Censorship by noise

The act of delegitimising professional journalism undermines news media’s status as the fourth estate

Updated - June 14, 2021 01:41 am IST

Published - June 14, 2021 12:15 am IST

Online internet troll in a pile stack of social media, networking likes. Fake news and fake troll accounts

Online internet troll in a pile stack of social media, networking likes. Fake news and fake troll accounts

For nearly two decades, I have been concurrently looking at the annual Reuters Memorial Lecture delivered at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, and the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism administered by Columbia University. While the prizes represent the best practices in informing the public, the lecture deals with “a critical issue facing the news industry” and is delivered by “someone at the highest level of journalism”. The concurrent reading, in a sense, becomes a form of SWOT analysis. The lectures and prizes give insights into the current status of journalism and provide valuable clues on navigating its choppy waters.

The vulnerability of journalism

It is disheartening to record that this year, both the Reuters Memorial Lecture and the Pulitzer Prizes have become veritable documents of the vulnerability of journalism. In April 2020, Nadja Drost wrote a long-form report in The California Sunday Magazine titled “When can we really rest?” It was on migrants crossing the Colombia-Panama border, which is said to be one of the most dangerous journeys in the world, to reach the U.S. On June 11, 2021, Ms. Drost, a freelance writer, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her article, which the Pulitzer committee described as “a brave and gripping account of global migration that documents a group’s journey on foot through the Darién Gap, one of the most dangerous migrant routes in the world”.

The tragedy is that The California Sunday Magazine no longer exists. Last June, it stopped its print edition. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to take its toll, the magazine stopped publishing online and posting on social media at the end of September. Kristen Hare of Poynter pointed out the historic significance of this development. She wrote: “At least in the last 10 years, this is the first example we can find of a publication closing before it won a Pulitzer.” She also pointed out that in the U.S., during the pandemic, more than 75 newsrooms closed, including some that were more than 100 years old. This pandemic-induced bloodbath in journalism is evident in India too.

If the Pulitzer Prize has gone to a defunct publication that was dedicated to long-form journalism, the Reuters Memorial Lecture brought out the multiple pressures faced by journalists in pursuing their vocation in a free and independent manner. On June 8, Brazilian journalist Patrícia Campos Mello delivered the annual lecture drawing from her series of investigative pieces on the rise of disinformation in Brazil. While the focus of her talk was Brazil, it is impossible not to draw parallels with what we are witnessing in India. She said: “Lies are the foundation of the health tragedy we are going through and lies are the cornerstone of our incoming political disaster. Professional journalism is one of the last barriers against the collapse of democracy in Brazil and in many other countries struggling with an avalanche of lies. Meticulously checked information, careful and balanced reporting, and in-depth investigations are the only hope to bring back reality to many countries where facts became malleable and often secondary to opinions and beliefs.”

Fudging data

This is true in India too. We have seen gross under-reporting of the rate of COVID-19 infections and mortality. We have seen numbers, including on the availability of vaccines, being fudged. We are in an unenviable position where the Union government has issued a directive asking the States not to divulge the details about the vaccine stock in hand as these details are “sensitive information”.

Ms. Mello pointed out that today, the muzzling of the press has taken on a different hue. She called it “censorship by noise and defamation”. It is a trait that has been normalised in India. She said: “Censorship, in this new world, doesn’t require the suppression of information. On the one hand, populist leaders flood social media, messaging apps, and the internet in general with the version of facts they want to prevail – so that it drowns out investigations and negative news. It’s the so-called censorship by noise. Then, for that manipulation of public opinion to succeed, these digital populist leaders need to delegitimise professional journalism.”

The act of delegitimising professional journalism undermines news media’s status as the fourth estate and denies it the crucial watchdog role. This blatant institutional capture not only ruptures our democratic fabric but also irreparably damages it.


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