World Press Freedom Day: People’s Media Keeps Power in Check

Critiquing the media, Mark Twain said, “There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’ speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”

In India, problems have to fight for precedence. With people so many, economic and social strata so layered, and diversity so diverse indeed, there is naturally an abundance of pressing problems in India, each eyeing for attention. And by this token of abundance, there is never a scarcity of stories for the Indian media – never a story less, and never an angle less either. However, this abundance and diversity has rarely been relayed by Indian media, in effect creating echo chambers of discourse.

As I write this, the biggest story of the week has been that all villages in India have access to power supply. This is the headline carried by leading newspaper, Times of India while Hindustan Times’ opening line applauded the government and said: “The fact that all of India’s nearly 600,000 villages are electrified is an achievement worth celebrating.” Instead of calling out the government’s bluff right from the headline by pointing out the discrepancies in the PM’s sweeping statement, and saving people from deception and an untimely outburst of nationalism, most of the press participated in the false promotion of propaganda when India is only one year away from national elections. One needs to get into the fine print of the copy to understand what the government actually means by electrification. You will find that the data is restricted to inhabited villages, and the fact that the government currently considers a village electrified if only 10% of the households and public places including schools, panchayat offices and health centres have electricity. The media’s immediate response should have been to raise questions and point out loopholes instead of ingratiating the government.

The media wears many hats – their shapes, sizes and colour might differ, but their role remains the same. It’s a medium of disseminating information – the truth – to the public so that they can keep power in check. And the theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day is exactly this: Keeping Power in Check, addressing the role of media in sustaining an environment of transparency, accountability, thereby creating a channel to maintain the rule of law.

The relationship between the media, achieving justice and maintaining the rule of law is an interdependent one and perhaps one that maintains the contrast between a tyranny and a democracy – a difference that is so heavily contingent on how free the press is. On the same note, Albert Maysles said, tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.

You’ve probably heard it all (but today calls for a few reiterations here and there) – a media organisation, ideally, is supposed to hold the government accountable by keeping the public informed on its actions in a completely detached manner by remaining absolutely divorced from the government’s agenda. The sanctity of a democracy is heavily dependent on the political participation of the people, and it is here that the media plays an intermediary role.

The concept of democracy is a beautiful one and one that surely reaches far beyond free and fair elections – it is the rule of the people. But how can people respond to the inactions of the government if both the government and the media is centralised? Tell me how a village in the hinterland of Chhattisgarh can keep power in check, hold a government sitting thousands of kilometres away in the capital of New Delhi accountable? When neither power nor the media is decentralised and when the media is moreover bought out by big corporations who are also giving money in big digits to those in power, then it is easier to make sweeping statements such as “all villages in India have been electrified”.

According to the Centre for Media Studies, in 2016 only 0.24% of the stories in the national dailies were village level stories even though 69% of Indians live in villages. To put this fact another way, 69% of the stories, 69% perspectives are getting lost in the hay because, currently, the media is in the grip-hold of a select few who set the agenda, the tone, what can be told, and what can be left unsaid.

Coal mining in Chhattisgarh is a classic case-in-point example of the dearth of perspectives and voices getting lost in mainstream media. The state and its people have been notoriously robbed of their natural resources in order to meet India’s coal demand. One in six of the 87,000 people in Chhattisgarh who have been displaced because of coal mining are Adivasis. How many times have you heard this side of the story of the people whose livelihood and traditions are so closely dependent on nature are being forced out of homes so that metropoles can get electricity 24 hours, when they continue to live in the dark? It will be hard for a journalist sitting in a comfortable AC newsroom in New Delhi or Mumbai, so divorced from the ground realities of those living the story, to suss the tale of a family being forced out of their home, without even a proper rehabilitation package.

Community media rings true to the essence of the press. Just like mainstream media owned by big corporations self-censors itself as an obsequious gesture to its owners and advertisers, community media is owned by those who are living the stories they deliver, and so their stories are most often “unheard” and draw out the reality of their environment. Video Volunteers’ Community Correspondent network is both diverse at the level of representation, as well as geographically diverse. This creates space for different perspectives – be it that of women, men, Dalit or Adivasis – as well as stories from various parts of the country that otherwise get left out due to the lack of representation from these communities in the media and also because most mainstream media organisations exist in metropolitan cities.

Very few countries in the world actually have a free press – according to a 2013 report by Freedom House, an organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, only 14% of the world’s people live in a country with a completely free press. Though India technically has a free press, it is suffocating itself in exchange for big bucks, high ratings, and a foot in the door of power, and at the expense keeping power in check – that will either raise or drown us all.

Video by Video Volunteers’ Production Team

Article by Shreya Kalra, a member of the VV Editorial Team

 

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