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PARANJOY GUHA THAKURTA & SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN | 23 MAY, 2019

Is the Media Really That Powerful?

#TCElects - Live from our watch party


Paranjoy Guha Thakurta - A very substantial section of the media has become an echo chamber. Not since the Emergency has such a large section of the media been so subservient to the ruling dispensation. Indira Gandhi put a few journalists behind bars, and the rest, when they were asked to bend they crawled.

What is it about the last five years that this has happened again?

The entire environment in which the media works has undergone a big change. The biggest advertisers in the media today are the Government of India and the BJP, and they have used this financial clout in such a way as to ensure that most of the media is completely suppliant.

Secondly, the social media. the way in which Amit Shah and the BJP have weaponised these media, WhatsApp in particular, is unprecedented. The scale of this is new.

At least a third of the electorate are on Facebook and WhatsApp. So even the media that is not subservient to Modi and Shah, has been so badly pushed to the margins that we are drowned out by the echo chamber.

We must also understand, that while we are now using languages to reach out to people in a manner that we can understand each other, we must also reach out economically, in terms of crowdfunding, subscriptions, so the model can change.

Sukumar Muralidharan - There has been so much change in the media ecosystem that there is a great deal of uncertainty and trepidation even in the media community.

There is an unwillingness to speak the truth to hard power, and this has led us to the edge of the abyss.

When we began our life as a republic we agreed that we would lead ourselves to formal equality. That citizenship would be agnostic about religion and other identities. This promise no longer seems to hold, and it has been met with silence from the media.

In Rajasthan, when a migrant worker was hacked to death, and his killer was brought to court, Sangh workers raised the saffron flag on court premises, and lowered the national flag. Did we see much outrage about this? Or for that matter about the hate crime itself? As much outrage as we saw about the supposedly casteist remark by Mani Shankar Aiyar during the last campaign?

I mention this because we are seeing a concerted effort to sanitise the record of this government, to give it a free pass. Let us not underestimate the nature of this threat.

In terms of immediate consequences, we saw the lynchings unleashed just days after 2014. Let us now prepare ourselves for rising social stress, rising social strife, and if the media doesn’t combat it as it should, what options do we as a people have?

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta - We should not be surprised if people in the media and elsewhere themselves come under attack, if they try to cover what is happening.

No matter who is in power, there will be a certain resistance from the government to free expression, to questions being asked.

On our part we need to invest resources in investigations, in investigative journalism, into what the people in power are doing. This includes not just the government but also corporates.

A failure to do this will mean that an ever larger section of the media will find itself cornered and outnumbered.

Crowdfunding is a struggle, building support is a struggle, but one has to do it. one certainly can’t give up, and certainly not at this juncture.

Sukumar Muralidharan - Certainly. The social media is a big new venue, a channel for this kind of resistance. The use of the social media wasn’t unique to the BJP, but what was unique to the BJP was its use of the media to target a particular community, the people of a particular faith.

To see how the government was able to spin events in its favour, take the example of Pulwama in Kashmir.

43 of our military personnel were attacked in the most secured, most militarised place in our country and the world. Wasn’t that incompetence and ineptitude?

But the way they spun it, was quite different. With their airstrikes just days later, no one knows who was killed, what happened there. But we know we lost an aircraft, a pilot was captured, and 7 military personnel were brought down by our own fire. None of this was investigated or brought out.

Organisations that don’t comply with the official line, their government advertising is completely stopped. Their journalists, editors and proprietors are targeted.

Spread through the media, the BJP’s hyper nationalism is cowering people into silence.

Seema Mustafa - We also need to remember that grassroots journalism has disappeared. The tradition of dissent, of even understanding what people’s aspirations are and what they’re thinking, spread out from the grassroots. From the villages, from the districts, it spread outward from there. With the disappearance of that tradition, journalism is bound to become different.

Sukumar Muralidharan - We are facing a crisis of livelihoods, of economic well being, in this country that is unprecedented. Yet the government managed to spin that, to say that those people's rights will come at a cost to our rights. That's how the majoritarian attitude was cemented - the idea that those who disagree, those who even talk about the distress, are not complying with the spirit of the country. That they are not uniting behind the national project.

We will face hostility from trolls, and people, and the government, but the challenge is to continue the discussion and maintain the tone of reasonableness, to put forward our arguments and continue our work.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta - I have been asked, are you a journalist or an activist? As if the two are mutually exclusive. The idea that a journalist has to be "objective" or "unbiased" - that we have to put everything in the form of "on the one hand, on the other hand" - this has to be reasoned with.

I am biased against the corrupt. i am biased against the majoritarian.

Seema Mustafa - There is nothing like objectivity. Objectivity is a right wing term. No journalist can be objective when the masses are suffering, and toiling, when there is death and destruction.

So how can you stand with someone who says well, I look at everyone, the rich and the poor, with the same eye. At the lower castes and the upper castes with the same eye. At the rich muslim and the poor muslim, with the same eye.

How can we stand with that? As a journalist, the minute you enter the profession, you take a side. We have to choose whose side to take.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Sukumar Muralidharan are senior journalists. Seema Mustafa is editor of The Citizen.

 

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