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Indian journalism in 21st century: Old wine in new bottle

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Bimal Prasad Mohapatra
Bimal Prasad Mohapatra
Columnist is a Senior Research Fellow in Defense Research and Studies (DRaS), Faculty of Management Studies in Trident Group of Institutions, Bhubaneswar, and author of novel "Travails of LOVE" and "Bimal's ANAND MATH". He writes column on Geopolitics, Indian Politics and Media for MyVoice.OpIndia, DRaS, The Kootneeti, The Diplomatists, The Avenue Mail, Delhi Post, Orissa Post, Outlook Afghanista, The Manila Times, etc. And also Moderated Panel Discussion on Geopolitics, Politics and Media

Starting with, I refer a personal anecdote happened in my professional life as the same has a direct connect with the issue I have to deal with in this piece.

Late 1990s, I was in-charge (virtual head) of a university affiliated private technical college in Western Odisha. One fine morning, on my arrival at my office, I was told by one of my subordinate staff, “A Senior Journalist of Rourkela Times (name changed) wants to meet me. He is waiting in the reception.” As I was surprised, I responded him, “Only one young man in his early 20s is sitting in reception. And you are saying Sr. Journalist? Anyway, request him to wait for a few minutes. I have an urgent tele-talk with university regarding conduct of examination. After that, I shall talk to him.”

And I picked up the phone.

I had just started speaking to Controller of Examination, the so-called Sr. Journalist forced into my chamber literally refusing to listen to my subordinate. My appeal to him to allow me to finish the talk went in vain. Finally, I told CoE, “Somebody has intruded into my chamber. Please allow me to throw this man out of the room for a peaceful talk.”

“What?? You will throw me out of this room”, barked the intruder and continued throwing a visiting card on my table, “I am a Sr. Correspondence. Don’t you know the power of press and journalist? Do you think what you people are doing is not known to us?”

Literally, he was in a venture of threatening and blackmailing me; of course, nothing new for an executive.

In reply, I told him, “I know the power of journalist and press, and also the power of an intruder. And, also I’m well aware of, how to deal with an intruder.”

After a short angry exchange of words in front of already gathered staff and students, he threw on my table a letter from his editor asking for advertisement, and factually ordered me to speak to his editor as he was leaving. After three days, I got a call from Editor-cum-President of District Journalist Association. He started with, “You didn’t call me? Don’t you know how to behave with Sr. Journalist? Etc. etc.” I attended the call with due patience. It was a different matter that the same Editor-cum-President of DJA was arrested as ordered by then District Magistrate-cum-Collector in a few days.

Means, I wish to highlight that the basic state of affairs of Indian journalism in so far as professional ethics and credibility of profession are concerned haven’t changed much when we compare the same to its early days when controversial Irish man James Augustus Hicky started publishing Hicky’s Bengal Gazette in 1780. After two years of action-packed run, the first newspaper of India was forced to close publishing and the editor was imprisoned as he was found guilty of making ‘false accusation of corruption’ against East India Company senior officials including wife of Governor of Bengal by company’s judiciary. There is no sufficient information about authenticity of Hicky charge or Hicky was just making allegation for his vested interest. But, it is a fact that starting a newspaper or news channel or write something in social media for whatever reason is as simple as entering a blue colour sector or politics in democracy though the stature of press or news and views collection and dissemination have increased many fold and got the nomenclature of Fourth Estate in democracy where First Estate is Executive, Second Estate is Parliament and Third Estate is Judiciary which are directly involved in state governance.

In the meanwhile, in over near about two centuries and four decades of its (Indian Media) existence, the media/journalism has expanded both vertically and horizontally with lateral introduction of electronic media (Radio and Television) in 20th Century and latest being Social and Digital medias in early 21st Century more or less matching with media/journalism development in Western developed democracies, and India has moved from colonial rule to self-rule. Apart from the above, during the period, Media reach has experienced may fold increase. Major development post-independence is non-Indian ownership of media houses have been abolished, and lately though Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has been allowed into media industry, they have not been allowed controlling stakes by elected government despite huge demand for the same. In nutshell, one can confidentially says that Indian media’s all the governance machineries are in Indians’ hands for good or bad.

And most importantly, Indian Media since independence has been enjoying democratic institution status as Fourth Estate or Fourth Power as coined by Irish statesman, economist and philosopher Edmund Burke in British Parliamentary debate in 1787 in nation’s governance and policy matters -though indirectly- by way of providing valuable platforms for debates and discussions on governance and policy matters, collection and dissemination of news and views apart from playing the role of common people’s ears, eyes and mouths to a great extent.

