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By Vijaylakshmi Nadar, Bureau Chief, Edited By Adam Rizvi, TIO: Media has lost its bite for a while now. The defanging process began in 2014 itself, when the prime minister Narendra Modi’s government swiftly got to work to change both the outlook and the priority of the media, along with other institutions, including the judiciary. Within a matter of months, ground reporting went for a toss, with media channels replacing real journalists, with flashy, loud anchors forwarding the government’s agenda, rather than raising issues of real concern of the common man. The media complied with this, enjoying the initial high, while journalists and media houses, which hung on to their independence like NDTV were hounded, with false cases.
The media has regularly come under fire for not being able to hold the prime minister or his government up for scrutiny, even in the face of compelling circumstances. It instead played an active role in the BJP’s campaign to equate every question raised against the government as being against national interest.
Narendra Modi’s governance model has no place for independent and inconvenient news. As far as the government is concerned, once they are elected, the media or even the voters have no business questioning them.
The vulnerable media which had a faulty model, to begin with, surviving heavily on corporate and government ads, surrendered to the government’s will, presuming that was the only way to survive and thrive. However, a collapsing economy, meant corporate ads drying up, and fast dropping credibility meant losing their readership and viewership as well, which further eroded their earnings. An enforced, the rigid lockdown has hit out at their very existence, resulting in a complete meltdown of staff. Though the weakest of them are the first victims of the meltdown, the coming days are expected to be even more brutal, sparing none. Top media houses have already started trimming drastically whether it is the highly profitable Times group, Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Outlook or channels like India Today, Zee, News Nation, Aaj Tak, and several others.
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In the very first spell of the lockdown of about 21 days, media was hard hit by fall in ad revenue and restricted circulation, causing them to trim their staff without any warning, sending them on furlough, or trimming their salaries, until further notice. A lot more are likely to fall prey at the end of the second lockdown on May 3,
In the previous regimes too, journalists owed allegiances to the various parties, but they co-existed with no fear of losing jobs. But all that changed after 2014. There a direct attack on journalists critical of those attacking the government, and they started losing their jobs without a warning. What followed was dangerous levels of self-censorship, out of fear, which instead of making them secure, weakened their institution instead.
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In the past, journalists who were pressured to toe their lines by respective governments always had the option to seek relief from the courts. But courts too are under severe pressure now, to not give relief to any troubled sections.
The media was sucked into silence when BJP launched its beef politics and incidents of lynching started pouring in from states like UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana. Instead of reporting those, news anchors indulged in blaming the victims, whether it was the Dalit’s or the Muslims. Several rapes went unreported, just because BJP leaders were directly or indirectly involved in them. Tragic was the case of the Unnao rape victim in Uttar Pradesh, involving BJP leader Kuldeep Sengar. The trauma endured by the victim, first to draw attention to the heinous crime she was subjected to, the struggle to get the police to act on it, losing first her father and then other family members and her lawyer and then finally herself, before Sengar was found guilty by the courts, all of which was under-reported.
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The complicity of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, in protecting the rapist, went unquestioned and soon a message went out that not just the prime minister, his ministers, and party men but even a troll associated with the Modi government would not be questioned.
In November 2016, when Modi overnight reduced 86 percent of the country’s currency, to dust, presumably to destroy the black money in circulation, the media was forced to champion the destructive event, rather than ask some critical questions. Even dissing alarm bells rung by well-known economists, who warned of a terrible economic downfall. It was soon evident in India’s growth rate crashing for several quarters now, showing no signs of recovery. The media instead kept up with the shrill, fake and meaningless debates and reports on Hindus/Muslims, India/Pakistan, to distract, unmindful of their own falling TRP’s and circulation.
In an open letter written last year, more than a hundred economists and social scientists expressed concern that India’s statistical machinery was being “controlled by political considerations.” Again, India’s media barely covered the letter’s release, continuing to drum in the “all is well” narrative by the Modi government.
Modi who made himself a contender to the prime minister’s post by mocking Dr. Manmohan Singh as the silent one is the only prime minister in independent India who never addressed a single press conference in his entire five-year term, showing scant respect for the media or to the populace. A trend which continues in the first year of his second term, despite looming health and economic crisis sparked off by COVID 19, which has tied the entire world in knots.
According to Reporters Without Borders, India ranks 140 out of 180 countries for press freedom, behind war-torn Afghanistan and South Sudan. In 2002, India had ranked 80 of 139 countries surveyed. The steady decline, despite criticism from several quarters, including the international media, has not just destroyed its credibility but is threatening its very existence now. Like every industry, the media industry too is suffering the consequences of a rapidly shrinking economy.
“People get news on their phones now. With more than 600 million mobile phone users nationwide, 400 million monthly active users of WhatsApp, and about 250 million Facebook users, sources of news have significantly changed for Indians.
