Friday, November 4, 2011

Why our media is anti-people - Press freedom must be examined - By Justice Markandey Katju - INDIAN EXPRESS, Mumbai, INDIA


Why our media is anti-people

To understand the role which the media should be playing in India we have to first understand the historical context. India is presently passing through a transitional period in its history: a transition from a feudal agricultural society to a modern industrial society. This is a very painful and agonising period. The old feudal society is being uprooted and torn apart; but the new, modern, industrial society has not yet been entirely established. Old values are crumbling, everything is in turmoil. Recollect Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Fair is foul and foul is fair” — what was regarded good earlier, for example the caste system, is regarded bad today (at least by the enlightened section of society), and what was regarded bad earlier, such as marriage for love, is acceptable today (at least to the modern-minded).
It is the duty of all patriotic people, including the media, to help our society get over this transition period quickly and with less pain. The media has a very important role to play in this transition period, as it deals with ideas, not commodities. So by its very nature the media cannot be like an ordinary business.

Historically, the print media emerged in Europe as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time the established organs were all in the hands of despotic feudal authorities. Hence, the people had to create new organs which could represent them. That is why the print media became known as the “fourth estate.” In Europe and America it represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the established feudal organs, which wanted to preserve the status quo. The media thus played an important role in transforming feudal Europe to modern Europe.

In my opinion the Indian media should be playing a role similar to the progressive role played by the media in Europe during its transitional period. This it can do by attacking backward, feudal ideas and practices — casteism, communalism and superstition — while promoting modern scientific and rational ideas. But is it doing so?

In my opinion, a large section of the Indian media (particularly the electronic media) does not serve the interest of the people; in fact, some of it is positively anti-people. There are three major defects in the Indian media which I would like to highlight.

First, the media often diverts the attention of the people from the real issues to non-issues.
The real issues in India are socio-economic — the terrible poverty in which 80 per cent of our people live, inflation, the lack of medical care, education and backward social practices like honour-killing, caste oppression and religious fundamentalism. Instead of devoting most of its coverage to these issues, the media focuses on non-issues — like film stars and their lives, fashion parades, pop music, disco dancing, astrology, cricket, reality shows and so on.

There can be no objection to the media providing entertainment to the people, provided this is not overdone. But if 90 per cent of its coverage is related to entertainment, and only 10 per cent to the real issues mentioned above, then something is seriously wrong. Its sense of proportion has gone crazy. Entertainment may get as much as nine times the coverage that health, education , labour, agriculture and environment together get. Does a hungry or unemployed man want entertainment — or food and a job?

To give an example, I switched on the TV recently, and what did I see? Lady Gaga has come to India; Kareena Kapoor standing next to her statue in Madame Tussauds; a tourism award being given to a business house; Formula One racing, etc, etc. What has all this to do with the problems of the people?

Many channels show cricket day in and day out. The Roman emperors used to say: “If you cannot give the people bread, give them circuses.” This is precisely the approach of the Indian establishment, duly supported by our media. Keep the people involved in cricket, so that they forget their social and economic plight. What is important is not poverty or unemployment, what is important is whether India has beaten New Zealand (or better still Pakistan), or whether Tendulkar or Yuvraj Singh have scored a century.

Recently, The Hindu published that a quarter of a million farmers committed suicide in the last 15 years. The Lakme Fashion Week was covered by 512 accredited journalists. In that fashion week, women were wearing cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves an hour’s flight from Nagpur. Nobody told that story, except one or two journalists locally.

In Europe, displaced peasants got jobs in the factories created by the Industrial Revolution. In India, on the other hand, industrial jobs are now hard to come by. Many mills have closed down and have become real estate. The job trend in manufacturing has seen a sharp decline over the last 15 years. For instance, TISCO employed 85,000 workers in 1991 in its steel plant, which then manufactured 1 million tonnes of steel. In 2005, it manufactured 5 million tonnes — but with only 44,000 workers. In the mid ’90s, Bajaj was producing a million two-wheelers with 24,000 workers. By 2004, it was producing 2.4 million units, with 10,500 workers.

Where then do these millions of displaced peasants go? They go to cities — where they become domestic servants, street hawkers, or even criminals. It is estimated that there are one to two lakh adolescent girls from Jharkhand working as maids in Delhi. Prostitution is rampant in all cities, due to abject poverty.

All this is largely ignored by our media, which turns a Nelson’s eye to the harsh economic realities facing up to 80 per cent of our people, instead concentrating on some glamorous Potemkin villages.