Notwithstanding above positives, Indian Media has been accused of bias in news and views collection and dissemination, fake news circulation and unethical propaganda in all media platforms (print, electronics, digital and social) with involvement of senior journalists having privilege to get publish their scripts in leading newspaper columns, prime time anchoring in leading TV news channels, and millions of followings in Social Media. Since Social Media is the fastest and has wide reach in this age of internet connected smart-phone-in-every-hands up to lower middle-class, any fake news sensitive to religion, ethnic, sect, caste, language, profession, etc. circulation can destroyed social harmony before the law and order machineries of government swing into action to control the situation and arrest the damage in many cases.

Here, I bring to this discussion an example that recently taken place and is in knowledge of not only law and order authority and government but also the large public and civil society members. The example is the tweets of some senior journalists, anchors, civil society members, and politicians on death of a farmer while violent farmers’ agitation, which in the meanwhile was given communal colour by some unscrupulous vested interests assumed to be affected by the Government of India’s new Farm Laws intended to benefit farmers, had taken over the vital road network in national capital on Republic Day 2021. Despite violation of pre-accepted agreement regarding manner and path of agitation between Delhi Police and agitators by latter, the former had exhibited unprecedented restraint on the face of violent provocation.

One farmer was killed when his driven tractor hard hit a road barricade resulting overturn of farm equipment -used as terror weapon on the occasion- on the farmer himself and killed him on the spot on the face of large number of TV News Channels and nearby CCTVs. But, the above listed professionals tweeted that ‘a farmer was allegedly killed in police firing.’ In a sore-charged situation, a sane mind can imagine the negative impact of this tweet on the agitators. Fortunately, the law and order authority equipped with latest communication technology and having genuine desire to minimize the human causality on the both sides (police and agitators), swung into action collecting visual of the accident and communicated the agitators and public that the farmer died in an accident, not in police firing as tweeted by some dubious vested interest.

And police filed criminal cases against all alleged fake news peddlers over social media alleging, “These people purposely spread this unfortunate and misleading news through their Twitter handles and said that a protestor driving tractor was killed by the police. It is known that despite anti-social elements’ instigation and injuries inflicted upon the police personnel, officials showed restraint from using force and attempted to control the situation. Despite this, as per the pre-planned controversy this news was spread to cause riots and incite tensions between factions. Such riots on communal lines would’ve affected neighbouring countries as well.” Only one senior TV news anchor and Consulting Editor was taken off the air for two weeks and docked one month salary by his employer as punishment for fake news circulation.

Among the accused are a Congress MP, who is a former Minister of State for External Affairs and former Under Secretary General at UNO, Mr. Shashi Tharoor, and six journalists: Rajdeep Sardesai – Consulting Editor of India Today, Mrinal Pandey – former Editor of Hindustan and former Chairman of Prasar Bharati,  Zafar Agha, Group Editor of National Herald and Chief Editor of Quami Awaz, and Editors of The Caravan magazine Paresh Nath, Anant Nath and Vinod K Jose. Except Sardesai, none of the above personality has been punished by their employers.

On 13 April 2021, Shashi Tharoor writes in a column under title “Modi’s War on the press” for Prague based Project Syndicate -among other objectionable facts- that ‘In late January, police filed criminal charges – including sedition, which carries a life sentence – against eight journalists who covered a protest in Delhi that turned violent. Their crimes: reporting the claims of a dead protester’s family that he had been shot and killed by the police. I face the same charges for having tweeted their claim when it was reported.’ Here questionable points is the timing of tweets made by politician and journalist on the one side and dead farmer family’s claim based on which Shashi Tharoor claims in the article that he and journalists tweeted. Were the family members of dead farmer accompanied him in the spot of accident and so they ‘claimed’, and based on their claim Congress/opposition leader and journalists tweeted instantly that ‘farmer is killed in police firing’?

On 13 October 2020, there was a column called Traditional Media should not ape digital media by Harish Bijoor in The New Indian Express; the paper in its original avatar was called The Indian Express started by late media baron Ram Nath Goenka, nicknamed ‘Warrior Journalist’, in 1932. The piece has mostly discussed about advertising revenue and its impact on media contents, and among others, the struggle between physical/traditional media (print, TV and Radio) and digital media (social media, blog, etc.) for attention, and in the process, the loss of ‘professional credibility’ of physical media. Going further, he writes, “While digital media is a bit of an anarchy, where every Tom, Dick and Harish is a content creator and publisher, the physical medium is a carefully curated one with a responsible Editor at the top of the food chain of news and content. There is a certain degree of responsibility, ethos and care that physical media such as print, television and radio offer.” And Harish Bijoor advised, “Newspapers, television and radio still enjoy that one thing that digital media does not in India: credibility. Why forsake that?”

