Media persons in the Indian subcontinent are crying hoarse and are weeping and wailing over the curbs on media freedom and gagging of press freedom in both India and Pakistan. In India, many complain that they dare not question the government lest they lose their jobs and/or are booked for sedition and on other charges, as indeed many have been. In Pakistan, they lament over the arrest and long detention of Mir Shakil ur Rehman, owner of the Jang group of publications, and harassment of media persons. But is their lament justified? I submit it is not, and I wish to give my reasons.
To understand the role which the media should be playing in India and Pakistan we have to first understand the historical context.
Our subcontinent is presently passing through a transitional period in its history, the transition from a feudal agricultural society to a modern industrial society.
This is a very painful and agonizing period in history. The old feudal society is being uprooted and torn apart, but the new, modern, industrial society has not yet been created. Old values are crumbling, everything is in turmoil. We may recollect the line in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth: “Fair is foul and foul is fair”. What was regarded good earlier, e.g. the caste system, is regarded bad today (at least by the enlightened section of society), and what was regarded bad earlier, e.g. love marriage, is acceptable today (at least to the modern-minded persons).
One is reminded of Firaq Gorakhpuri’s Urdu couplet:
“Har zarre par ek kaifiyat-e-neemshabi hai
Ai saaqi-e- dauraan yeh gunahon ki ghadi hai”
In a marvel of condensation, this sher (couplet) reflects the transitional age. Zarra means particle, kaifiyat means condition, e means of, neem means half, and shab means night. So the first line in the couplet literally means that:
“Every particle is in a condition of half-night”.
Urdu poetry is often to be understood figuratively, not literally. So this line really means that (in the transitional age) everything is in flux, neither night nor day, neither the old order nor the new. Also, in the middle of the night if we get up we are dazed, in a state of mental confusion, and so are people in a transitional age.
In the second line, saaqi is the girl who fills the wine cup, but she is also the person to whom one can confide one’s innermost thoughts. The poet is imagining a woman, to whom he is describing the features of the transitional era. ‘Yeh gunahon ki ghadi hai’, i.e. it is the time of sin. In this transitional age it is a ‘gunahon ki ghadi’ from both points of view. From the point of view of people of the old, feudal order it is a sin to marry according to your choice, and particularly outside one’s caste or religion, it is a sin to give education to women, it is a sin to treat everyone as equal. At the same time, from the point of view of modern minded people the caste system is a sin, denying education to girls is a sin, love marriage is acceptable, and equality is a basic value. Thus old and new ideas are clashing with each other in the transitional age.
It is the duty of all patriotic people, including the media, to help our society get over this transition period quickly and with less pain. The media has a very important role to play in this transition period, as it deals with ideas, not commodities. So by its very nature, the media cannot be like an ordinary business but must give leadership to the people in the realm of ideas.
If we study the history of Europe when it was passing through its transition period, i.e. from the 16th to the 19th Centuries, we find that this was a terrible period in Europe, full of turbulence, turmoil, revolutions, wars, chaos, social churning, and intellectual ferment. It was only after passing through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. The Indian subcontinent is presently going through this fire. We are passing through a very painful and turbulent period in our history.
Historically, the print media emerged in Europe as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time the established organs of power were all in the hands of the feudal despotic authorities (the king, aristocrats, etc). Hence the people had to create new organs that could represent them. That is why the print media became known as the fourth estate. In Europe and America, it represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the established feudal organs which wanted to preserve the status quo. The media thus played an important role in transforming feudal Europe to modern Europe. The print media was at that time not in the form of regular newspapers or journals but often as pamphlets, leaflets, etc which were used to attack feudal ideas and practices.
In the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, the print media represented the voice of reason. Voltaire attacked religious bigotry and superstitions, and Rousseau attacked feudal despotism. Diderot said that “Man will be free when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”. Thomas Paine proclaimed the Rights of Man, and Junius (whose real name we still do not know) attacked the despotic George III and his ministers (see Will Durant’s ‘The Story of Civilization: Rousseau and Revolution’). Louis XVI, while in the Temple prison saw books by Voltaire and Rousseau in the prison library and said that these two persons have destroyed France. In fact, what they had destroyed was not France but the feudal order. In the 19th Century, the famous writer Emile Zola in his article ‘J’ Accuse’ accused the French Government of falsely imprisoning Captain Dreyfus in Devil’s Island only because he was a Jew.
