again India is reluctant to take part in UNESCO’s impunity accountability mechanism, which takes stock of the information on the status of investigations into killed journalists. The cases of attack of several whistleblowers remain unattended and unsolved. Unfortunately, as of now, India ranks 138th among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index in 2018.

In contrast, the media is also not free from the business of murky mining. The engagement and narrative of the media, especially television media, remains to cover the culture of abuse and misogyny in Indian politics. Somewhat the media is on the wrong side by being partisan in disseminating and cultivating politically abusive remarks. It has lost its moral compass and altered itself from a watchdog into a lapdog. The myriad role of the media, what it should be, is facing a stumbling block. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, that guarantees freedom of speech and expression, delineating the essence of journalism, has been time and again challenged.

The difference between public opinion and propaganda has been grossly misleading the citizens. It is almost impossible to demarcate between media trials and media activism in India. Fake news is on the rise. Knowingly or unknowingly, information on political vendetta is in full swing. The Indian media invites numerous lacunae. The nefarious nexus of politicians and functioning of the media; competition for TRPs; and excessive commercialisation and commodification of news are the open secrets.

Justice Markandey Katju, former Chairman, the Press Council of India, has claimed that 90 per cent of the coverage in the media is related to entertainment, and only 10 per cent to the real issues facing the nation. The role of the media to inform and educate the voters in the upcoming general election has become inappropriate and unfortunate. Several media houses have been reduced to mere business firms without minimum ethical standards. Unfortunately, the role of the media, being the fourth pillar of democracy, is diluted and dubious. So it has become a difficult job to convey objective information through non-partisan journalism to the citizens. Media literacy is the only answer to this.

Political communication and dissemination of reformist information is imperative to enrich a democratic society like ours. When the role of the media was traced in the prism of the Indian freedom struggle, the journalistic works of Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Raja Rammohan Roy was worth emulating. In those times, even James Augustus Hicky, the founder of India’s first newspaper Bengal Gazette, did not hesitate to expose the corrupt practice of the British East India Company.

At this point of time, the media should raise important issues linked to the role of the citizen, governance and Election Commission. It should refrain from carrying derogatory remarks against any political leader in their news pieces. It should duly prioritise the aspirations of the first-time voters and plights of the marginalised sections in terms of coverage. It should attempt to realise the democratic goals of the nation through appropriate communication.

The writer is an Assistant Professor with Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune.

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