In the Fourth Estate, Editor holds the pivotal position. Despite this, it is not that he could scrutinize all the news coming from hundreds of field reporters, agencies, etc. and select what to go for print and telecast. Therefore, he is supposed to issue a guideline to his subordinates on selection of news. This is there in every media house. But, in case of critical news and views having direct and instant negative impact on society and national politics, economy, culture, international relation, etc., the editor cannot divest of this selection responsibility. And, in case of his own pieces either in physical or social media, excuse of ‘farmer’s family claimed, so I write’ cannot be acceptable. The tweet in above case is certainly done with vested interest. And if this is accepted without any whip; in no time, it will be a trend. Net result is known.

Governance will end up firefighting social conflicts successfully or unsuccessfully. If unsuccessfully, then the situation may lead to anarchy. Can any responsible elected government worth its salt afford a nation under its governance push to anarchy? When the responsible elected government acts, certainly the affected vested interest will write column in envious developed Western media and social media (later is freely accessible) -many of them run by anti-Indian forces and evangelists- for whom India’s harmonious socio-economic-political progress under indigenous regime is an eye-sore.

What I mean to conclude here is Harish Bijoor might designate digital media/social media content writers –they are in billions spread every nook and corner of the world wherever there is social media connectivity- Tom-Dick-Harish (Harish is coincidentally present in the name of Harish Bijoor and his name used terms Tom-Dick-Harish), but is there any difference between social media’s Tom-Dick-Harish and physical/traditional media’s editors, who are who’s who in the state/society, and people in democracy look at them for guidance during national crisis as they are believed intellectual icons and holding positions that deserve salutation above any other professions, but acted irresponsibly?

Here, I would like to take my readers to my school and college days. There were the time when editors were invited to school and college functions. Now, pop-stars have replaced them. Post-Republic Day national capital riot, I read in one social media site one senior Indian journalist and in a Europe based online portal a senior professor (Indian Origin) in Western university praised pop-star Rihanna’s tweet supporting farmers’ agitation. Here, therefore, question arises why not appoint pop-star as editor or to write column on economic policies. Since they have huge popularity, paper sale and TV viewership could increase many fold benefiting Fourth Estate industry. Sometimes, it comes to my mind that this possibility cannot be ruled out if we go by what is happening in college function these days?

Means: what kind of intellectual degradation has taken place in India? And the Fourth Estate has not left behind.

In late 18th Century, there were Tom-Dick-Harish in Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, The India Gazette, etc. and now in early 21st Century, there are Tom-Dick-Harish in Social Media as well as in little known Rourkela Times and in very popular India Today, National Herald, The Caravan, etc. though the journey of Indian media has seen many distinguished journalists and press barons and baron-cum-editors like Sisir Ghosh (His zeal for free press forced British Government to enact the Vernacular Press Act – 1878, and he, instead of succumbing to British government highhandedness, started overnight publishing English newspaper in place of Bengali), Ram Nath Goenka (For whom ‘The Indian Express is not an industry. It is mission’. This slogan has been carried on the banner of The New Indian Express editorial page even now after three decades of his death), Mahatma Gandhi (He did not allowed advertisement in his edited papers fearing the same would indirectly sponsor materialism which he felt not good for Indians), Gopabandhu Das (He on occasion wrote the paper in his own hands), G. Kasturi (He did not allow any content’s publication without repeated verifications which on occasion stalled the news), S. Sadanand (An able editor, an innovator, a fearless patriot; but poor manager of his newspaper, had a sad failure), etc.

In view of this, this author strongly feels the 21st Century Indian journalism is nothing less than ‘Old wine in new bottle’.

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Bimal Prasad Mohapatra
Bimal Prasad Mohapatra
Columnist is a Senior Research Fellow in Defense Research and Studies (DRaS), Faculty of Management Studies in Trident Group of Institutions, Bhubaneswar, and author of novel "Travails of LOVE" and "Bimal's ANAND MATH". He writes column on Geopolitics, Indian Politics and Media for MyVoice.OpIndia, DRaS, The Kootneeti, The Diplomatists, The Avenue Mail, Delhi Post, Orissa Post, Outlook Afghanista, The Manila Times, etc. And also Moderated Panel Discussion on Geopolitics, Politics and Media
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