People watch Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi address the nation amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus inside a showroom in Ahmedabad, India on March 19, 2020 [Reuters/Amit Dave]

People watch Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi address the nation amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus

inside a showroom in Ahmedabad, India on March 19, 2020 [Reuters/Amit Dave]

by Shruti Chaudhary    9 July 2020

The enigma that India’s media has discovered itself in during the COVID-19 outbreak has been nothing unusual. For much of this decade, India’s mainstream media has been embroiled in skepticism. The media’s dawning state has been a restricted focus since the World Press Freedom Index has ranked India lower in 2020 than the previous year. The reporting on widely viewed news television networks focused on topics that aimed to divert attention from the lapses in handling the pandemic by the Government.

The Observer research foundation reported, “India’s Press Council received more than 7,000 complaints from 2003 to 2016, while it received more than 9,000 complaints from 1990-2000.” These rising figures raised severe threats to the quality of journalism and depicted India’s failure of self-governance.

The recent controversy surrounding the popular journalist and Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami was a powerful example of the vile threat that an unchecked media could pose with biased reporting. Mr. Goswami challenged the Maharashtra government’s role, governed by a coalition of parties that opposed the governing of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre, in his reporting on the Palghar Lynching case. Without sufficient proof, the communal angles were attributed to the situation in his daily prime-time series. The Indian National Congress (a part of the ruling coalition in Maharashtra) and its cadres swung into action. They carelessly filed FIRs in multiple states, which would warrant proceedings against Goswami. He approached the Supreme Court, which refused to quash the FIRs lodged against him. This highlights the lack of an ombudsman at media organizations, which would introspect and moderate its reporting.

Indian media has been a victim of something unusual – self-censorship. This phenomenon has begun to occur with the rampant ties media houses established in their assets with corporate houses with vested interests and the investments by politicians that compromise the value of integrity, authenticity, and freedom. A noteworthy example of this phenomenon in practice is the investment by Mr. Rajeev Chandrasekhar in the Republic Media Network which is known to be exceedingly sympathetic and committed to the cause of the Government; However, Mr. Chandrashekhar was an independent MP at the time; he was known to vote in the Rajya Sabha for the legislative agenda of the ruling party. Public anger over Republic Media Network’s political support led to his resignation in 2018, and he subsequently joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Press freedom must not be made an ideologically affiliated plan at the outset; it is vital for democracy and neither for demagoguery of the left nor the right. The press is an essential organ of Indian democracy, and all members of the political spectrum have to respect this. An emerging trend in the age of politics and journalism based on Twitter has been the vicious trolling of journalists who do not subscribe to right-wing views. In her book ‘I am A Troll: Inside the Secret World of BJP’s Digital Army’ veteran and renowned journalist Swati Chaturvedi analyzed this tactic effectively. The security and safety of journalists who have chosen to speak the truth to power have been a cause of concern with the rising murders of such journalists. Among several heart-wrenching ones, the most chilling incident has been the murder of acclaimed journalist Gauri Lankesh. The investigation in the case was sluggish, sending shockwaves in India’s Press Liberty Halo; the public opinion emerging as adverse. The constant refrain from right-wing ecosystems and the Government itself is that the situation is perfectly fine for media freedom. Their expression is not curbed – I agree that there may not be an open attempt to subvert the press and its criticism, but violence, trolling. A vitiated atmosphere adds to the wave of fear.

The Supreme Court’s position in upholding the foundation of a free and civil culture-a free press-was very abysmal. During the COVID19 pandemic, the Court in Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union of India made its media standards very unambiguous – ‘refer to and reveal the official version of the developments.’ Although the judgment falls short of subverting the media and their freedom, it is no less than a state of affairs in Orwellian. Concerns about fake news and media freedom are not mutually exclusive but must be addressed in tandem. Although false reports must be legally curbed, the Government cannot be given a free ride to silence the media in its fake news attack.

Ordinary viewers, authors, and subscribers must make their complaints heard unambiguously by the media in India, they speak for press freedom. This Orwellian gloom must be dissipated, but the lessons must be learned by journalists who support this muddled state of affairs by witnessing the effects of a dysfunctional and dishonest media. Civil society must call on the Government to make a concerted effort to improve the atmosphere in all seriousness before it is too late.

The Government must strongly reflect on the Supreme Court of India’s opinion in Arnab Ranjan Goswami v. Union of India – “journalistic freedom lies at the heart of speech and expression protected by Article 19(1)(a)”.