Where's free media?

Where's free media?

Between the lines

I was not surprised when television channels did not cover the taking over of a large television news network by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited.

Most channels -- roughly around 300 -- are owned by property dealers who can afford to spend Rs 1 crore, an average monthly expenditure, through money laundering. Every one of them wants to be the Reliance one day.

What has taken me aback is that the press has reported the deal but has preferred to keep quiet. Even though journalism has ceased to be a profession and has become an industry, I was expecting some reactions, at least from the Editors’ Guild of India. But then it is understandable when it has rejected my proposal that editors should also declare their assets public, the demand which they voice for politicians. Double standards make a mockery of the high pedestal on which the media sit.

I am not against corporations investing in the media. Rising costs and shrinking advertisements have famished the media. Still, ideally, the media should be self sufficient. But since it is not possible for most in the print and electronic media, there has to be a limit on how far the corporations should go. Former prime minister Indira Gandhi had put a ceiling on foreign equity, 26 per cent, in newspapers. For some reasons, this limit was not extended to television. Maybe, the air is difficult to control. The principle of curtailing the ownership of outsiders is understandable.

If foreign equity -- a Trojan horse -- cannot go beyond a limit the Indian corporations too should have a Lakshman rekha which they should not cross. But then they are too powerful because politicians depend on them for their luxurious living and for fighting elections. Needless to say that there is quid pro quo. Some politicians are also said to own or having some shares in television channels.

For some reasons, successive governments at the centre have rejected the demand for a press or media commission. Since independence there have been only two. One was soon after the Independence and the other after the emergency in 1977. The recommendations of the latter were not even considered because Mrs Gandhi refused to look at any step suggested during the post-emergency period. (The commendable Police Reforms report also became a casualty).

The government headed by Narendra Modi is a complete departure from the past and should appoint a commission to assess the position of media since Mrs Gandhi’s rule. There has been no appraisal of the role of television because India, not even Doordarshan, was familiar with the electronic media at that time. The most important aspect is the ownership of newspapers, television and radio by the same house or individuals. Even America has some kind of control over cross ownership. But there is no such bar in India where it is like putting up yet another factory.

I am all for the freedom of the press. In fact, I have been disturbed by the statement of the new information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar. He has, no doubt, assured the press freedom but has put a caveat that it demands responsibility. Why this reminder is beyond me. Indian press has been inferior to none in upholding the value system which politicians have destroyed. There is no example of irresponsible behaviour of the press since Independence. This cannot be said about the government which had imposed censorship during the emergency in 1975.

Withstanding pressure

Even now, newspapers in several states have to withstand the pressure and punishment of chief ministers. Advertisements, the main source of income for small newspapers, are distributed to reward supporters and denied to the critics. And whatever is spent by the government, it is tax payers’ money.

The carrot of advertisements works in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well. Governments dangle it without hesitation. Thus crores of rupees are at the disposal of rulers to exert influence. The story of corporations and individuals controlling the media is no different from that of India.

In the last few weeks, I have had an opportunity to visit Bangladesh and Pakistan in that order. Their messy politics and the sway of military in governance deserve a full article. I am limiting my column to the media which, without doubt, influence politics as well. Bangladesh has more TV channels, almost all in Bengali, than daily newspapers. But for a few exceptions more in the print medium than the electronic one, the opinion is in favour of the government in power.

Pakistan, still a feudal state in many ways, has more assertive media in the subcontinent. Hamid Mir of a television channel was physically assaulted. But there are numerous journalists who brave every day threats. A few are also a target of extremists and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The media men and women still cover events boldly and by and large truly.

What the media can say with authenticity is that the owners of the press and TV channels are no more foreigners in the entire subcontinent. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought the help of big industrial houses to oust the British ownership of leading newspapers. Bennett Coleman pushing the Times of India, foreign owners of The Mail in Madras and The Pioneer at Lucknow changed hands. The Statesman was taken over by a consortium of industrialists blessed by Nehru.

True, the media has come a long way. Still, current annual report of the Press Council of India is helplessly demanding the television channels to come under its purview. The rulers continue to turn a deaf ear to what is asked. The Council says: “For quite some time an issue has arisen about the need for qualification for entry into the profession of journalism. Since the media is a fully developed field and has an important influence on the lives of the people, the time has now come when some qualification should be prescribed by law.”

Regretfully, the attention of the media is focused more on marketing and packaging. Indeed, they are important, but the contents should have the priority. Alas! that is receding farther and farther.