In my opinion, the Indian and Pakistani media should be playing a role similar to the progressive role played by the media in Europe during the transitional period in Europe. In other words, our media should not just report news, but also give leadership to the people in the realm of ideas, and help our countries get over the transition period and became a modern industrial state. This it can do by attacking backward, feudal ideas and practices e.g. casteism, communalism and superstitions, and promoting modern scientific and rational ideas. But is it doing so?
In my opinion, a large section of our media (particularly the electronic media) does not serve the interest of the people, in fact, some of it is positively anti-people.
There are three major defects in our media which I would like to highlight.
1. Our media often diverts the attention of the people from real issues to non-issues. The real issues in the Indian subcontinent are socio-economic, i.e. the terrible poverty in which 80% of our people are living, the massive unemployment, appalling level of child malnourishment, the price rise, lack of proper medical care and good education for the masses, backward social practices like honor killing and caste oppression, religious discrimination and atrocities on minorities, rampant corruption, etc. Instead of devoting most of its coverage to these real issues our media usually focuses on trivialities and nonissues like the lives of film stars, petty politics, fashion parades, pop music, disco dancing, astrology, cricket, reality shows, etc.
There can be no objection to the media providing some entertainment to the people, provided this is not overdone. But if 90% of its coverage is related to entertainment, and only 10% to the real issues facing the nation (mentioned above) then there is something seriously wrong with the media. The whole question is of proportion. In our media the sense of proportion has gone haywire. Entertainment gets 10 times the coverage that unemployment, malnourishment, health, education, labor, agriculture, and environment together get. Does a hungry or unemployed man want entertainment or food and a job?
Many TV channels show cricket day in and day out. Cricket is really the opium of the Indian masses. The Roman Emperors used to say “If you cannot give the people bread give them circuses”. This is precisely the approach of the Indian establishment, duly supported by our media. Keep the people involved in cricket so that they forget their social and economic plight. What is important is not poverty or unemployment or price rise or farmers suicides or lack of housing or healthcare or education, what is important is whether India has beaten New Zealand (or better still Pakistan) in a cricket match, or whether Virat Kohli has scored a century.
Enormous space is given by our media to business and very little to social sectors like health and education. Most media correspondents attend the film stars, fashion parades, pop music, etc. and very few attend to the lives and problems of workers, farmers, students, sex workers, etc.
Some years back a Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai was covered by 512 accredited journalists. In that fashion week, women were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves an hour’s flight from Nagpur in the Vidarbha region. Nobody told that story except one or two journalists locally.
The Indian media coverage of the education field concentrates (if at all) on the elite colleges like the I.I.Ts, but there is very little coverage of the plight of the tens of thousands of primary schools, particularly in rural areas where education begins.
In Europe, the displaced peasants got jobs in the factories which were coming up because of the Industrial Revolution. In India, on the other hand, industrial jobs are now hard to come by. Many mills have closed down and have become real estate. The job trend in manufacturing has seen a sharp decline. Of late, the auto sector in India ( which is regarded as an indicator of the health of the economy ) saw a decline in sales of about 40%. TISCO employed 85,000 workers in 1991 in its steel plant which then manufactured 1 million tons of steel. In 2005 it manufactured 5 million tons of steel but with only 44,000 workers. In mid-90s Bajaj was producing 1 million two-wheelers with 24,000 workers. By 2004 it was producing 2.4 million units with 10,500 workers.
Where then do these millions of displaced peasants go? They go to cities where they became domestic servants, street hawkers, beggars, or even criminals. It is estimated that there are 1 to 2 lac adolescent girls from Jharkhand working as maids in Delhi. Prostitution is rampant in all cities, due to abject poverty. 12 million youth are entering the job market in India every year, but jobs have become less due to the economic recession.
In the field of health care, it may be pointed out that the number of quacks in every city in India is several times the number of regular doctors. This is because poor people cannot afford to go to a regular doctor. In rural areas, the condition is worse. The government doctors posted to primary health centers usually come for a day or two each month and run their private nursing homes in the cities the rest of the time.
In ‘Shining’ India, the child malnutrition figures are the worst in the world. According to UNICEF data and Global Hunger Index, the percentage of underweight children below the age of 5 years in the poorest countries in the world is 25 percent in Guinea Bissau, 27 percent in Sierra Leone, 38 percent in Ethiopia, and 48 percent in India. One-third of all malnourished children in the world are Indian children. The average family in India is consuming 100 kilograms of food grains less than it did 10 years ago (see P. Sainath’s article ‘Slumdogs and Millionaires’).