Second, the media often divides the people. Whenever a bomb blast takes place anywhere in India, within a few hours TV channels start saying an e-mail or SMS has been received from Indian Mujahideen or Jaish-e-Muhammad or Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islam claiming responsibility. The name will always be a Muslim name. Now an e-mail or SMS can be sent by any mischievous person who wants communal hatred. Why should they be shown on TV screens, and next day in print? The subtle message being sent by showing this is that all Muslims are terrorists or bomb-throwers.

About 92 to 93 per cent of the people living in India today are descendants of immigrants. Thus, there is tremendous diversity in India: so many religions, castes, languages, ethnic groups. It is absolutely essential that if we wish to keep united and prosper, there must be tolerance and equal respect to all communities. Those who sow the seeds of discord among our people, whether on religious or caste or linguistic or regional lines, are really enemies of our people.

The senders of such e-mails and SMS messages are therefore enemies of India, who wish to sow the seeds of discord among us on religious lines. Why should the media, wittingly or unwittingly, become abettors of this national crime?

The writer, a former judge of the Supreme Court, is chairman of the Press Council

Press freedom must be examined

As I have already mentioned, in this transitional age, the media should help our people move forward into the modern, scientific age. For this purpose the media should propagate rational and scientific ideas, but instead of doing so, a large section of our media propagates superstitions of various kinds.
It is true that the intellectual level of the vast majority of Indians is very low — they are steeped in casteism, communalism and superstition. The question, however, is: Should the media try to lift up the intellectual level of our people by propagating rational and scientific ideas, or should it should go down to that low level and seek to perpetuate it?

In Europe, during the Age of Enlightenment, the media (which was only the print medium at that time) sought to uplift the mental level of the people and change their mindset by propagating ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity and rational thinking. Voltaire attacked superstition and Dickens criticised the horrible conditions in jails, schools, orphanages, courts etc. Should not our media be doing the same?

At one time, courageous people like Raja Ram Mohun Roy wrote against sati, child marriage and the purdah system in his newspapers Miratul Akhbar and Sambad Kaumudi. Nikhil Chakravartty wrote about the horrors of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Munshi Premchand and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote against feudal practices and women’s oppression. Saadat Hasan Manto wrote about the horrors of Partition.
But what do we see in the media today?

Many TV channels show astrology-based programmes. Astrology is not to be confused with astronomy. While astronomy is a science, astrology is pure superstition and humbug. Even a little common sense can tell us that there is no rational connection between the movements of the stars and planets, and whether a person will die at the age of 50 or 80, or whether he will be a doctor or engineer or lawyer. No doubt most people in our country believe in astrology, but that is because their mental level is very low. The media should try to bring up that level, rather than to descend to it and perpetuate it.

Many channels mention and show the place where a Hindu god was born, where he lived, etc. Is this is not spreading superstition?

I am not saying that there are no good journalists at all in the media. There are many excellent journalists. P. Sainath is one such, whose name should be written in letters of gold in the history of Indian journalism. Had it not been for his highlighting of farmers’ suicides in certain states, the story (which was suppressed for several years) may never have been told. But such good journalists are the exceptions. The majority consists of people who do not seem to have the desire to serve the public interest.

To remedy this defect in the media, I have done two things. First, I propose to have regular meetings with the media (including the electronic media) every two months or so. These will not be regular meetings of the entire Press Council, but informal get-togethers where we will discuss issues relating to the media and try to resolve them in a democratic way, that is, by discussion, consultation and dialogue. I believe 90 per cent of the problems can be resolved in this way. Second, in extreme cases, where a section of the media proves incorrigible despite trying the democratic method mentioned above, harsher measures may be required. In this connection, I have written to the prime minister requesting him to amend the Press Council Act by bringing the electronic media also under the purview of the Press Council (which may be renamed the Media Council) and by giving it more teeth — for example, the power to suspend government advertisements or in extreme cases, even the licence of the media houses for some time. As Goswami Tulsidas said: “Bin bhaya hot na preet.” This, however, will be resorted to only in extreme cases and after the democratic method has failed.

It may be objected that this is interfering with the freedom of the media. There is no freedom which is absolute. All freedoms are subject to reasonable restrictions, and are also coupled with responsibilities. In a democracy everyone is accountable to the people, and so is the media.

To sum up: The Indian media must now introspect and develop a sense of responsibility and maturity. That does not mean that it cannot be reformed. My belief is that 80 per cent of those who are doing the wrong thing can be made good people by patient persuasion, pointing out their errors and gently leading them to the honourable path which the print media in Europe in the Age of Enlightenment was following.


The writer is a former Supreme Court judge and [current] Chairman of the Press Council of India

No comments:

Post a Comment