Beyond PM’s front-page guarantees, silence on Ladakh, and threat to digital media

Voices from the protests in Ladakh, joined by environmentalist Sonam Wangchuk, are not getting through to the government.

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
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The prime minister has spoken. He speaks all the time, but when he decides to speak in Parliament, we are compelled to listen. It is an institution that he visits infrequently. However, given that the 17th Lok Sabha is winding down as we face a general election, we must pay heed to his words. 

Apart from the predictable rhetorical flourishes for which the PM is now well-known, what continues to amaze those who care to listen carefully is his skill at proclaiming half-truths, or even untruths, as unquestionable facts. 

Electoral politics is a battle of perception, and visibility. And we have seen in the last decade how Narendra Modi, and the Bharatiya Janata Party have mastered this. 

Given that Modi has been the prime minister for a decade, everything and anything he says or does is news. In addition, he has a dedicated space on radio for his Mann ki Baat monthly programme, and even a YouTube channel. 

As if this was not enough, we have been deluged with daily front-page ads in leading national newspapers. Without fail, at least one national newspaper will display below its masthead on the front page an advertisement that has Modi’s face and the words “Modi Sarkar ki Guarantee”. The ad boasts of schemes launched by the government that have apparently been brilliantly successful.  

As these are advertisements, there is no space to question the so-called facts stated in them. But just below the advertisement is often a front-page story quoting the prime minister. Even as the media feels obliged to report everything he says, is there no space to do a fact check on what he says?

No one expects mainstream media, given its current state, to call out partial truths uttered by the most powerful person in this country. Fortunately, we still have space to do this on social media and on independent digital news platforms.

A video worth watching on YouTube is this one by former television anchor Abhisar Sharma. He dissects the prime minister’s speeches in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha made earlier this week. He looks specifically at some of the PM’s comments about India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and establishes the half-truths and sometimes outright lies that were spoken.

Sharma is one of several well-known television journalists who now run channels on YouTube as there is no space for their kind of plain speaking on mainstream television channels. Incidentally, the subscriber base for YouTube in India is an estimated 462 million.

In print media, fortunately, there is still space to expose some of this wrong information being sent out to the entire country. Apart from blaming the Nehru-Gandhi family for all the ills the country faces today, the prime minister also ticked off state governments in the south for raising their voices against what they perceive as inequity in allocation of central resources.  

There is no discrimination towards the southern states, the PM insisted. It is leaders from the southern states who are creating a “north-south divide”

The facts, in this case too, tell a different story. Some newspapers, like Hindustan Times, are using data to inform people, such as these charts by Roshan Kishore. Ideally, people ought to go through such data charts and see for themselves why the south has a legitimate grievance. However, in these distracted times, perhaps it is asking too much of the lay reader to spend time going through such data charts. As a result, in the battle of perception, the accusation that a north-south divide is being artificially created by the opposition wins, while the facts lose.

If you are someone who turns to social media for news, comment, and information, as an increasing number of people are doing in the country, you will come across much that escapes the eye of the established media. Sometimes when you watch videos on social media, you wonder whether the reports are really about the country we live in.

Take for instance, the recent developments in Ladakh. In the last week, tens of thousands of Ladakhis have been out on the streets demanding full statehood for what became a union territory on August 5, 2019, when the Modi government read down Article 370. 

Size matters and when thousands of people demonstrate, the media generally has to take note. Yet despite the size of the protests in Ladakh, you will find hardly any reports on them in print media, and next to nothing on television. As a result, most news consumers in this country would not have a clue about what is happening in Ladakh. 

Ladakhis are protesting because they say there is no one to represent them. While Jammu and Kashmir might have assembly elections later this year, Ladakh does not have an assembly. It had district councils when it was still a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. When will they have elections, and who will they elect, they ask. 

The best-known environmentalist and civil society activist in Ladakh is Sonam Wangchuk. He has joined the protests and threatened to go on an indefinite fast. He wants the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which safeguards the rights of tribals on their land, to be extended to Ladakh. Yet although Wangchuk is a prominent personality, you do not hear his voice in mainstream media. For that, you need to make time to watch videos like this one in The Print.

The voices from Ladakh are not getting through, either to the rest of the country, or to the government, because the media is not amplifying them. This works in favour of a government that chooses to ignore protests like these and will say something, or do something, only when it suits its larger agenda.

The Ladakhis should pay heed to the way Manipur has been handled by this government. What began in May last year is still festering. It has the potential to blow up into a major conflagration that could affect all of the northeast. Yet, the prime minister has not found the words to say anything about Manipur. And the only solution that the home minister has devised is to say the border between India and Myanmar will be fenced! 

Meanwhile, mainstream media has switched off Manipur. Once again, the only news available of the ongoing violence in the state is on social media. 

This is why the small window of freedom that social media, and independent digital news platforms, provide must be protected. 

Irrespective of the outcome of the 2024 general elections, it is now clear that when political power and business are aligned, the space for free expression in the media gets restricted. 

Additionally, when a government brings in laws that will create more hurdles for independent media, as this government has done with changes in the IT Rules that will permit it to set up a “fact-checking unit” (currently challenged in courts) and the proposed Broadcasting Bill, the chances of it surviving are even dimmer. 


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