The Media Crisis in India Today is a Moral Crisis
Experiments with citizen-owned and citizen-funded online media offer new models for media ownership
I wanted to un-see the image, and yet its grotesqueness stuck with me. The image of a murder as it unravelled before my eyes, on my Facebook screen, from the comfort of my home. The image of a man consumed with hate, making repeated assaults from behind with his axe on a powerless body of a Muslim migrant worker from Bengal, Afrazul, who kept pleading for his life.
And then, the image of the body being lit on fire. Wrapped up in the man’s boastful claim of a revenge fulfilled.
Warning Muslims against love jihaad.
Even as this image picked up steam and circulated on social media, I was struck by how little of it made its way to the television screens of mainstream news. The omission of Afrazul’s story joins the long list of other omitted stories: the lynching of Pehlu Khan, the murder of Umar Mohammed, and the many other accounts of mob violence launched by Hindutva forces across India, enabled by a state fuelled by hate.
Where was the media uproar, I wondered.
Where were the debates on the moral onslaught on the nation brought about by the systemic and strategic boost given to radical Hindutva forces by a ruling regime that is complicit in stoking these flames of violence with its radical rhetoric? That these lynchings and hackings that make up the fabric of the 2017-India are natural extensions of the extremist rhetoric of the ruling party remains un-interrogated in the mainstream media space.
Where are the critical media interventions when lynchings and hackings of Muslim minorities, unabated in their accumulating counts, have desecrated the soul of the republic, categorically undoing the secular pillar of its Constitution?
Over the period of the year, as we take stock of the media images and narratives that have been televised as news, the systematic erasure of the violence perpetrated by the Hindutva fanatics on India’s Muslim minorities points to a deep-rooted crisis of Indian media ethics. Many images and stories of the mob lynchings in the hands of Hindutva forces have gone unaccounted for. Many others have been downplayed, or turned into apologia for the murders.
And even more critically, the many public protests against these lynchings and hackings across communities in India have been systematically erased.
Instead, media images are complicit in the manufacturing of the nationalist narrative stoked by the flames of hate. The screens of 24/7 propaganda channels such as Times Now and Republic TV masquerade as news while seeding and catalysing the blind violence of hate.
The loss of a secular media narrative in the mainstream is a symptom of the systematic erasure of the role of the media as strong and robust institutions of a democratic polity that started with the liberalization reforms of the 1990s. Consumed by the race to ratings, married to private interests and the maximization of profits, the obsession of the mainstream media with commercial agendas has also meant that the stories that speak to the most basic of human instincts take center-stage. Rallying around the flag to fervent claims of nationalism, wrapped in a monolithic and dangerous appeal to Hindutva, the psychology of raw emotions forms the basis of the contemporary media wave.
The media mainstream of 2017, without an ethical compass and without a basic commitment to voicing truth, is an outcome of the path to profit-driven coverage that was initiated with the 1990s-era media liberalization.
Post-liberalization 24/7 commercial media
The media reforms of the 1990s opened up the Indian media market, catalysing the proliferation of private television channels, and quickly turning media institutions into market-driven structures.
This rapid transformation catalysed a fundamental change in the nature of mainstream media, on one hand creating tremendous opportunities for profits, launching careers, and seemingly offering variety, and on the other hand, anchoring media institutions in audience analytic-calculations and the diktats of corporate owners of the media. The illusions of variety and choice obfuscate the intrinsically corrupt nature of the media in the post-liberalization climate. Advertising revenues and ownership interests shape editorial content in ways that fundamentally threaten the very idea of news as grounded in the search for a truthful account, however limited and contingent.
The consolidation of media power into the hands of the capitalist class also meant that media interests were closely intertwined with interests in energy, telecommunication infrastructures, real estate, and defence, to name a few.
Media channels are now owned and run by networks of capitalist interests with investments in a wide range of other sectors, therefore naturally introducing conflicts of interest in the coverage of news. Moreover, a number of commercial media channels are owned by politicians across the country who also run other businesses. The interplay of media, profits, and politics has meant that the media uncritically circulate the agendas of the political-capitalist classes. The structures of domination and wealth extraction in the broader political economy define the structures and forms of Indian media.
