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With the march of the global right-wing, it is the hour of truth for the fourth estate. In modern democracies independent media functions as a mirror, one that doesn’t lie and conversely, shines on the uncomfortable. Irrespective of the party in power, being anti-establishment is a badge of honour for it is a job well done.

In India, the deliberate slivering away of its free press has left the country’s media exposed. It is a void that has far-reaching repercussions, case in point a media honcho’s recent assertion that journalists are merely observers in a boxing match.

A hugely problematic line of thinking, it is however symptomatic of where the country’s media is positioned. Agreeably it is not the opposition, nevertheless, its universal role is far greater. And it is also set in stone — to speak truth to power.

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For a country that fought the British Raj as much through its resistance as via its vibrant press — when newspapers defied colonial censorship and sedition laws — the demise of journalistic standards is stark and distressing.

Trust in the news that is being peddled or its sources is no longer organic, it is through a systemic amplifying of rhetoric based on hate and communalisation. In this ecosystem, the opposition struggles to be heard or seen, especially when it can’t be pinned down.

In the media manuscript, being a referee — balanced and without bias — is an important chapter. Simply put, news coverage should not stop with just one side of the story. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatras have hardly made a dent on television and the viewers will not believe what they don’t see.

To quote a refrain that originated in a newsroom, ‘If one person says it’s raining and another says it’s not raining, it is your job to look out the window and find out which is true.’ India media by and large has closed its windows.

Read more by Jyotsna Mohan

Narratives that shape the society

Perhaps, the biggest sin of journalists is that they have forgotten to ask questions, the hard-hitting kind. From crimes against women to political instability in ruling states, issues that should be front-page headlines are killed in newsrooms daily. This impunity was never more glaring than during the pandemic reporting when thousands perished but their sufferings were not a story. Those who did speak were against this alternate wave.

Nor have any lessons been learnt from the 1975 Emergency when Indira Gandhi’s regime gagged the press for 21 months. While much is spoken about that phase, all contemporary resemblance to it is not coincidental.

A journalist is not the same as an ordinary vendor. He not only sells news, but he is also given the responsibility of raising his voice against oppression and must be prepared to incur the wrath of the authorities.

It is the duty of the journalist to voice the grievances of the people, to speak clearly, to advise it, and if it does not pay heed, to wage a struggle against it,’ these words of a newspaper editor, although spoken in British India, are even more relevant today than they were during imperialism.

To inform, educate, and empower societies is the most precious gift the press can bestow on a society. Giving a voice to the voiceless — as much in the mainstream as of the marginalised — has become increasingly challenging when sociopolitical barometers are misled.

Narratives that shape a society are built disseminating information for better communication and the gap its absence creates is evident. It is a space that regional reporters, fact-checkers, and independent journalists on YouTube channels are trying to fill, replacing editors and conventional newsrooms.

The question arises, what then is the media’s role if it surrenders and changes the goalposts that are central to a democracy?

In Rudyard Kipling’s words, ‘While Thrones and Powers confess, That King over all the children of pride, Is the Press — the Press — the Press!'