Media Dissent or Descent — Post-2014 Indian General Elections

Media has always played an active role in having a unanimous nationwide decision. It is of the utmost priority that the media remains neutral in all its endeavor.

2014 General elections witnessed “Maun Mohan Singh” to finally empty his office for a very fierce and motivated adversary. Ever since the meta-institutional respectability of the free press witnessed a steep depreciation.

According to The Wire, it was barely 16 months that was left for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term to end and he did not even hold a single press conference, to be questioned about his contributions.

Yet, there were uproars, jubilation, and tremendous cheers when “Mere bhaiyon aur beheno” blasted from the mic in his public gatherings.

One may ask, why? It resulted from self-boasting of his actions with a sugar coating of elements, that turned the crowd in his favor.

When Mukesh Ambani led Reliance Jio took the entire country in a frenzy providing Internet and voice calls at rates that were never imagined before, it was our Prime Minister who bizarrely took half of the credits by his vision of a Digital India.

A new source of news came into existence, that was WhatsApp, a medium that this government exploited to the hilt to target critics, mobilize public opinion, and use tags like “anti-national,” to discredit anyone showing a hint of the circumspection with the state narrative.

Suddenly terms like Hindutva, Anti-Nationals, Gau Rakshaks, Bajrang Dal and many more floated up on the horizon and nobody took a claim. Issues like Ram Mandir that had been awaiting a verdict for the past 150 years suddenly shifted momentum and Ayodhya finally got its verdict without either party reaching a consensus. A simple case of title suit took the form of a religious rift in the conscious of the citizens due to the propaganda spread by the media.

Sense of living in a democratic and secular country can only be fulfilled when the needs of all sections are equally respected irrespective of one being a minority, which is why questions were supposed to rise when restrictions started being imposed even on food when Maharashtra was declared a beef free state, similar to when Gujarat was declared an alcohol free state.

The use of fake documents started coming into existence to create a skill of spreading lies, coated with apparent shreds of evidence.

For instance, when Mahua Moitra gave her fierce speech bashing the government regarding the country entering the domains of Fascism, there was a huge section who claimed that her speech was plagiarised, following suit, a lot of media houses supported the claim with documented evidence, and none took the responsibility of spreading lies when Martin Longman denied that she plagiarized from one of his works, of which she was accused of.

Has media undergone dissent? The situation has worsened from what it already was.

This is evident from how media has covered the situation in Kashmir post the revoking of Articles 370 and 35A.

Major newspapers around the world broke the news of the revocation of Article 370. However, the way Indian media outlets reported the incidents in Kashmir was quite different than their foreign counterparts.

According to the national media, the blackout of the internet and jamming of calls lasted for a week, citizens who suffered from this were a rare entity and proceedings to reach normalcy started within 10 days with markets being opened and Kashmiris being seen on the streets.

A total of 28000 Central Armed Police Force were deployed in the valley of Kashmir, and while the government aided media claimed that the reason for deployment was to tackle a potential terrorist attack, the International media reported some spine-chilling incidents during the session.

On 30 August, BBC reported that several villagers in south Kashmir, the hotbed of local militancy, alleged torture by security forces during night raids.

“Once I took off my clothes, they beat me mercilessly with rods and sticks, for almost two hours. Whenever I fell unconscious, they gave me shocks to revive [me],” claimed a Kashmiri man.

The Indian Army categorically denied the allegations. Army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand said to the BBC, “There have been no injuries or casualties due to countermeasures undertaken by the Army.”

On the same day, The New York Times chose to publish an opinion piece by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, “The World Cannot Ignore Kashmir. We are all in danger.”

On 29 August, The Washington Post published a report alleging that 3,000 people had been detained in Kashmir and that at least five of them were under the age of 18.

Similarly, a Wall Street Journal report claimed the same day that hospitals were running low on vital drugs.

These reports found few echoes in the Indian media. The local media has been severely restricted in its ability to report the ground reality.

According to an article published by The Print, on the first day and the week that followed, most Indian media outlets erred on the side of caution. Most publications and TV news channels welcomed Modi’s move as correcting a “historic blunder”.

On 5 August, the front page of The Indian Express was headlined, “History, in one stroke”, while TV channel Times Now called the move “Historic and game-changing”.

There were some stray reports of protests — a report by PTI headlined “‘Localized incidents’ in Kashmir ahead of I-Day, restrictions will continue for a while: Officials” was republished by many publications.

Communication and civil liberties were curbed, political leaders were detained, all these just to avoid criticism.

The Editors Guild of India, in a statement, denied the communication blockade and restrictions imposed on news coverage in the valley.

Thereafter, criticism of Pakistan’s reactions to developments in Kashmir has dominated Indian media headlines and TV studio debates while footage has largely picked empty streets strewn with barbed wire, security forces on vigil. The overall general impression is of a state limping awkwardly back to normalcy.

Stoop Press! The silence against State tyranny, at worst, and ‘leaning heavily on the media’, at best, in India, is a manifestation of the extreme fear of persecution in civil society, which leads to the phenomenon of self-censorship. Image Credit: Economic Times

On 5 August, international headlines reflected on Modi’s mission Kashmir and none of it was glorifying.

The British Daily Mail reported, “India sends thousands of troops into Kashmir and revokes the region’s ‘special status’ provoking fury from nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan.”