Individualization of corruption
The stories on corruption, for instance, draw ratings and strong audience numbers. To a consuming middle class public trained in the consumer subjectivity of neoliberalism, media stories on corruption mobilize anger and offer a sense of connection as mobilized publics. Street protests and hunger strikes around corruption, mediatized through private channels, circulate discourses of individual accountability without questioning the overarching structural logics that underlie corruption. That corruption is fundamentally a product of the intermingling of capitalist, political, and civil society interests is strategically hidden from the discursive space.
Thus, the stories of corruption become individual accounts of corrupt practices, obfuscating the very structures of capitalist-state interests that constitute corruption.
The large business houses that often own the commercial media channels are left out of the discursive space. The power of these large business houses such as Reliance in shaping the nature, frame, and content of news is unexamined.
The links between politicians and capitalist interests remain unchallenged in mainstream media stories.
Take for instance, the story that points toward the demonetization reforms offering a window of opportunity to specific business interests with connections to the ruling party. This story remains un-examined in the mainstream media. More broadly, the link between demonetization and the interests of the capitalist class is marked by its absence from the mainstream. The framing of demonetization as a tool for countering corruption doesn’t challenge the forms of corporate corruption that are enabled by demonetization.
The individualization of corruption thus reifies the neoliberal narrative rather than interrogating its organizing logics and fundamental premises. The violence of neoliberal wealth accumulation and organized dispossession of the margins through reforms such as demonetization are erased.
That large numbers of migrant workers like Afrazul in the story above migrate from the rural margins to sites of capitalist production, with minimum protections, without the organizing capacity of unions, and working in precarious conditions, is not on the agenda of the mainstream media. That for many of the workers in the precarious sections of urban development and growth there are minimal opportunities for voicing the injustices experienced is not on the agenda of the mainstream media.
Media corporatization and inequality
The corporatized media structures naturally obfuscate the inequalities that are brought about by neoliberal reforms across India. The structures that reproduce inequalities through strategies of wealth consolidation are unchallenged, circulating uncritically the story of economic growth and the fiction of “trickle down.”
For instance, that the agrarian crisis in rural India has been produced by policies that have been directed at impoverishing the poor and landless farmers does not find its way into the mainstream media narratives. The ongoing epidemic of farmer suicides remains erased from media stories in the mainstream. The rural is marked by its absence from the spaces of news stories in the mainstream.
Similarly, the displacements from livelihoods and their homes of indigenous communities across India through mining projects sponsored by the state are erased from the discursive spaces of the mainstream. The easy framing of the Maoist terrorist threat recycles through media stories bent on telling a monolithic story of development that favours private capital. Media partnerships with capitalist interests for cause marketing such as the NDTV partnership with Vedanta to empower the girl child work continually to whitewash some of the most grotesque forms of human exploitation and displacement.
The accounts of class conflict at sites of capitalist production don’t fit the ratings-driven structures of media stories. The exploitation of workers, precarity experienced by workers, and displacements from livelihoods amid the accelerated movement of capital don’t find space in the media stories. The precarities of life experienced by the urban poor amid the sites of capitalist development are systematically erased as the image of a digital India is manufactured across television screens.
Gender and the media
While stories of gender injustice offer opportunities for mobilizing publics, thus offering windows into ratings, the systemic sites of gender injustice across India remain un-interrogated.
Even as media stories sensationalize specific accounts of gendered violence, media advertising reproduce sites and practices of gendered violence. The post-liberalization media infrastructures thrive on the objectification of the gendered subject to sell commodities, which paradoxically work hand-in-hand with the sensationalized accounts of gender violence.
The ongoing forms of violence carried out on women at India’s margins remain erased.
The violence systematically perpetrated by the police-military structures in Bastar, Manipur, or Kashmir largely remain obfuscated from the discursive space. The accounts of rural women in agrarian communities coping with the dramatic transformations in agriculture and the decline in the viability of agriculture remain erased.
Similarly, accounts of agentic expressions of women’s participation are strategically obfuscated.
While women from India’s margins are incorporated into the stories of empowerment driven by liberalization told by the corporate media houses, portraying them as subjects to be saved, accounts of women’s participation in struggles against the corporate consolidation of power and wealth remain erased. That NDTV-style, Vedanta-sponsored, “NDTV Vedanta Our Girls Our Pride” campaign described earlier, with Priyanka Chopra as the brand ambassador, actually threaten the livelihoods of girls and women through extractive industries remains obfuscated from the neoliberal narrative of gender in mainstream media.
