• Why Propaganda Passes as News in the (Indian) Media

    Pushkar Raj

    November 28, 2017

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Image Courtesy: Jinagnya Shah

    It is a common refrain in the country that news has declined in content and quality. Social media is full of debates on the issue, more so since the coming of paid news and scandals like the one caused by the Radia tapes. A common thread of concern is that the media has been reduced to reporting scandals, preaching and serving the masses a low comedy in the name of news, rather than being an impartial disseminator of information, which is its primary task.

    How has this degeneration come about? 

    In a democracy, news opens up a reality to people on which they can act. A journalist’s task is to inform them about this reality by presenting facts from more than one perspective, so that people can form an opinion and choose their rulers. However, lately, the news is being prevented from reaching the masses. This is done by stopping journalists from gathering and presenting certain kinds of news.  

    The data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) suggests that, since 1992, 71 media persons have been killed in the country. Hardly any perpetrators have received punishment. A report by a media watchdog website, The Hoot, suggests that, in 2010-16, 23 journalists had been murdered. There has been only one conviction so far. Even in that, an appeal is pending.

    Apparently, Central and state governments are not protecting journalists. Once harmed, the government does not take any interest in ensuring justice. Thus, the perpetrators are encouraged to continue their purge. Ironically, a journalist is merely a messenger doing his duty. “Shooting the messenger” has never been truer than it is now.

    Furthermore, governments do not want news to reach the masses; therefore, they resort to foul means like using the anti-defamation law against journalists.  For example, during 2001–6, the Jayalalitha government filed about 120 defamation cases against the media. The DMK government that followed her was no better, filing over a 100 defamation cases against the media. The present government is no different. They recently arrested a cartoonist for highlighting the plight of poor farmers at the hands of money lenders in rural Tamil Nadu.

    Big businesses are another enemy of news and journalists.

    Pranjoy Guha Thakurta had to resign from the editorship of the Economic and Political Weekly, under the threat of a legal suit. He had also received defamation notices from the lawyers of Reliance Industries, led by Mukesh and Anil Ambani, after he self-published Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis.

    Corporations treat news as a commodity that can be made, packaged, and sold. On the contrary, news cannot be manufactured; news happens.

    The major task of the corporate media is to suppress the news as it happens and replace it with “manufactured” news, much like a commodity is, and serve it to its audience, audience that also buys their other products unquestioned. 

    Corporations control and regulate the flow of news in the country now. The Mukesh Ambani led Reliance group has taken over Network 18 (an Indian mass media company) and has invested about $6 billion in the media sector. The Bennet Coleman & Co. Ltd. (BCCL), or The Times Group, as it is better known, has a revenue exceeding $1.5 billion, thriving on its innovation of paid news.

    Living Media—that broadcasts Aaj Tak and publishes the popular weekly India Today in several languages— and NDTV also received significant corporate investments, resulting in news getting sanitised of purity and sensitivity by the time it reached television studios. It turned into propaganda, became news with an agenda.  

    Thus, when radio news and Doordarshan (a public television network reaching 596 million out of 1.3 billion Indians) are owned by the government and the rest are under corporate control, then a 16000-fold increase within a year in the fortune of the ruling party’s chief’s son is not news. Instead, for major private news channels, the exploits and wisdom of convicted and current babas, Karva Chauth, Shakahari Gurugram, etc is the news.

    This media, when tasked to cover social issue such as infants’ death in hospitals, or farmers’ suicides in rural India, presents a spectacle similar to the one shown in the popular Hindi movie Peepli Live

    Another disturbing trend in India is the tendency to defame and fracture the media as an institution, by its own people. This is borne out from headlines like, ‘Amit Shah’s Son to File 100 Crore Defamation Suit against Website,’ which was carried by a prominent newspaper. The headline is disingenuous because it makes no reference to whether the report carried by the website was true or not, thus, implying that it was ambiguous and deserved a suit.   This is a case of corporate media demeaning independent media.

    However, journalism will live as long as there is passion to bring out the truth. Journalists will create new ways to survive. This optimism stems from the testimony of Rohini Singh, a journalist with soldier-like passion and courage, who broke the Jay Shah story.  She was trolled and threatened by the paid social media mob. She had, previously, also reported on Robert Vadra’s accumulation of wealth during the congress regime.

    She wrote back, “My primary job is to speak truth to power. To question the government of the day”, adding, “I don't do the sort of stories I do because I am “brave.”  I do them because that is journalism.”

    So long as journalists like this remain, news will shine in the debris of propaganda.

    Pushkar Raj is a Melbourne based researcher and author.

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