By Amol Ranjan
Lately, senior TV Journalist and anchor Ravish Kumar has been requesting people to boycott TV news channel at least till the time Lok Sabha 2019 election gets over. He strongly believes that a complete fusion of mainstream media and politics has reduced TV news channels to government propaganda. The falling standards of TV news journalism and its endorsement of vulgarity have created a dangerous state of ‘informationlessness’. He sums up his angst for current news media with a term called ‘Godi Media’.
‘Godi Media’ can be read as a direct translation of Lapdog journalism. This is a condition where the news media display a lack of independent power and act as a trained pooch. They heavily rely upon government, corporate and elite sources for both information and economic support. They show neither understanding nor interest in the opinions, attitudes and information requirements of any other group other than these elite establishments.
In India, there are enough research to show that the journalism and freedom of expression have been compromised by conflicts of interest related to media ownerships, where big businessmen and political units own a lot of stake in the news media. There is a long history of working media owners, editors and journalists becoming Rajya Sabha members and political leaders and their families owning media houses in India.
But the phenomenon of ‘Godi media’ is not limited to TV media. Online media and its networks are also prone to maneuvering by political actors through the use of huge capital and resources.
Today, political parties and individual leaders invest a lot in online campaigns and general communication. They often peddle a lot of misinformation to manipulate people and gain political advantage. IT cells of leading political parties work around the clock in huge numbers to achieve its objectives. Circulation of distorted facts, fake histories and fake news are not new to the information climate. But easily available digital tools to manipulate text, image or video and viral networks of social media platforms and messaging apps make misinformation and fake news more potent today.
Like TV and newspapers, online media are not limited to manipulation and control of its content or information alone. It also extends to manipulation and control of the medium or the information network itself. The latest campaign, #mainbhichowkidaar, is one such example.
Started as a Twitter hashtag, the campaign echoed in all media including TV and newspapers. Made to trend on social media by large networks of BJP and government supporters, the campaign highjacked many important issues discussed in the media for a period of time. The BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad did a press conference and declared it a ‘mass movement’. When did an election campaign become a mass movement? Such an attempt to disguise and project a campaign to the people of India by Prasad who holds the Law and Justice Ministry as well as the Electronics and Information Technology Ministry is laughable and dangerous.
In ever so connected online networks, it is hard to dissociate big media and online media. The growth of digital has made them converge to a great extent. Today, almost all media organizations and individual journalists have online presence and a lot of social media conversations seep into mainstream media topics. ‘Godi media’ virus thus threatens online media too.
But like any medium, the online medium too contains possibility to get reliable and important information. In fact, many of the online journalism start-ups after 2014 in India were a result of the growing rut in the mainstream media. Growing fake news across online networks prompted various organizations and individuals to start initiatives to fight the phenomenon of fake news. Over time, social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have been forced to make changes in their interface and put in more resources to limit the spread of misinformation.
But concerns for media in India are not limited to its manipulation but also extends to its regulation and control.
For a healthy democracy, freedom of speech and press is non-negotiable. In India, they derive power from Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. However, today journalists are increasingly made to shut down, harassed and even killed for their critical views of the ruling government. Government authorities are using various methods to exercise more control over media and information. Three latest examples quickly come to mind:
First, the recent use of Official Secrets Act against The Hindu over the Rafale documents. Second, creation of Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, that has significantly increased the number of internet shutdowns. Third, amendments to existing IT Act which seriously threaten open internet in India.
The 20th century media theorist Marshall McLuhan had pointed out that we are often blinded by the content of the medium and not able to notice the medium itself. According to him, it’s the medium that shapes and controls content. The above mentioned dangerous and draconian rules and regulations which govern our media and mediums require urgent scrutiny from ourselves.
Currently, media technologies are in the hands of more people than ever. But it’s perhaps an irony that the media is more controlled than ever. Understanding of current mediated environment requires greater media literacy across masses. But with so much talk of Digital India, we are failing to provide even the basic skills.
In a reply to an RTI filed by The Indian Express, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said that a total of 57,07,935 rural people have been covered during 2017-18 under Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan. The figure was less than 21% of the total target for that financial year. Among the limited people that the scheme has been able to reach so far, there are reports of many serious loopholes in the implementation of the scheme.
An election campaign like #mainbhichowkidaar doesn’t need a mass movement; it is media literacy and digital literacy that need mass movements. Perhaps, our Electronics and Information Technology minister has his priority in the wrong place.
Amol Ranjan completed M.A. in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in 2012.
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