On June 9, on a visit to her parliamentary constituency of Amethi, BJP MP and Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare, Smriti Irani with a journalist. He never got around to asking a question. He merely requested her to say something.
And she did. She charged him with insulting the people of her constituency and went further, saying, “I will call the owner of your paper and tell them no journalist has the right to insult the people.”
The journalist was a stringer for Dainik Bhaskar, although the paper later denied that he worked for them. But Irani did speak to the owners of Dainik Bhaskar. And they sacked the other stringer present, who was on their rolls.
Why should this incident be a reason for the media, and those concerned about press freedom, to worry?
We need to be concerned because this is not just a passing incident. It exemplifies the contempt with which the current government treats the media.
If it had the slightest respect for what a free media is supposed to do in a democracy, would not the prime minister make himself available to answer questions directly to the media in these nine years that he has held office?
If ministers in the Modi government had even a modicum of understanding of what the media is supposed to do, would they heckle and harass reporters asking legitimate questions and threaten to speak to the owners of their media outlets?
Several media organisations, like the , and some press clubs have issued strong statements. The Editors Guild states: “This trigger-happy approach to browbeat and harass reporters and news camera persons undermines the freedom of the press.” The Digipub statement brings out an important aspect of journalism today in India – the . They are sometimes , or , and yet they serve an important role in news gathering in the face of the cutbacks on hiring full time reporters by much of mainstream media.
This attitude of the current government – where any kind of questioning is viewed as hostile, where journalists are singled out and threatened either directly or through social media platforms, and where journalists have been arrested while on assignment, as was – is a direct threat to freedom of the press. It is not possible for a vibrant, questioning, and free press to survive in such a hostile atmosphere.
This government knows that the media with the largest reach, namely television, has already prostrated itself at its feet. Until last year, just one channel had survived with a modicum of independence. Now that too is part of the laudatory lot, singing hosannas to the government and saving its criticism for the opposition.
This government also understands the power of other forms of media, especially social media, to spread its narrative. And how to use this effectively.
And it could have sensed that increasingly people are not interested in “news” the way we have come to understand it in the past. Cross-check, verify, report. That used to be the norm.
These restrictions don’t apply to some of the “news” circulating on social media platforms. And unfortunately, this is what an increasing number of people are consuming in India, and in many other parts of the world.
According to the , there has been a noticeable decline in news consumption and trust in news worldwide. In India, the social media platform most preferred by those surveyed for news was YouTube (56 percent). WhatsApp and Facebook came next with 47 percent and 39 percent respectively. Some of this “news” could be from established media houses, but much of it would also be from unverified sources.
Additionally, the survey recorded a decline in trust in what we call “news” although in India, the difference between last year and this year is marginal.
We now have a situation where the government of the day does not care about the media, or media persons, and makes that more than apparent in its behaviour. And the consumers of news do not trust what is presented to them. Together, they represent a danger to press freedom, and to the very existence of established media.
This is not the space to look at the economics of the media, but that too must be factored in. It is evident today that more of the larger media houses are dependent on government advertising than they were at any point in the recent past. This gives the government a handle to ensure that they fall in line when asked. They are asked, and they do fall in line.
Those that take no advertising at all, such as Newslaundry, or refuse government advertising, as some independent digital news platforms do, lead a precarious existence. In a country, where even support for voices of dissent is frowned upon, how long will these spaces of independent thought and expression survive? That too without adequate financial backing.
The state of the media in the United States holds out some lessons and a warning. Lydia Polgreen, a former New York Times correspondent in India, has written an in the paper about the American media and the dilemma it faces as fewer people want to pay for news. Without a constituency that appreciates the costs involved in disseminating credible news, a free media cannot survive even if there are laws protecting its freedom, as in the US. In India, with the whitling down of laws relating to press freedom, the very survival of a free media comes into question.
So indeed, Smriti Irani’s outburst should worry us, not just those of us in the news business, but ordinary Indians who look to the media for verified, credible, information and news.
Update at 7.45 pm, June 15: This headline has been updated from ‘India’s hostility’ to ‘Indian govt’s hostility’ for better clarity.
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