The BBC said, “Article 370: India strips disputed Kashmir of special status”, while compatriot Financial Times wrote, “India scraps Kashmir’s special status amid lockdown”.

NYT chose to run “India revokes Kashmir’s special status, raising fears of unrest”, while Los Angeles Times stressed Kashmir’s loss of autonomy, “India revokes Kashmir’s limited autonomy, raising tension in a long-turbulent region”.

Al Jazeera mourned the move with the headline “Darkest day: Uproar as India strips Kashmir of special status”.

Pakistan’s Express Tribune, meanwhile, called it “Occupation redux”, while Dawn favored a more sensational headline, “New Delhi sheds fig leaf, robs held Kashmir for special status”.

“Kashmir Media is not being allowed to cover news” — The Citizen

“Opposition Leaders denied entry to Kashmir and sent back from the airport” — Reuters

“In Kashmir, a race against death, with no way to call a doctor” — The New York Times.

This stark difference in national and international media proves that news is being covered with the completely polarised viewpoint in our country and it is genuinely upon the citizens to demarcate a line to distinguish true from false, which ironically was supposed to be the work of media.

Photographs from Reuters, AFP, and AP were telling, often more than the reports. NYT’s collated photo report showed protesters mid-struggle with the security forces, Kashmiris struggling to leave the state, ticket windows crammed with people in a desperate bid to get out, etc.

Photographs of deserted streets closed shutters flanked solely by the military and paramilitary forces were a favorite with publications.

Opposition parties have used it to attack the government while the Indian authorities have questioned the credibility of the reporting.

This can only lead to one conclusion, that the functioning of the national media houses has become such that dilutes a person’s judgment and decision making, justifies actions of the Government without determining its repercussion.

If one looks closely on the kind of political posts that are often spread across the social media, it would be observed that half of them are ridiculing the opposition and downgrading their credibility to run as government, and the other half being a glorification of the government, building a good image among the public.

Image Credit: Livemint

“The pattern of trolling has led many to speculate whether there is an organizing hand at work. There is. The BJP has a wide network of volunteers and paid workers scattered across the country and in their offices in Delhi’s Ashoka Road which sends daily instructions on WhatsApp. Each troll has a contact point in the Ashoka Road central cell,” Swati Chaturvedi, journalist, and author of I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, wrote in the Gulf News.

When Arnab Goswami resigned as The Editor in Chief of Times Now, he was motivated towards bringing dissent in the national media, with a vision to change the epicenter of the Lutyens Media from the national capital. Months later, while speaking at the India Idea Conclave 2016, right before the launch of his own channel — Republic TV, he said

“The real dissent, the dissent of a journalist, is going to come in this country. The season of change is about to come. I say to them stand against me and try to stop me. People of this country are not foolish.”

“We will make sure in this phase of dissent, the monopoly of money is broken…. Even if I cannot achieve what I want, I think it is risk worth taking,” he said.

“We will go global and that will be our biggest singular dissent…The big disruption is now about to come,” he said. “I believe whatever I do in the next years, more and more journalists will stand by me as we dissent against the very journalism. There will be dissent by a journalist against a journalist,” Goswami added.

Ironically his idea of going global failed considering the polarized way in which the national and international media is concerned. Not too many people believe he could tackle the monopoly of money also since Republic TV was founded in part by Asianet — ARG Outlier Media Private Ltd., which was primarily funded by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of parliament in the Rajya Sabha and the vice-chairman of the Kerala wing of the National Democratic Alliance.

There was a mere gap of 6 months between demonetization and the launch of Republic TV, and the very first topic of debate in the newly launched platform for Arnab Goswami was exposing Lalu Prasad Yadav, an opposition of the government.

It seemed like the sole motive of the channel and some other channels were to utilize debate hours in opposition bashing rather than criticizing the government policies and discussing the repercussions the country is facing due to the government.

There is no documented evidence to prove the relation demonetization has with the unreasonable biases of the media towards the Government, but considering there has been a considerable shift in dissent post demonetization, we can all reach to an understanding that demonetization led the media houses to surrender their arms in front of the Government and become puppet houses for them, preaching their policies and ideas.

According to a tweet shared by Peeing Human, the last 200 debates of 4 news channels do not have a single topic of discussion regarding the economy, unemployment, education, health care, environment, poverty, malnutrition, women’s safety and equality or any relevant questions to the Government. Instead, 18 topics were Attacking Pakistan, 25 topics were attacking Opposition, 7 topics were praising Modi and Shah and 5 topics were revolving around the very sensitive communal issue of Ram Mandir.

It should not come as a shock that sides were already being taken even before the debate started and in every scenario, the debate moderator was seen taking the side of those in favor of the Government. Mics of the Opposition spokesperson/candidates are either being highly diminished so that their words do not create an impact among the raucous of unethical shouting in the name of civilized discussion, or being muted to prevent any unwanted logical interruptions.

Now when India is ranked 102 in the Hunger Index, The GDP growth of the country has become equal to what it was back in 2013, the recession has left the citizens in misery, we must recognize the real problems and start discussions about it, and looking at the way things are progressing, we can hardly expect any help from the national media.

Written by Sankhajit Kundu and Edited by Pritwijit Chowdhury of The Phonetic House.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the publication or TPH as a whole.

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