All this is largely ignored by our media which turns Nelson’s eye to the harsh economic realities facing up to 80 percent of our people and instead concentrates on some Potempkin villages where all is glamour and show biz. Our media is largely like Queen Marie Antoinette, who when told that the people have no bread, said that they could eat cake ( see my article ‘ Why celebrate Republic Day when the Constitution has become a scarecrow ‘ online ).
2. In India, many TV channels have been blatantly and shamelessly promoting communal hatred, and thus serving the interest of the ruling party which thrives on this. Of late many Indian TV channels have stigmatized the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz in Delhi for allegedly spreading coronavirus, and its head Maulana Saad has been painted as the devil, though it is ridiculous to say that he or the Tablighi Jamaat were deliberately spreading the disease. The subtle message being sent by showing this is that all Indian Muslims are spreaders of the coronavirus, and in this way, the entire Muslim community in India is demonized, and many are being boycotted and harassed in various ways ( see my article ‘ Bad days are ahead for Indian Muslims ‘ published in nayadaur.tv ).
India is a country of great diversity, and about 200-250 million of its 1350 million people are Muslims. Hence it is essential if we wish to keep united and prosper that there must be tolerance and equal respect to all communities living in India. Those who sow seeds of religious discord among our people are enemies of our people, and the truth is that a large section of our media, has become abettors of this national crime.
3. The media promotes superstitions
As I have already mentioned, in this transitional age, the media should not just report the news but should also help our people to move forward into the modern, scientific age. For this purpose, the media should propagate rational and scientific ideas, but instead of doing so a large section of our media propagates superstitions of various kinds.
It is true that the intellectual level of the vast majority of Indians is very low, they are steeped in casteism, communalism, and superstitions. The question, however, is whether the media should try to lift up the intellectual level of our people by propagating rational and scientific ideas, or whether it should descend to that low level and seek to perpetuate it?
In Europe, during the Age of Enlightenment, the media (which was only the print medium at that time) sought to uplift the mental level of the people and change their mindset by propagating ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity and rational thinking. Voltaire attacked superstitions, Rousseau attacked the feudal system, and Dickens criticized the horrible conditions in jails, schools, orphanages, courts, etc. Should not our media be doing the same?
At one time courageous people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy wrote against sati, child marriage, purdah system, etc. (in his newspaper ‘Miratul Akhbar’ and ‘Sambad Kaumudi’). Nikhil Chakraborty wrote about the horrors of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Munshi Premchand and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya wrote against feudal practices and women’s oppression. Manto wrote about the horrors of Partition.
But what do we see in our media today?
Many T.V. channels show astrology. Astrology is not to be confused with astronomy. While astronomy is a science, astrology is pure superstition and humbug. Even a little common sense can tell us that there is no rational connection between the movements of the stars and planets, and whether a person will die at the age of 50 years or 80 years, or whether he will be a doctor or engineer or lawyer. No doubt most people in our country believe in astrology, but that is because their mental level is very low. The media should try to bring up that level, rather than to descend to it and perpetuate it.
Many channels mention and show the place where a Hindu god was born, where he lived, etc. Is this is not spreading superstitions?
I am not saying that there are no good journalists at all in the media. There are many excellent journalists. P. Sainath is one of them, whose name should be written in letters of gold in the history of Indian journalism. Had it not been for his highlighting of the farmers’ suicides in certain states the story (which was suppressed for several years) may never have been told. There are others too like Ravish Kumar of NDTV ( winner of the Magsaysay award ), Siddhartha Varadarajan, who publishes the portal thewire.in, Karan Thapar, etc. But such good journalists are few and far between. The majority consists of people who do not seem to have the desire to serve the public interest but have shamelessly become sycophants of the rulers.
To those who complain of suppression of media freedom, my reply is this: freedom cannot be an end in itself, it can only be a means to an end, and that end must be to secure the people better lives. If media freedom serves that end it deserves to be supported, but not otherwise. Should there be freedom to the media to spread communal or caste hatred? Should it have the freedom to divert the attention of the people from real issues to trivialities and non-issues? Should it have the freedom to spread superstitions? Certainly not.
There is no freedom which is absolute. All freedoms are subject to reasonable restrictions and are also coupled with responsibilities. In a democracy everyone is accountable to the people, and so is the media. The media must serve the people in getting better and decent lives. Unfortunately, the media in our subcontinent is not doing that and is often doing just the contrary. So I cannot lament over its suppression. What was it doing when it was relatively ‘free’?
To sum up: our media must now introspect and develop a sense of responsibility and maturity, and start serving our people.. Until it does that, there is no use complaining of suppression of media freedom.