The eminent journalist and former Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Hindu’, N Ram, has, in a recent interview, once again lamented the attacks on media freedom in India.
What N. Ram forgets is that freedom of the media cannot be an end in itself; it can only be a means to an end, and that end must be raising the standard of living of the people and giving them better lives.
If freedom of the media helps in attaining that end, it should be supported, but not otherwise. Let me explain.
Historically, the media arose in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time, all the organs of power were in the hands of the feudal authorities. Hence, the people had to create new organs that would represent their interests. The media (which was then print media and was often in the form of leaflets, pamphlets, etc.) was one of those powerful organs created by the people. In England, France, and America, the media represented the voice of the future, as opposed to the established feudal organs, which wanted to preserve the status quo.
Great writers like Voltaire and Diderot attacked religious bigotry; Rousseau attacked the entire feudal social and political system; and Thomas Paine proclaimed the Rights of Man.
In my opinion, the Indian media should likewise give leadership to the people in the realm of ideas, the way Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, etc. did when Europe was passing through its transitional period.
Today, India is passing through a transitional period in its history, transitioning from feudal agricultural society to modern industrial society, a process that, in my opinion, will last another 20 years or so. A transitional era is a very painful and turbulent period in history. If one reads the history of Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries (when Europe was passing through its transition), one finds that it was full of turmoil, wars, revolutions, social chaos, intellectual ferment,etc. It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. India is presently going through that fire. We are going through a very painful period in our history, which I guess will last another 20 years or so.
In this transitional period, the role of ideas becomes very important, and therefore the role of the media becomes very important because the media is not an ordinary business that deals in commodities; it deals with ideas. It is the duty of all patriotic Indians, including media persons, to help shorten this transitional period and make it less painful so that India becomes a modern, powerful, industrial power, with all its people (and not just a handful) prosperous and leading decent lives, with food, employment, healthcare, education, etc. available to the masses.For this, it is essential for intellectuals, including the media, to promote modern and scientific ideas and combat backward and feudal ideas and practices like casteism, communalism, and superstitions.
Instead of pandering to the low tastes of the Indian masses, our media should seek to uplift their intellectual level so as to make our masses part of an enlightened India.
Today, India’s main problems are socio-economic, i.e., massive poverty in over 75% of our people, record and rising unemployment, an almost total lack of proper healthcare and good education for the masses, farmer suicides, an appalling level of child malnutrition (half of our children are malnourished, according to the Global Hunger Index), etc., as well as rampant casteism, communalism, and widespread crimes against women, dalits, and minorities, like dowry deaths, honor killings, lynching, etc.
Yet the media focuses on film stars, cricket, fashion parades, petty politics, astrology, etc. as if these are the real problems of the Indian people. Thus, the real problems of the Indian people are sidelined or treated as non-issues, and the non-issues are projected as if they are the real issues. Sensationalism, trivialization, etc. are the hallmarks of most of the Indian media today, obviously for T.R.P. ratings and profits from advertisement revenues. Some years ago, I saw on TV that Aishwarya Bachchan had given birth to a girl and read in a newspaper that Hema Malini’s younger daughter had been engaged. What great historical events!
A fashion show was organized sometime back in Mumbai by Lakme Fashion, which was covered by 512 accredited journalists. In that fashion show, women were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves one hour away in Vidharba due to their economic woes. Nobody told their stories except one or two journalists locally.Does not the Indian media behave like Marie Antoinette, who said that if the people do not have bread, let them eat cakes?
The Roman Emperors used to say that if you cannot give the people bread, give them circuses. Much of our media seems to say, If you cannot give the people bread, give them film stars and cricket. Cricket today is the opium of the Indian masses, doled out by the media to the gullible public.Is the Indian media doing its patriotic duty? No doubt there are some great media personalities like P. Sainath who exposed farmers’ suicides, but what about others? Film stars and cricket dominate much of our media.
Many TV channels show astrology, which promotes superstitions, when the media should promote scientific ideas.At a time when our nation should be united if we are to progress, a large section of the media (particularly many TV channels) promotes communalism by demonizing Muslims and portraying them as terrorists, fanatics, anti-nationals, etc.Recently, a lot of media coverage focused on Chandraayan, the Indian rocket landing on the moon. But did any mediaperson raise the questions I raised in this article?
The G20 Summit has been widely covered by our media, but has any journalist, including N. Ram, asked how it will affect the lives of the Indian people? Or was it just ‘aamadam, guftam, barkhaastam’, but zero haasildam?What people like N. Ram forget is that freedom of speech and expression is a double-edged sword.Read More: Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance- A Political Stunt
It can be used for promoting scientific and rational ideas, but it can also be used for spreading hatred, casteism, communalism, and superstitions.As mentioned before, freedom of speech and expression is only a means to an end and cannot be the end itself. The end must be securing for our countrymen decent lives with a high standard of living, and that is possible only if India rapidly modernizes and industrializes.
Freedom of speech and expression must therefore advance and promote that end. It should not be treated as an absolute right. For instance, hate speeches that incite hatred between religious communities should be banned. Hitler used his freedom of speech under the Weimar Republic to propagate hatred of Jews, which ultimately led to the Holocaust, and much of the Indian media (particularly TV) uses its freedom to promote communalism.
The truth is that the Indian media has largely lost the people’s trust. Most of it has turned into what is referred to as the “Godi Media” (patronized media), and instead of being the ‘Fourth State’ and serving the people, it has simply become part of the ‘First State’. As regards the ‘liberal’ and ‘independent’ Indian media and journalists, I have mentioned their inanity
in my previous
articles and have explained
that there is really no difference in substance between the godi and the ‘liberal’ media:So what are N. Ram’s jeremiad, ululation, and repine about?
Markandey Katju is an Indian jurist and former Supreme Court judge of India who served as chairman for the Press Council of India. He has also worked as Standing Counsel for the Income Tax Department.