Milind Deora column: A biased media is better than news outlets gagged by authoritative governments
The trend in Indian politics that coerces journalists to toe a certain line and to become lapdogs for the government in power is far more damaging to free speech in the country.
The current political climate in the country necessitates a reflection on the position and trajectory of our news media. There are primarily two ways by which state action endeavours to stifle media and free speech.
The first is through intimidation and bullying of journalists and promoters in order to make them subservient to their own cause. Rumours often circulate in political circles alleging that media groups critical of government policy have been threatened or arm twisted by the establishment for their anti-establishment stance. Owing to the democratic nature of social media, these rumours are often highlighted, debated and retweeted, but methods of intimidation to curb freedom of press largely remain covert – and effective.
The second method to clamp down on the media is more formal and direct and can be witnessed in the recently proposed amendment in Rajasthan. The Vasundhara Raje-led government is advocating legislation that forbids the media from investigating or reporting about public officials till such sanction is granted by the state, essentially providing immunity for any number of corrupt or unethical practices.
The first reaction to such an order is pure disbelief - not only does this signify a gag order on reporting against corruption, it signifies one on reporting against the government altogether. Such a bill in a healthy, vibrant democracy is not only bizarre, it's downright unconstitutional. Such a condemnable order, in my opinion, will never see the light of day, if the people of the country and the institutional processes of our democracy have anything to say about it.
The former method of suppressing free press and speech is, therefore, much more dangerous, because it operates in covert and insidious ways, and is not subject to public scrutiny and criticism in a manner that the Rajasthan order is. The trend in Indian politics that coerces journalists to toe a certain line and to become lapdogs for the government in power is far more damaging to free speech in the country.
This is not to say that the media is a passive and blameless victim in the hands of the politically powerful. What we also require is scrutiny of the media itself.
In India, mainstream media today is largely criticised for being subservient to the current government, with the consequence of being far less critical of this government than previous ones. In contrast, US media is criticised for being unfairly disparaging and anti-establishment. Both lead to news that is not in the spirit of the unbiased, objective media that citizens of a democracy are entitled to.
The question that confronts us, then, is how media and news outlets are to be regulated. A decade ago, a regulatory framework in the form of a Broadcast Bill was shot down by the press and news media fraternity, which protested against state intervention in media and argued for self-regulation.
The onus, therefore, lies with the media to promote a culture of objectivity and accountability. What has been the track record of the media since the bill was shot down? Have they been successful in self-regulating? Are journalists being penalised for unethical behaviour by their councils and associations? The answer seems to be in the negative.
Rather, it seems like the only form of regulation is the consumer, who must be astute and aware in her analysis of the news she is consuming, and the politics underlying it. Other than that, if a journalist is caught sensationalising news or distorting facts, she is only called out by her peers in public fora, albeit without any formal punitive action.
It's time that the media introspects and reflects on its own standards and ethics of journalism. Print media, in particular, is the purest form of journalism, involving a 24-hour news cycle rife with intellectual debate and careful deliberation, and it must maintain that sanctity by recognising the line between serious journalism and entertainment.
Having said that, as much as we love to hate the media, it is still better to have a media that is biased, perhaps sometimes dishonest, than have journalists and news outlets that are gagged by authoritative governments or victimised by political arm-twisting.
The author is a former Member of Parliament and has served as minister for communication and IT, and shipping and ports.
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