Governments should not aid media extinction

The desire for fact-based journalism can’t be extinguished

Updated - June 29, 2020 12:51 am IST

Published - June 29, 2020 12:15 am IST

Craig Silverman, media editor for BuzzFeed News, described the pandemic as a “media extinction event”. The news industry is facing threats to its freedom, and journalists are facing threats to their safety. Apart from facing continuing digital disruptions, the news industry is also facing the consequences of the economic meltdown, which is affecting the revenue stream. Many newsrooms are reporting lay-offs, furloughs and closures caused by COVID-19. The growing online culture will have a lasting impact on the news ecology.

When the news media is subjected to an unprecedented strain, it is fair to expect governments not to add new burdens. In his insightful essay in Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Smith and Nic Cheeseman said authoritarians are exploiting the crisis we’re in, and democracies must not follow suit. They wrote: “The seemingly endless cascade of dire headlines has overwhelmed citizens globally, triggering inherent survival mechanisms and leading people to focus on the health and safety of those closest to us. Into the void created by this uncertainty — in which fear has often trumped reason — stride the world’s authoritarian leaders.” Governments across the world are using the pandemic to undermine free media.

Three disturbing developments

Let us look at three disturbing developments in India. The first is the new Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) media policy. The 53-page document is aimed at “creating a sustained narrative on the functioning of the government in media”. Among the provisions which seek to regulate reporting in J&K is a mechanism that empowers the government to decide what is “anti-social” and “anti-national” news. An editorial in The Indian Express , ‘‘Ministry of Truth”, explained how this policy is an affront and will have chilling effect on any voice other than the official one. Journalists in J&K have characterised this policy as more restrictive than colonial-era censorship mechanisms.

The second is the FIR filed by the Uttar Pradesh Police against Supriya Sharma, Executive Editor of , for her report on the impact of the lockdown on the Prime Minister’s constituency, Varanasi. While condemning the FIR, the Editors Guild of India stated that the use of Sections of the IPC and the SC/ST Act and the use of criminal provisions of the law against journalists has become “an unhealthy and despicable trend that has no place in any vibrant democracy”. It rightly concluded that “the increasing frequency of such misuse of laws by the authorities is tantamount to shooting the messenger and destroying a key pillar of India’s democracy.” What published was a fine piece of journalism and journalists who believe in core values extend their solidarity.

The third is the state broadcaster Prasar Bharati’s threat to cancel its subscription to Press Trust of India, alleging that the news agency’s recent coverage was “detrimental to national interest” and undermined India’s “territorial integrity”. Prasar Bharati claimed it has supported PTI by paying a “huge” annual fee running into crores for years. It also accused PTI of being rigid on the issue of rationalisation of the subscription fee. PTI is a news agency that provides news to subscribers such as the mainstream media, companies, and several government and non-government organisations. Prasar Bharati is among PTI’s biggest subscribers.

At a time when the media industry is vulnerable, there seems to be a method behind the government’s moves to weaken the media. The media provides credible news and offers space for multiple views and ideas, but the powers that be want to create and push a singular narrative. They want their tall claims and spurious achievements to be presented as the gospel truth. There is a systematic attack against the act of verification.

The attack is multi-pronged. While the state comes up with FIRs, a powerful, omnipresent troll army indulges in character assassination. Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, in his lead article titled “The myopia of 20/20 hindsight” (June 26, 2020), expressed his utmost sadness at the fact that foreign policy, too, has fallen victim to very narrow and cynical jousting in domestic politics.

It is important for governments to realise that the human desire for democratic liberties, including access to fact-based journalism, can never be extinguished.

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