The State of Journalism in India
In 2011, a special report in The Economist outlined how the newspaper industry is on the decline in America and Western Europe but is thriving in emerging markets especially India. Years down the line, in several large markets globally, the print media has lost its readership to online news, a trend that has seen a corresponding reconfiguration in content — from old-fashioned in-depth journalistic pieces to news that often has to be tailored to appeal to the online readership.
And yet, a 2017 report by the media investment agency Group M emphatically stated that “India is the only large market in the world where print is growing.” The Indian Readership Survey 2017 showed that the print media in India added 110 million new readers between 2014 and 2017, a whopping 40 percent jump in readership. Television and online news media have similarly witnessed exponential growth.
The bullish growth story should, however, not be confused with a vibrant and free press. Freedom of press does not only mean freedom from direct State or corporate ownership of the news media but it also means freedom from the insidious ways in which such controls operate regardless of the ownership patterns.
Independent India saw its first major threat to its free press when a state of national emergency was declared between 1975 and 1977 by the then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who, as part of her clamp-down on detractors, went on to order raids in newspaper offices and shut down many of them. Today the controls work and flourish much more stealthily.
The heavy dependence of Indian news media on advertising revenue leads to news often being compromised or subject to self-censorship. The reliance on corporate ad revenues means that media organizations barely take on powerful individuals and companies that engage in real estate and land scams, illegal mining corporations that wreak havoc on fragile rural ecosystems, or vested interests that lobby for privatization of public services and commons. Similarly, the dependence on government ads, especially during elections, has been one of the most effective ways of media control in India. This dependence is a cause of concern for freedom of press more so in recent times with the resurgence of a Hindu right wing establishment that thrives on the marginalization of minority communities.
More than half a century ago, Arthur Miller remarked that a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself. However, in India, any attempt to have such a conversation that questions that government is labeled as ‘anti-national’ as the nation is conflated with the establishment.
The bolstering of the Hindu right has meant an increase in lynching of members of the minority communities for their food preference by self-proclaimed gau rakshaks (cow saviors). It has seen an increase in atrocities against the deprived Dalit (traditionally the untouchables in the caste system) and tribal communities. It has manifested itself in the killing of rationalists, human rights activists, left-leaning ideologues, and journalists who question those in power. A section of the Indian media, which started out critiquing the changing face of the nation since 2014, is now often complicit in much of this polarization on grounds of religion, caste, and ideology. This complicity is evident in the brazenness of certain news channels who have taken it upon themselves to defend the government at any cost and in the silence of newspapers that refuse to report on certain issues that calls the role of the government into question.
The emerging new media online has been able to break some of these shackles by going for funding models sustained by donations of readers and philanthropic organizations. However, the very nature of the online media, still very nascent in India and struggling for survival, requires it to limit its content to click-bait news or opinion pieces instead of objective journalistic reportage. Moreover, in a country like India, where the digital penetration is still very low, the traditional media outlets - especially the many regional print and broadcast news channels - still hold a considerable sway as the forth pillar of democracy.
One way of lessening the reliance on ad revenue is to gradually base the revenue model on subscription costs rather than just advertisements. A February 2016 report in The Economist shows how low Indian newspapers are priced by drawing a comparison between the annual subscription rates of a few Indian papers and the cost of a single Sunday edition of New York Times, both costs the same __about $5.80 or INR 399.
Another way is to explore how a publication such as The Guardian has managed to thrive and hold onto its core principles - by raising funds through think tanks, individuals, and organizations. This model ensures that issues such as modern slavery and development, issues that are much prevalent in India but receive little or no space, still continue to receive wide coverage as the donors demand coverage of these specific issues.
As for the question of how the Indian media covers religion, the topic has traditionally been almost always in the forefront only in case of a crises such as communal riots or terror attacks sponsored by the Hindu Right wing or extremist Islamic organisations. This trend has only increased in the last four years, perhaps deservedly so, with the spate of lynching of members of the Muslim community over their food choices (beef consumption and handling). More recently, media discourse around religion has opened up to address issues of gender justice. These healthy conversations are mostly the result of some landmark cases in the judiciary - declaring triple talaq to be unconstitutional (male-utterance of instantaneous divorce), or the court order allowing women the right to pray in temples and mosques that they were hitherto forbidden from entering.
There are still sticky issues that the State and the judiciary have to deal with - from an appeal to outlaw female genital mutilation among a particular sect of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims in India, to the accusations of sexual abuse in Catholic churches. A trap that the some of the high-on-histrionics news channels often fall into while covering such issues is that under that grab of a liberal discourse they often end up demonising the minority religions instead of holding a rational discussion on only the practices that needs to be discarded. One way of doing away with such stereotypical understanding of religious minorities is by ensuring regular coverage of multi-faith and multi-cultural issues in the media at all times. This is has been a practice at the BBC which has had a post for the Head of Religion and Ethics meant to promote programming across its channels on issues centred on faith. Promoting an active and positive discourse around matters of faith, irrespective of the media group’s own personal beliefs, is important for a country such as India where its largest minority is its most persecuted and marginalized group. The Indian media’s rejection of any religious discourse, except during crises, partly stems from its belief that it is the only way to prove its secular outlook. However, the Indian Constitution, which advocates secularism, also guarantees the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate any religion of one’s choice. And it is the responsibility of the media to ensure that its coverage reflects and upholds these principles enshrined in the Indian Constitution.