Is it time to redefine what journalism means?

Or can the Indian media be set right merely by devising ways to regulate it?

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
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At a time when we have witnessed mockery of what we prided in calling ourselves – a parliamentary democracy – when thousands of farmers are protesting the passing of bills that were rammed through the parliament, when the precious few rights that the Indian working class had have been snatched away by new laws, when Covid-19 continues its deadly dance of death and despair, when incessant rains are bringing even big cities to a standstill, not to speak of remoter areas, what is the big story on India's mainstream electronic media? No prizes for guessing that it continues to be Sushant-Rhea-Kangana-Payal-Anurag and now even Deepika.

Enough has been said and written about this determined effort of India's mainstream electronic media to keep its gaze firmly on a non-story, defying even the most basic norms of what constitutes journalism.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is still hearing arguments in the Sudarshan News case on whether regulation of some kind is needed to rein in electronic media. The outcome will not necessarily solve the problem because the trajectory of the electronic news media in India has gone so far in one direction, based entirely on what sells, that it is difficult to imagine a time when some kind of equilibrium will be restored.

The important question raised by this case, in my view, is whether what appears on channels such as Sudarshan News can even be called journalism. Do such media outlets even pretend to follow any of the ethics, values or principles that one is taught comprise the bedrock of journalism in a democracy? How then can what they broadcast be equated with what appears in media outlets that are still trying to do journalism as it was meant? Should such channels even be considered as journalistic enterprises? Or do we need another term to define them?

Also, by pegging our hopes on a ruling about one channel that is at an extreme end of the spectrum, are we missing the larger picture of where journalism stands in India today, and whether it can be set right merely by devising ways to regulate it?

I would still argue that a reasonably large section of the print media, the majority of the digital news platforms as well as a handful of TV news channels follow the rules of journalism as we have known them. That the attention-seeking hijinks of the popular TV news channels cannot make us throw up our hands in despair and give up on the project of providing the people of this country fair, objective, coherent, relevant and credible journalism.

The real danger to this kind of journalism in India, I would argue, lies not with these TV channels, but primarily with the attitude of this government and its different arms. Just as it has demonstrated its complete disregard for any notion of fairness or established procedure when it comes to the functioning of the parliament, we cannot and should not expect that it will push back in its desire to ensure that the media sings its tune.

You only have to witness what has been happening in Kashmir this last year to see how this can, and probably will, happen. Kashmiri journalists have to keep reminding us that journalism is not a crime. Yet, for doing their jobs as journalists, they are being surveilled, harassed, questioned, beaten up and imprisoned in Kashmir.

Priya Ramani's piece in Article 14 is a devastating recounting of the way in which the very process of doing their jobs as journalists has been rendered a hazardous occupation in Kashmir. Ramani spoke to a cross-section of journalists in the state, women and men. Journalists told her that they were asked why they didn't do "positive journalism" or when they questioned the actions of the state against journalists, they were told, "Instructions have come from the top”. Bashaarat Masood of the Indian Express said it had become "impossible to report from Kashmir". These are highly qualified, experienced journalists who have worked in the most stressful conditions for years. And this is what they are saying today.

Perhaps the most telling quotation is from Qazi Shibli, the founding editor of The Kashmiriyat, a news website. Shibli spent nine months in jail, charged under the Public Safety Act. He was released in April. He tells Ramani, “They’ve polarised the public of the nation into nationalists and anti-nationals. They've divided us into good journalists who follow their line and bad journalists who don’t.”

That just about sums up the state of the media in India today. Those who question, expose, basically just do their jobs and necessarily do not follow "the line" of the government are "bad" journalists, liable to intimidation and even arrest. According to a report by the Rights and Risk Analysis Group released in June, 55 journalists were arrested, booked, summoned, assaulted and threatened during the lockdown that began on March 24. All this for reporting on what was really going on in the country during this pandemic. Of these, 11 were from Uttar Pradesh.

The short point is that in the process of defanging every institution that can act as a check on the power of the executive, this government has not spared the media. While the majority of media houses have fallen in line following the slightest nudge, or voluntarily because they are convinced that the current regime is the best thing that could have happened to India, the real price is being paid by individual journalists and the smaller, independent publications and websites that are doing what they are required to do in a democracy.

What happened in the parliament last week is an ominous signal of what more will follow. Even the pretence of following procedures and democratic norms has now been set aside by the government. To hope then that a judgement or some idea of self-regulation will salvage the situation of the Indian media is probably unrealistic.

We are witnessing today in Kashmir what the state can do to make the media toe the line without imposing censorship. This is the pattern that will be replicated in the rest of the country, even as exhortations about respecting the freedom of the press will be pronounced from the pulpit.


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