Religion, caste, and the media
The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6, 2017, brought together journalists across the country who offered their accounts of the demolition, the climate of communalization, and the absence of justice in the context of minority rights in India.
Juxtaposed in this backdrop is the active participation of large segments of the mainstream media in active communalization of Indians. The communal image of a threat is also a mobilizing image that draws ratings.
The images of Pakistan and the Muslim threat are regularly mobilized to mark the anti-national, with media trials and lynchings carried out incessantly on mainstream channels, drawing in ratings through performed media lynchings of the marked other. The stoking of the communal flame is integral to the driving of ratings, collaboratively producing a climate that marks the “Muslim other” as the threat and therefore, as the target of mob violence materialized through media frames.
Even as the mainstream media have emerged as key parties to the communalizing of discursive spaces, the plethora of community-based initiatives resisting these active efforts of communalization are systematically omitted.
Also, liberalization processes across India have created new contexts for caste inequalities, importing these inequalities into the structures of neoliberal modernity. From the business process outsourcing centers to the technology hubs, caste is reproduced in everyday practices of “Swacch Bharat.”
Media institutions continue to be dominated by upper caste groups that cultivate the image of a post-caste India that is brought into being through liberalization and equitable access to the free market. The reality of caste-based oppressions, however, across urban and rural areas point toward the need for critically engaged journalism that interrogates the deeply held caste-based beliefs that form the normative climate in India. That the free market will not solve caste-based oppressions offers the foundation for critical analyses that examine the caste question in the backdrop of the various other forms of dispossessions brought about by the sweeping implementation of neoliberal policies.
The media crisis
The media crisis in India today is a moral crisis.
Even as charlatans posing as journalists are actively engaged in aiding powerful forces in consolidating their power, erasing issues of gender, caste, and class, while simultaneously provoking communalism, journalists of conscience are being subjected to harassment, violence, and terror campaigns.
The murder of the veteran journalist Gauri Lankesh reflected the force with which radical elements are organized to silence the critical voices in the media. Similarly, the freelance journalist Malini Subramaniam was targeted by the state apparatus for her stories that drew attention to the various forms of state-based violence on indigenous communities in Chattisgarh.
The state deploys a variety of tools including the outdated sedition laws to threaten and harass journalists pursuing the truth. That any critique of the state-corporate nexus will be silenced is a message that is reproduced by the many instruments of violence available to these hegemonic forces.
The climate of fear being experienced by journalists in India is palpable. The current global ranking of India at 136 in the Press Freedom Index points to the attack on journalism in an increasingly authoritarian climate, increasing self-censorship in the mainstream media, the targeting of journalists online smear campaigns by radical forces, and prosecutions invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment.
Hopes for 2018 and forward
Amid the bleak image of a media landscape that has been reduced to carrying out the public relations functions for the nation’s capitalist and political elite, what are the hopes for the media as we look forward into 2018?
As the fourth pillar of democracy, the news media are the conscience of a nation, holding its soul and spirit accountable to the promises emboldened in the constitution.
The recent spate of accelerated attacks on the secular, socialist, democratic foundations of the nation are paradoxically extensions of the liberalization processes unleashed in the 1990s that equated development with the free market. The authoritarian onslaughts across spaces of deliberation and participation are reflections of a global process of shrinking public spheres amid rapid privatization of media and the ownership of mainstream media in the hands of the political-capitalist class.
The power elite have perfected the tools for controlling media discourse while at the same time, journalists are increasingly subjected to precarious working conditions with limited or no union protection.
To resist this onslaught on Indian democracy, the media also need to be equipped to critically examine the neoliberal dogmas that are peddled as universal truth claims. Moreover, the fundamental structures and organizing processes of media institutions need to be questioned, opening up the horizon to serious conversations about the patterns of media ownership and control that enable democracy. Media education curricula need to be grounded in critical pedagogy that is equipped to closely study power, analyse how it shapes media practices, and develop strategies for building media infrastructures that strengthen democracy by narrating the diverse voices across the nation, especially the voices of those in the nation’s margins.
The promising experiments with organizing news with citizen-owned and citizen-funded online media offer excellent new models for media ownership. Similarly, experiments with storytelling from India’s margins offer new frameworks for foregrounding voices that are often unheard. These new models, committed to truth and pluralism, and simultaneously critical of the corporate logics of media organizing offer new anchors to imagining the media.