Saturday, June 19, 2021
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The media must become the voice of the people again

Markandey Katju

The Fourth Estate in India must attack feudal forces like casteism, communalism, religious bigotry and attempts to polarise society.

Today a large part of the Indian media has lost its voice and the trust of the people, too. It has become a “godi media.” Instead of being the Fourth Estate and serving the Indian people, it has largely become part of the First Estate, as stated by eminent journalist and Magsaysay Award winner Ravish Kumar. This brings us to the key question: What is the role of the media?

This was explained by Justice Hugo Black of the US Supreme Court in The New York Times vs. US, 1971 (the Pentagon Papers case) in these stirring words: “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free Press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The Press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the Press was abolished so that the Press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The Press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the Government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained Press can effectively expose deception in Government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free Press is the duty to prevent any part of the Government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of the Government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.”

Historically, the media arose in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time all the organs of power were in the hands of the feudal authorities (kings, aristocrats and so on). Hence, the people had to create new organs which would represent their interests and the media (apart from the Parliament), was one of these new organs. In Europe and America, it represented the voice of the future, in contrast to the old, feudal organs which wanted to preserve the status quo.

Great writers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine and so on used the media (which was then only print media and that, too, not in the form of regular newspapers but pamphlets and leaflets) to combat feudalism, religious bigotry and superstitions.

Thus, the media was of great help in transforming European society from the feudal to the modern age. India’s national aim is to transform itself from an underdeveloped to a highly developed and highly industrialised country. If we don’t do so, we will remain condemned to massive poverty, record unemployment, appalling level of child malnourishment, almost total lack of proper healthcare and good education for the masses, among other things.

Our media must play an important role in this historical transformation, as the European media did. But for that it must stop behaving like a mouthpiece and serve the governed, not the governors (as Justice Black said in his judgment). The Indian media must attack feudal forces like casteism and communalism, condemn religious bigotry and attempts to polarise our society. It must promote scientific ideas, social harmony and the unity of our people. It should stop diverting attention from real issues and focusing on relative non-issues like the lives of film stars and cricketers (e.g. the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput, allegations made by Kangana Ranaut, Kareena Kapoor’s second pregnancy and Virat Kohli’s decision to take paternity leave and so on), petty politics, astrology, among others, and instead focus on the real issues, which are mainly socio-economic. This includes the problems of unemployment, malnourishment, lack of healthcare, price rise, the agrarian crisis and so on.

For years, the Indian media turned a Nelson’s eye to the large number of farmers’ suicides in our country, until a brave journalist, P Sainath, revealed the sad truth through his persistent reporting. It was only then that the rest of the media began reporting the agrarian distress in the country.

Some years ago, a fashion show was held in Mumbai during the Lakmé Fashion Week in which the models wore cotton outfits. This event was covered by over 500 fashion/lifestyle journalists while the farmers who produced that cotton were committing suicide just an hour’s flight away, in Vidarbha. No one covered those suicides except for a few local journalists.
Many TV anchors forget their journalistic ethics and just indulge in propaganda. To give an example, some time ago an organisation called the Tablighi Jamaat was lambasted by the media as spreaders of the Coronavirus. They were even given despicable names like “Corona jihadis” and “Corona bombs.” I made a personal investigation into this and found that the allegations against the Tablighi Jamaat were false. The Tablighi Jamaat is a religious organisation which meets at its Markaz in Delhi once or twice a year, where Muslims come from several countries. This year, too, many people came from Indonesia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates and so on. Some of them were apparently infected with the virus, without being aware of it. But to say that they knowingly brought the disease with them to spread it in India, as propagated by certain sections of the media, was patently false (as indeed the court has now found).

Another example of the partisan behaviour of the “godi media” is the way they have characterised the ongoing farmers’ agitation as a movement of Khalistanis, Pakistanis, Maoists and anti-nationals. Countless examples of this kind of biased reporting can be given.

One can only hope that the Indian media will some day get over its sorry plight and emerge as a champion of the people instead of being, to use US President Donald Trump’s words, “an enemy of the people.” Only then will it earn the people’s respect.

(The writer is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. )

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