Shedding its fiery past, Indian media now prostrates to powers that be

Our media has lost much of its collective voice; it now occupies a space that is no less alarming than in Russia or Turkey

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Newspaper publishers are seeing their share of the advertising pie shrinking in the digital space. Photo: iStock

The ‘sanitised’ front pages of a prominent Delhi newspaper over the last few days is a telling commentary on the state of the India media.

Several top Indian women wrestlers have been back on the streets of the city since Sunday to protest against their ‘sexual harassment’ allegedly at the hands of the top boss of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) but the multi-centered newspaper which sells more in Delhi than anywhere else has been surprisingly muted.

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Under normal circumstances, the sight of medal-winning wrestlers protesting on the streets should have set off a frenzied media coverage.

The story had all the necessary ingredients – from celebrity victims to a VIP accused, who incidentally is a sitting BJP MP. There was sex too to top it all for the newspapers and television channels to freak out.

Abnormal times

But these are abnormal circumstances, particularly for the media, and the Delhi newspaper has been restrained in its coverage. It carried a report on the wrestlers’ protest on its front page on Monday. Thereafter, the news piece irregularly made to the front pages over at least the next three days.

The newspaper in question hasn’t been the only one developing cold feet. But for a few honourable exceptions, the coverage of this particular protest with a high-profile BJP leader in the dock has been far from extensive. At the most, it has been passing and perfunctory, as with a top television channel.

A look at the website of the television channel, which recently changed hands, throws light on the media’s reluctance to go big on the story. It was top news for some time when the protests broke, but has subsequently been relegated. There has been no let up, though, by the wrestlers seeking justice against a man enjoying tremendous power and privileges.

The media’s quiet burial of the protest story is symptomatic of its near abdication of its prime responsibility of speaking truth to power. While the media whips up near hysteria over select issues – primarily that embarrasses the parties and politicians in the opposition – it tends to suddenly lose its voice and vigour when it comes to criticising the party in power.

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‘Godi media’

Examples of such contrasting media responses are many. The launch of a biography by Ghulam Nabi Azad in which the once veteran Congress leader took potshots at leaders of his former party such as Rahul Gandhi triggered wall-to-wall coverage on prime time television. But when Satyapal Malik, the former governor of Jammu and Kashmir, made explosive revelations about India’s failures over the Pulwama attack that claimed the lives of at least 40 security personnel, the media generally went quiet.

Taking on those in power is no more the preferred preserve of the India media. It is truly living up to its notoriety as Godi Media – a media that firmly sits on the lap of you know who. All the while, India’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index has been steadily slipping. Currently, it is a shocking 150 among 180 countries.

The cozy relationship that has come to define Indian media was on display at events hosted by some mainstream media houses in Delhi in recent weeks. Heaps of praise were showered on the prime minister who was spared all the tough questions. At one event, he was reverentially described as an inspirational figure while at the other, his ‘glowing’ personality got protracted mention.

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Present-day media owners have a lot to gain by being on the side of those in power. The government is a source of revenue in terms of advertisements and events that it sponsors. Not toeing the government line endangers such revenue streams. Also, there is the nagging fear of Enforcement Directorate, Central Bureau of Investigation and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence raids that have now taken almost debilitating proportions.

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The ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ arrangement protects the interests of the owners, but makes the media they own poorer. Worse still, the phenomenon is spreading across the country and is no more confined only to Delhi or in dealings with the ruling BJP.

Indian states

Regional satraps too, though democratically elected, have seized upon the template to silence independent media in their respective turfs.

There is this extremely belligerent newspaper from Kolkata which never passes an opportunity to go after Prime Minister Narendra Modi or his party. But when a very prominent minister of West Bengal got arrested with piles of cash – more than ₹50 crore in last count – the mega story just got a two small paragraph mention the first day on the paper’s front page.

Even an otherwise ‘gentle’ politician such as Naveen Patnaik of Odisha has perfected the art of arm-twisting the media. When OTV – Odisha’s most viewed TV channel owned by the family of his one-time confidant Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda – ran a story a story against the chief minister, the channel had 21 cases registered against it in a span of some 14 days.

Though Panda remains a BJP national vice-president, OTV has supposedly lost much of its shrillness since then.

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The same story of the media’s neutering plays out in state after state – from MK Stalin’s Tamil Nadu to Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh.

Journalists have been harassed, hounded and imprisoned. In some cases, they have lost jobs.

Losing voice

The media in India, consequently, has lost much of its collective voice. It certainly is not as free as the media in the United States which still retains the courage to ask the toughest of questions even to the president. Neither does it find itself in an apocalyptic situation that exists in Russia or Turkey today where the media has been virtually browbeaten into complete silence. Indian media is caught somewhere in between – occupying a space that is no less alarming.

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(The writer is the former Editor-in-Chief of Outlook. He is also the author of Editor Missing: The Media in Today’s India).

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)