Television stations were quick to get rid of basic journalistic rules, with even seasoned reporters surrendering to the inane demands of the present government. The quality of reporting fell and claims like the Rs 2000 note has a hidden chip, by ZEE TV anchor Sudhir Chaudhary became a subject of ridicule, Editors taking selfies with the prime minister, at a meet hosted by him, was just a symptom of a deeper malaise afflicting the media.
Theatrics peppered with loud shrill voices to bat for nationalism and communalism, anchors dressing up in fatigues, after the airstrikes on Balakot, in a strange ‘space suit’ during the launch of the satellite into Mars, all in a bid to arrest falling TRP’s, soon turned into a horrible nightmare.
Clearly dishing out the same communal hate drama night after night have all contributed to its impending death. The channels which have all started looking identical now reached new levels of disgust when they all read out from an identical script trying to blame the Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray of mismanaging the migrant issue. The chief minister followed up his threat of arresting all those giving a communal twist to the news even in a crisis, with a police case and subsequently arresting the senior journalist Rahul Kulkarni of Zee news Marathi. That single arrest caused such a sea change amongst the rabid anchors, that it is a mystery why chief ministers of other states haven’t taken similar actions in the past.
Though the president of the Editor’s Guild, Rajat Sharma, and one of the rabid anchors himself, opposed the arrest of the journalist, it cut no ice whatsoever with the chief minister.
So desperate were they to fall in line with the government’s communal agenda, for fear of losing their jobs, that they are losing them anyway. Like Bhupendra Chaubey of CNN-News 18, who stepped down early this month from the channel after 15 years, six of which were spent mouthing the government agenda. He is now reduced to playing with various digital media, operating with insufficient light, far away from jazzy, brightly lit studios to get his voice across. For an anchor, whose journalism in the last few years had been far removed from the common man, is now focused on the plight of the migrant labor.
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Social media which has also undermined the existence of the media, and which has proved to be a handy and effective tool for the Modi government to spread half-truths and fake news, is also becoming the preferred medium for the common man, available for free. It is estimated that between 2016 and 2018 alone, the number of Indians using social networks grew from 168 million to 326 million, which has been effectively used by the government to attack everyone, including journalists, activists, political opponents who are critical of the government.
Punya Prasoon Joshi, one of the journalists badly hurt by the present government for exposing one of its pet projects also revealed in an interview that the government had employed about 200 people to spy on the media and send instructions/threats to editors on how they must report on the prime minister’s activities.
The editor of the Hindustan Times, Bobby Ghosh, was forced to resign after a hate tracker launched by him to keep an account of the hate crimes in the country was not appreciated.
It was a matter of time before Mukesh Ambani who has a huge stake in Modi’s growth, emerged as one of India’s most prominent media barons, owning large chunks of various media. Though some independent media founded by disenchanted senior journalists like Siddharth Varadarajan of The Wire, found their space online, followed by several others like Scroll, Caravan, News Click, News Minute their growth is limited because of their complete dependency on subscriptions, to free them of corporate funding in an effort to stay neutral and ad-free.
Modi and his ministers have a low tolerance level for criticism, however factually correct it is. The Wire alone faced more than a dozen defamation suits filed by BJP politicians and their family members, businessmen including Jay Shah and Anil Ambani, and even a godman, known to be close to the establishment, collectively claiming damages of over a billion dollars, enough to wipe them off. Defamation cases are easiest to file, without any proof which then takes years to shake off, at a considerable cost of time and money.
By threatening to cut off government advertising or ordering tax investigations, or filing false cases against them or send their ugly troll army after them, Modi government has been able to keep the editors largely in check, to continue reporting on BJP’s divisive, ugly politics in their bid to turn the country from a religiously tolerant, secular country to a Hindu majority nation,
Everything that Modi does, however detrimental it is to the common man, has to be projected positively “in nation’s interest”, whether during demonetization or now during the coronavirus lockdown. With a notice of barely four hours, Modi launched the biggest lockdown in the world, not caring a dime for the over a million migrant laborers who lead a daily tragic existence far away from home.
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Where most developed countries have done lockdowns in a phased manner, if at all, only a Modi would take a “tough” stance like this, in a bid to lock up a population of 1.3 billion, with zero readiness. Directing top media professionals to publish only “inspiring and positive news”, while the political machinery kept on with their communal agenda, giving even the virus an Islamic identity. The stranded migrants, hungry, tired, and fearful, took to the streets to walk 100’s of miles to their hometowns, which was ignored by the media and the government. The media tried their usual tricks to crucify non-BJP chief ministers, starting with Delhi, and then trolling Thackeray, resulting in the arrest of the journalist.
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India probably has the largest media network in the world. More than 17,000 newspapers, 100,000 magazines, 178 television news channels, and countless websites in dozens of languages, almost all of which have been subjugated to carry on with the ruling party’s agenda.
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