Recently, the Opposition’s I.N.D.I.A bloc announced that it will no longer participate in TV shows hosted by 14 news anchors perceived to be overtly close to the ruling regime headed by the BJP. This surprised many people, including the BJP and its supporters, who have called it an assault on the rights of the media and even compared to it to the Emergency period, arguing it contravenes the right to free speech. But for anyone even with a passing familiarity with Indian television news channels, the boycott would hardly have come as a surprise, given that large parts of the TV media have given up their primary job of unbiased journalism and to hold power to account. Instead, they seem to have become BJP supporters, hosting partisan debates that openly support the ruling party while continually attacking the Opposition.
Media freedom is non-negotiable and no government or political party should dictate terms to the media or try to regulate it. But the important question is: in the name of free speech, should hate-mongering TV anchors spew venom against the Opposition, demonise a particular faith and divide society on religious lines? This is the question the Opposition’s media boycott has brought into focus. The line between news and propaganda has been so blurred that most people have lost the ability to distinguish between the two. This has been happening for a long time and many TV anchors’ terrible standards of journalism, at the cost of objectivity and integrity, needed to be called out.
Not all the people who have opposed the boycott are genuine defenders of press freedom; certainly not the BJP spokespersons and its supporters. In the case of those who are genuinely driven by the grand ideals of journalism, their concerns are valid but the merit of their argument that the boycott is an “ominous sign for democracy” or “it is something that is not done” is not convincing enough, given that most them have been silent for years while a large section of the TV media was busy peddling hatred and falsehood day in and day out. Not only was their silence on media’s blatant pro-government bias and constant pillorying of the Opposition in the pretext of journalism unfair, but the fall of media into a pliant mouthpiece of the ruling regime also did not seem to bother them.
The dramatic exit of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government in 2014 and equally dramatic rise of Narendra Modi in the echelons of BJP was a testimony to the might of the media which did not spare the UPA government on almost anything. It was a classic example of free media in a vibrant democracy, which could shake the government and make or break careers of politicians and powerful people. So, what triggered such a dramatic fall that the media preferred to become a “caged parrot”, singing paeans of the BJP and the government? The partisan, pro-government way the media has been functioning over the last nine years did not happen suddenly and without the complicity of media houses. The Modi government’s biggest push over the past decade has been to discipline the media houses that are critical of the ruling regime and the BJP.
As reasonable, thoughtful journalists and experts of all kinds played a key part in the growth of the kind of media we have today, the space for real journalism, especially on TV all but vanished. There were already media houses that were aligned to the BJP and its parent organisation, the RSS. Their political biases were not easily masked. But other media houses, always conscious of their profits and fear of the income tax department caved in to the government’s demand for partisanship. There were a few exceptions though, but their number is miniscule. In simple words, the steep fall of the media is a result of a certain way of governance that seeks a pliant media ecosystem at the national level.
Consequently, news television evolved into a daily fare of incendiary misinformation designed to vilify the Opposition and government’s critics, amplify hate against Muslims, and support the BJP or government campaign against the Opposition parties and non-BJP state governments. In such a biased ecosystem, the Opposition has had little chance to be heard. Therefore, characterising the Opposition boycott as an infringement of free speech is misplaced, as it neither controls the levers of the state, nor the corporations that run the media houses. Hence, the Opposition has little power to control free speech even if it wanted to do so. It is true that some of the Opposition parties like the Congress or Trinamool Congress do not have a shinning record about press freedom. But it is also true that these parties or the BJP before 2014 are many light years behind the current BJP.
Press freedom is for journalists and not to those who sit in TV studios and spew venom, divide society, question secularism, pluralism and diversity and support communalism and majoritarianism. It is not a surprise that the Opposition has decided to pick its media interactions. The list produced by the INDIA bloc is just a tip of the iceberg; the rot has spread much deeper and many more names could have been included. The only surprise is that the decision by I.N.D.I.A alliance came so late, given that the Opposition has been severely constrained by the sheer partisan role of the media for a long time. By boycotting certain TV shows and one-sided debates, the Congress and other Opposition parties will not be part of what is essentially a fixed match.
One prominent politician who has stayed away from the media is Narendra Modi. In his nearly 10 years as prime minister, he has not answered a single question from a journalist that was not previously approved. He has not had a single press conference. There have been a few “staged” interviews with “friendly” TV anchors that were more like promotional interactions. But the prime minister is all over the place on TV, as news channels often broadcast his political and election campaigns in full. They also report every banal pronouncement and endless procession of inaugurations that form the bulk of his public appearances as prime minister. But the Opposition hardly gets any space on prime-time television. There is little doubt in the Opposition’s claim that it is being asked to play a rigged game by large sections of the media and it has every right to refuse to be part of this.
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule