A lot has been written about the 24-hour blackout of NDTV India — a Hindi news channel — that was imposed by the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on the recommendation of an inter-ministerial committee.
The committee had found the channel guilty of revealing “strategically-sensitive information” while covering the anti-terrorism operations of the Indian army at Pathankot, Punjab, in January this year. In its defence, NDTV said it had not been the only media outlet to disclose the information for which it was being penalised, going further to reveal that other media outlets had done so before it’s alleged infringement.
The veracity of claims from either side is not the primary concern here, as this will certainly become a prolonged legal battle between the government and the channel owners. It does not even matter whether the information revealed by NDTV could have impacted the army’s operations. What matters is what gave an elected government in a sovereign democratic republic the power to take such action against a media house that is part of an institution often referred to as the fourth pillar of the state that’s supposed to uphold the long cherished democratic values of my country.
Unfortunately, it is media houses and their famed journalists, who over the years have attained celebrity status, who are to be blamed for giving political masters such power. Over the last decade, Indian journalism has been at war with crony journalism, with many media houses becoming crepes of nepotism and corruption. Crony capitalism is a term that describes an economy in which success in business depends on close association with a government and those in power. In India, journalists are often seen working as a conduit between the two, acting as their lobbyists and also as an invisible tier of back-channel negotiations, between parties, where even senior journalists are known to have tried to pick cabinet ministers during the Manmohan Singh government. The coverage often undermines the word blasphemy, favouring one over the other for financial gain, back-stabbing the very idea of a free independent media — where unbiased, uncensored and objective investigative reportage is expected to be conducted.
In India, the term ‘paid news’ has found its way into public discourse, resulting in a loss of trust on the part of the public in news reports served by particular media houses as they have earned the notoriety of serving news which at best can be described as a ‘public relations’ exercise.
Loss of objectivity and credibility
For long, media houses in India, have aligned themselves to political parties mostly for survival while others have diversified into other business areas such as coal and real estate, where the tactical support of political masters was critical for their business ventures. The product of such journalism cannot be but tainted, as such a misalliance can only be the loss of media objectivity and credibility.
Indian political parties have also started their own newspapers trying to promulgate their political standpoints amongst their faithful and more importantly, act as mouthpiecees of the parties. The Communist Party of India-Marxist runs ‘Ganashakti’, which is loosely translated to ‘power of the masses’, while the Shiv Sena’s ‘Saamna’ has also been at the forefront of many social revolutions — both in West Bengal and Maharashtra. However, the trouble started in the wake of liberalisation, with the advent of a plethora of news channels which are often openly or discreetly owned by political parties in an era of the 24/7 news cycle. The result has been that the very journalism they are supposed to espouse is being crucified at the altar of crony capitalism.
Almost every political outfit in India — with regional parties in particular — has a news channel, which not only disseminates the party’s views to it millions of supporters but even tries to create a cult-like status for the individual who leads the party. Be it Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu, after which Jaya TV has been named, or the channel that has emerged as its fiercest competitor through Sun TV network and later Kalingar TV, named after its supreme leader Karunanidhi.
Then there is the curious case of NDTV — curious I call it because at the time of this copy going to press, there was this sudden announcement by the government to put a stay on its order to ban the channel for a day. This news conglomerate has also been a pro-liberal, anti-right posturing broadcaster given the family connection between its owners — Radhika Roy and Pranoy Roy — and former CPM general secretary Prakash Karat.
Though their political stand was clear, their relationship with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his rightist political outfit has been wavering for some time now. Whether this sudden change of heart on the government’s part is the result of a serious rethink of democratic values and the media or a result of meaningful lobbying by journalists can only be understood in the future as we see the line the channel tows going forward.
Archisman Dinda is a journalist based in Kolkata, India.