Newspapers today: When Modi and friends star in full-page ads, news reports, even edit pages

The beleaguered independent media might take comfort from the recent MediaOne judgement.

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
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For the beleaguered independent media in India, a gradually disappearing species, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the MediaOne case is important in more ways than one. There is, of course, no guarantee that the governing party will heed the words of the court as it continues to emasculate the media – directly and indirectly. But it gives those fighting for press freedom something they can use in the future as they pursue justice through the courts.

MediaOne is a television channel that is part of the Madhyamam group in Kerala and has been functioning since 2011. In January last year, the ministry of information and broadcasting refused to grant it security clearance claiming it had links to the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. The Kerala High Court upheld the ban but on April 5, the Supreme Court set it aside. 

Its reasoning for doing so is significant and provides a much-needed boost to those who continue to believe that if press freedom is threatened, so is democracy. 

Take, for instance, what the judgement says about the right of the media to be critical of government policies: 

“The critical views of the channel, MediaOne, on policies of the government cannot be termed ‘anti-establishment’. The use of such a terminology in itself represents an expectation that the press must support the establishment. The action of the MIB by denying a security clearance to a media channel on the basis of the views which the channel is constitutionally entitled to hold produces a chilling effect on free speech and particularly on press freedom.”

This “chilling effect” on free speech and press freedom has been evident for the last eight years ever since the BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, came to power in Delhi.  

Given the times in which we live, it is also heartening that the court has made this unequivocal observation on the importance of press freedom: 

“An independent press is vital for the robust functioning of a democratic republic. Its role in a democratic society is crucial for it shines a light on the functioning of the state. The press has a duty to speak truth to power and present citizens with hard facts enabling them to make choices that propel democracy in the right direction. The restriction on the freedom of the press compels citizens to think along the same tangent. A homogenised view on issues that range from socio-economic polity to political ideologies would pose grave dangers to democracy”.

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Of course, the emerging “homogenised view” is a deliberate and planned effort that involves not just what the media reports, or chooses to ignore, but even what future generations are going to be taught about Indian society and its history. 

The standout story this last fortnight was the exclusive by Ritika Chopra in Indian Express on the changes being made in the textbooks that the NCERT prescribes for high school students.  As the story illustrates, these changes are not random. They are part of a deliberate agenda to ensure that future generations emerge with a singular understanding of Indian history – that dictated by those in power today.

Combine this with the way mainstream media, especially television news, either focuses on a few chosen issues, or deliberately distorts the facts on the ground, and you can see why people increasingly believe what they are told without questioning.

Furthermore, when those who question are challenged on grounds of “national security”, as in the MediaOne case, you can be sure that the government does not need to take any direct action against recalcitrant media. They will fall in line, as most already have. 

Another story, or rather comment, which appeared this last fortnight adds another dimension to the government’s strategy to control the narrative. Senior journalist Ajaz Ashraf, in his regular column in Mid-Day, writes about his research into the kind of people who find space on the edit and op-ed pages of leading newspapers in recent years. His findings put a number to what a discerning reader would suspect. 

Although internal surveys in several newspapers have revealed that the edit and op-ed pages are probably the least read, these pages are important because they provide visibility to writers and indicate the editorial policy of the publication.  

Some publications go to considerable lengths, especially in the last eight years given the hostility of the government to a questioning media, to “balance” opinion by giving space to contrary viewpoints on their edit pages. However, even if some edit page articles sing praises of the government, some of these newspapers continue to write sharp unsigned editorials that are critical of the government and its policies. One presumes they believe that if they give space to pro-government voices, they will escape the government’s wrath if they also occasionally criticise it. 

Ashraf’s data suggests that even this so-called “balance” is heavily skewed in favour of the governing dispensation. Every fifth day, a column by an RSS-BJP person appears in one of three English language national newspapers that he surveyed.  And over 62 percent of these columnists mention Narendra Modi and his government at least once. It would be interesting if someone also did a similar survey of newspapers in regional languages that have a far bigger circulation than English newspapers. 

Even if these pieces are not widely read, they are a part of a cumulative effect. Almost every day, page one of most national newspapers consists of a full-page advertisement issued either by the central government, or one of the BJP-led state governments like Uttar Pradesh. In every one of them, without fail, we are greeted with a mugshot of the prime minister as well as that of a chief minister if the ad is issued by a state government. In other words, if you are someone who likes the tactile feel of reading the print edition of a newspaper, you begin your day, on most days, with an image of the prime minister.

Turn then to the actual front page and, on most days again, you will find a news item and a photograph of the prime minister as he criss-crosses the country inaugurating everything from roadworks to metro stations. And then you reach the edit page, and yet again there might be an article ostensibly written by the prime minister, which also appears verbatim in many other newspapers even though the rule for edit pages is that the article should be exclusive to the publication. If not the prime minister, then you will read an article by some other member of the government, of the governing party, or of a “think tank” affiliated to the RSS. 

It is this combined visibility – leave alone the huge hoardings with the prime minister’s face staring down at you in most major cities – that create the feeling of omnipresence and power.  

Now add to this high visibility in the print media, the deliberate rewriting of textbooks, and the continuous impact of the tilt given to news by most television channels, and you have the recipe to guarantee that only one narrative is heard, seen, and taught. Readers, viewers, even students will remain unaware of how gradually they are being converted to internalising a particular interpretation of history, including current affairs. They will also remain uninformed, and oblivious to much else that is happening in our vast country that the media does not report, or does so in passing, such as the worrying trend of violence against minorities during religious festivals like Ram Navami

It is this process that we in the media need to record and report. If we fail to do so today, future generations will never know how and why this country changed from being a diverse, and chaotic democracy, to one that is overwhelmingly dominated by one point of view. 

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