By Syed Ali Mujtaba, Copy Edited by Alizah Rizvi, USA, TIO: The celebrated journalist from the Philippines, Maria Ressa has won the Nobel Peace Prize for outstanding work in the field of journalism amidst increasingly adverse conditions in her country. Her recognition undoubtedly is a victory for the freedom of the press and for the critical approach to journalism that is necessary for a healthy democracy.
Maria Ressa is the CEO and co-founder of an online news organization called ‘Rappler.’ Rappler is known for tough reporting on various issues confronting the Philippines. It’s reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly drug war that has made Maria Ressa an iconic figure being a whistleblower against the establishment. She is also known for fighting against disinformation peddled on social media like Facebook.
Ressa once reportedly have said; the spread of fake news has put democracies at risk, and the journalists to do better reporting have to stop the spread of such disinformation campaigns. The 58-year-old journalist has been convicted of cyber libel and was arrested in 2019 that evoked worldwide outrage for being harassed. She continues to fight several legal battles crusading for the freedom of the press. TIME magazine named her among the “Guardians” of press freedom and recognized her as the person of the Year in 2018.
In India press is controlled by the government, corporate lobby, and political groups among others. It’s through such ownership patterns that media in India is shaping the political, social, and cultural landscape in the country. The media stakeholders in India are engaged in constructing an environment that best can be described as a mediatized society. On one hand, there is a huge proliferation of media, on the other; the falling image of press freedom is glaringly visible in India. Media is no more a custodian of democracy but a commodity for business purposes. The commodification of news is all-pervasive in India.
In India media is in control of corporate cartels or under the influences of the government and is reduced to being their mouthpiece. In fact, many in the press corps are either ‘presstitutes’ or the master’s voice that’s the government. This can be seen in the coverage of Tablighi Jamat corona news during the first wave of Covid in 2020. How the media collaborated with the Indian Government to build Tablighi Jamat news as a diversionary tactic to cover up the government’s failure is a bright example.
The divisionary tactic by the media was a well-thought-out plan in collaboration with the government to deflect people’s attention from the government mismanagement of the Covid situation. What could have been a story directed against the Indian government’s inefficiency to contain the virus, was turned around media to target the Tablighi Jammat members obviously to fulfill the government’s agenda to cover up its failures. This was in complete disregard to ethics of journalism or being custodians of democracy.
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There are global reviews that paint a gloomy picture of the Indian media. This falling standard of the Indian press is a talking point in many global reports. The Edelman report, says that people’s trust in media is at an all-time low in India. This online survey measures media trust covering 28 countries and dubs Indian media as the second most corrupt institution in the world.
The ‘Pew Research Center,’ another international body, says that the major concerns of Indian people are the onslaught of fake news and incorrect information circulated through the media. The survey adds that social media is the most unreliable source of information in India. In terms of press freedom, “Reporters without Borders,” a Paris-based organization ranks India at 138th position out of 180 countries. The same organization had ranked India at 136 in 2017 and gave 80th position out of 139 countries in 2002.
India’s falling press image is all-pervasive across the media platforms. Electronic media, print media, the social media, are no more custodians of democracy. Ethical and moral journalism are consigned to textbooks. Indian media indulge in unethical practices to earn huge profits. Electronic media is the most obnoxious face of the Indian press. The television media is engaged in hate-mongering, agenda-setting, and manufacturing consent for the ruling class. There is no morality in the news presentations and television media has crossed all limits of ethical journalism.
In the TV debates, communalism oozes out of the screens of the TV sets. The undercurrent theme is to denigrate the Muslim community and assert the superiority of the Hindu community. One wonders, why such debate is conducted in the first place and what purpose does it serve for the good of the country. Is communalizing society, the job of the media?
The TV channels are making a killing through hate-mongering, peddling the communal agenda, and legitimizing the acts of the ruling class. The mantra is; more venom a speaker spits on television, the more eyeballs the channel gets, the more TRP is reaped and more profit is earned. These debates act as a tonic for some and pain others; nonetheless, they are reflective of the declining standers of the press in India. The same is also true to a large extent about print and web media.
It’s an inspiring moment for journalists all over the world. The Nobel peace prize conferred on Maria Ressa prompts the journalists to work with the honesty of purpose and not get tempted by the allurements offered by the government or the society. Ressa’s Nobel is recognition of her tireless effort to hold the press freedom, truth, and accountability. Her recognition draws international attention to the plight of declining standards of journalism worldwide and more especially in India.
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Ressa’s Nobel win came at an important time when press freedom is at rock bottom in India. Her prize gives hope to the Indian journalists to remain honest, ethical, and moral to their profession. This award conferred on this crusading journalist from the Philippines has come at a time when basic freedom of expression is being stifled in India. Media as a custodian of democracy is reduced to manufacturing consent in favor of the government in India.
There are many that have lost hope in the freedom of the press in India, however, others are of the view that ethical journalism is under crisis way due to many pressures. This fading image of the press has the potential to bounce back to the lofty ideals of journalism. The optimist feels that once this tendentious phase of Indian politics is over, the dignity of press freedom will be restored in the country.
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On a personal note, I like to conclude that I met Maria Ressa at the media conferences in several Asian cities, the last being in Singapore in 2018. In a candid conversion, Maria told me, “ Look all my friends who started as journalists with me have really become big, monetarily as well as in terms of power and position, many are having their own business empires but I am there where I started, holding the flag of press freedom.”
After meeting Maria Ressa I wrote a Facebook post; the year 2018 has been a very satisfying year for me. I met the iconic journalist MARIA RESSA from the Philippines earlier this year in Singapore. People like Ressa inspire a whole generation of journalists’ world over due to her commendable work. Ressa combines traditional media with the new media and uses mobile phone technology to bring social change. Her work in the digital age has redefined the boundaries of journalism. Her courage to speak for the truth and her passion to unearth fake news is appreciated worldwide. Maria Ressa who in her over 30 years career of journalism never succumbed to any temptations has made her an iconic figure to all the journalists who follow her work. TIME Magazine has rightly recognized her contribution and named her the person of the year. I salute this fellow Journalist from the Philippines… SAM!
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Syed Ali Mujtaba is a Jefferson fellow at the East-West Center Hawaii and Maria Ressa has also been a fellow at the EWC. SAM is based in Chennai and can be contacted at email@example.com