Indian Media Is Free But Not Independent


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{/googleAds} Obviously perceptions and priorities have changed. The Indian media seems to be struggling to free itself of the stranglehold of the 1947 missionary mindset and gradually shift its focus to profit-making industrial activity.

The Indian media is a product of the freedom struggle movement. Without newspapers the focus of the crusade against the British would have been fundamentally different. Its interesting to recall that the foundation of the press in India was laid by a white in 1780. The weekly Bengal Gazette was the first newspaper published from the Indian soil, and its mood and temperament was anti-establishment.

James Augustus Hickey, the editor and publisher had the guts to challenge the mighty empire of the then viceroy Warren Hastings.

In the past 200 years, the Indian media has largely maintained this tradition, of opposition and generally played an adversarial role. As the fourth estate it has functioned as an opposition party.

Even today one of the chief functions of the press is to strengthen civil society through continuous monitoring and exposure of the wrong doings of those in authority.

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But what has happened in the last 20 years or so, particularly after the process of liberalization and globalization was triggered in the 1990s, has sent alarming signals all around. If the Indian media today appears reduced to an appendage of the corporate culture, it may not be wholly possible to halt the downslide and a paradigm shift in its relations with the masses? This is the question that has caused widespread concern among social and political activists fighting for the rights of the people. The negative trends that have lately crept in are demonstrated by the increasing role of commerce which has catapulted the original goals of journalism out of the orbit of public concern. Editors of newspapers are accused of sacrificing and doctoring content to suit fund raisers’ interests.

Peepli Live syndrome

This is no where else more eloquently highlighted than in the electronic media whose TRP obsession has initiated a wholly undesirable trend of misinformation and disregard for factual representation.

One can draw attention to some recent cases in which the television medium went out of its way to take advantage of very serious human predicaments:

In the first case a trader in Patiala burnt himself to death in the full view of camera persons, none of whom came forward to save him. In another case in MP, family members fighting economic distress were provoked to consume poison to end their lives again in full view of the camera. And, the latest is the case of Puja in Surat in Gujarat who was persuaded to walk the streets in her undergarments to draw attention of the world to her sufferings and plight. Those of you who have seen the latest Amir Khan production ‘Peepli Live’ would agree how events are being stage-managed and orchestrated. Surely, this is misuse of liberty which is becoming a licence.

The deliberate attempts to seriously skew information dissemination, over-hyping the absurd and abominable efforts of a section of the society, sensationalising or allowing page three features to confer social distinction and respectability to those who are not worthy of it to dominate the contents, information overload, class predilections and prejudices and pathetic attempts to play to the galleries through promotion of the superstitious and the obscurantist orientations of the society, are danger signals that need to be addressed urgently.

To quote eminent journalist Kuldip Nayar: “Our print media is suffering a mad disease which has played havoc with newspapers. I will call it the tabloid syndrome. You open any paper in the morning. They are full of pictures of young models, super models, actors and fashion designers—some names you have never heard, garnished with information on what they love to eat, what kind of dress they like to wear what they often do when they relax, what they think of love and sex and such trivia. This shallow, unthinking attitude gets reflected even in the news stories and articles that are printed in the papers. Reporters do not cross check the information they get. They often write one sided versions of events and about people who do not matter. Often good stories are not followed up properly. Planted stories make the front pages. Journalists have turned into politicians and newspapers into projectors of a particular point of view. News columns have come to be editorialized in the name of interpretative reporting.”

But the course to doom can not be altered till those at the helms of affairs in the media world are men of vision and social commitment. The media today is dependent on hollow men of low IQ depending on unreliable sources of information. The internet technology has further speeded this process of trivialization through mass proliferation of undesirable and phoney information through a tested system of doctoring and canablisation in the form of wholesale plagiarism. One always thought and believed that the desirable goals that the media should pursue are fostering of creative ideas that lead to social cohesion, to privilege facts and figures to promote rational thinking and to keep in check the baser predatory instincts of humans.

Unfortunately what seems to be happening is just the opposite. Media barons in India do not realize that the goals and objectives of the press in a developing country like ours have to be different from those in the Western media. Many of us mistakenly think Globalisation means westernization or Americanisation. One question that is often asked relates to the freedom of the press. Indian media today is definitely the most free in the world, but unfortunately this freedom is misused by people in power.

Let it be stated quite candidly that the freedom of the press today does not mean the freedom of the writer or the journalist to write anything or to project views that are at variance with the establishment. It is essentially the freedom of the owners or the managements to switch political loyalties or to often defend culprits and wrong doers who may be in a position to be milched by the media in the form of advertisements.

We may be free, but are we independent?


While newspapers and magazines in many western countries have suffered circulation losses and have closed down, the Indian media is growing phenomenally, registering a 42% increase in circulation. The readership figure for 2000 was 232 million and today it has crossed 350 million.

We have more than 50,000 registered publications and more than 100 TV channels, plus scores of FM radio stations. Add to this the extensive reach of the internet, you have a lively and healthy media with a very positive outlook for expansion in the coming years.

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