By Rohan Chopra
Means of dissemination of information relating to the affairs of the ruling class have been in place since a very long time, although controlled by the same echelons of society for as long a period. It was believed that if the people thought of something opposing what these echelons wanted them to believe, it could cause chaos. Religion was also controlled by the state, leading to those questioning earlier beliefs to be considered as infidels. This led to, for instance, the infamous Inquisition in Christianity, causing the deaths of many.
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Yet the ruling classes were not able to contain criticisms against themselves for long. This was facilitated by the easier access to paper and printed media through which critics could spread their ideas and muster support. Very often, the monarchs stopped them by clamping down on the freedoms that the people claimed to have, failing to do which, there could be revolutions against them, as in France in 1789.
Press freedom in democracies
One may assume that with the rise of parliamentary democracies, the conflict pertaining to the rights of the people and the role of the ruling classes may have been eased. However, this assumption is far from true. While many countries have retained an independent press as a democratic institution, many have failed to do so. Even old, established democracies like the US don’t have a particularly good record as far as news coverage is concerned, with channels like Fox News being deeply sympathetic to the Republican Party. This partisanship is not a direct result of curtailed press freedoms but is a factor that contributes to it. Logically, when certain news channels are biased towards the ruling party, they adopt strong rhetoric in favour of it. Most governments would sooner be sympathized with than criticized, leading to them giving preference to certain news channels in terms of funds and aid.
On the other hand, press freedoms may also be directly controlled by the state. Most democratic countries promise the press the freedom to share news as it deems fit. This may be in favour of or opposed to the activities of the state. It is based on the notion that such unbiased news will serve two purposes, namely to give the citizens a fair idea of the happenings in the country, and to criticize the government when required, hence constraining their powers and ensuring they don’t spread misinformation. This is significantly different from the partisan news in the respect that the latter exercises its freedoms while supporting a certain ideology. But there is a fine line between the two, one that often gets mixed up. This is because lack of press freedoms can also lead to channels becoming partisan. In India, faced with declining freedom of the press, many unbiased channels have also acquired a pro-BJP bend. The obvious reason is that it is much simpler to report on something that will bode well with the government and that they will not clamp down on.
Reporters Without Borders, the organization that releases an annual report regarding press freedoms, reported that there were 6 cases of murders of Indian journalists in 2018.
Also significant are countries which claim to be democratic but where the state has supreme control of the press. This elicits the images of China and Russia, whose regimes have strong control of the media. This includes not only the news media but also social media which has become an important means of sharing news. Most of the conventional means of online communication, like Facebook and Twitter, are blocked in China. What is in place are apps like WeChat, where most chat rooms are tapped on by the state. Hence, the source of national and international news in the country is rarely, if ever critical of the Chinese Communist Party since it is run by the same party. This makes any dissent very hard, as people are either unaware of the problems in the country, or are arrested for spreading seditious messages. Despite it being understood that dissent is the supreme defence of democracy, in countries like India, we observe academics being threatened with charges of sedition if they choose to speak against the ruling party.
Declining press freedoms
A global decline in democracies has been noticed around the world, with the victims being civil liberties and democratic institutions like the judiciary. This has been complemented with fainter regard for journalistic integrity, with many journalists reporting unbiased news being criticized for their stand, or being imprisoned for it. This is seen in both authoritarian and democratic nations, as there has been a fall in the desire for living in liberal democracies among citizens.
This has itself seen press freedoms decline as criticism of the government is not appreciated. Besides this, there are many other reasons including “government-backed ownership changes, regulatory and financial pressure, and public denunciations of honest journalists”, writes Freedom House, which strengthens the influence of the government. The government has also given “lucrative state contracts, favourable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to state information” such that journalists support those in power and not the public. Hence, disregard for honesty, coupled with support by the government, has made honest journalism non-existent.
Let us take India, the largest democracy in the world with a thriving multiparty system, as an example. Despite such democratic credentials, it has slipped to rank 140 in World Press Freedom Index, below notoriously repressive countries like Afghanistan and repressed countries like Palestine. Reporters Without Borders, the organization that releases an annual report regarding press freedoms, reported that there were 6 cases of murders of Indian journalists in 2018. More specifically, it wrote, “those who espouse Hindutva, the ideology that gave rise to Hindu nationalism, are trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate.” This is followed by hate campaigns on social media to dissuade critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from speaking up against him. It further explains that criminal prosecutions are used to gag journalists under Section 124a of the IPC, blaming them for sedition. Consequently, self-censorship is employed by most.
In both authoritarian and democratic nations, a global decline in democracies has been noticed with the victims being civil liberties and democratic institutions like the judiciary.
Woman journalists have faced the worst cruelty by far. Names of many females who were harassed as journalists have come up in the #MeToo movement. Not only this, but many have received rape threats, being called “prostitutes” and harassed online. “There is no doubt that women are targeted in a way that men just are not,” said Barkha Dutt, a journalist threatened with rape on her criticism of BJP. Similarly, Sindhu Sooryakumar of Asianet News TV had her number spread on WhatsApp by her adversaries who requested others to harass her. She received over 2,000 calls threatening her and calling her a “prostitute”.
The reportage on Kashmir is a case in point. Since the clampdown on internet services in the region on August 5, there has been a trickle of authentic news from the valley. While state-controlled media has claimed there is normalcy, videos by international newspapers like The New York Times seem to show a different reality of unrest. Journalists have not been allowed in the valley, and those indigenous to the region are harassed and their reports severely censored before being published. The Indian news media has acted as a mouthpiece to the government rhetoric, celebrating this “nationalist move” by the centre.
All this can be attributed to a loss in the vitality of honest journalism as it was long seen as the agent of the left. There has been a systematic disassembly of this “biased” media and its reconstruction as a new institution in the last five years. Since there is also such high self-censorship, many journalists are simply unable to publish anything opposing the government. Those who dare do so, like NDTV, are indicted for false charges.
Where does this lead?
Curtailed press freedoms, however unfortunate, are not the only reality of the media today. NewsHour debates have become intolerable sources of “knowledge”. Besides being biased, they are notoriously uncourtly. There is a lack of regard for the views of adversaries who are simply screamed at to prove a point, making such debates an unfathomable show of fabricated knowledge and contempt. Such an absence of basic courtesies is legitimized by the news media. It is logically true that if such behaviour is portrayed on national debates, then it will be accepted and learned by those watching these debates. It would not be a misdemeanour to say that this could be responsible for, in the long run, increasing cases of road rage and other violent acts as what would be valued in public discourse would be contempt for others, and not respect for their views.
Ravish Kumar, in his speech as the winner of Ramon Magsaysay award of 2019, said, “Indian media is in a state of crisis, which isn’t accidental or random, but structural.” Such a state of crisis has been warranted by the government, and strong forces need to be employed to break away from this tradition. It must be ensured by each individual to cross-check the information they are encountering. A serious shift from dependence on sources of biased news must be adopted to condemn the channels which tarnish the name of honest journalism. Once the news channels realize the errors of their ways, there can be a possible, positive shift in their reportage on issues.
It must be ensured that we uphold the fourth pillar of democracy and treats it as a sacrosanct institution that cannot be corrupted. Once the people start blindly believing what the state and media collectively say, they will lose the ability to differentiate between what is right and wrong. For people to become sheep uncritically following a herd is the most detrimental affair that can take place in a democracy.