Role of the media in a democracy revisited
May 12, 2017

Numerous defamation suits against journalists, mounting pressure on whistleblowers and RTI activists, low level of media activism and rise of political infotainment, are potent threats to the effective functioning of the media, says Santosh Kumar Biswal

India, with a population of more than 132 crore (1320 million) and elections at regular intervals, has more than one lakh news-papers and periodicals and 1000 television channels registered with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The role of the media in initiating, framing and executing democratic values through various forms of communication, has gained paramount importance in the light of the corruption, nepotism, unemployment and anti-social activities plaguing the nation. However, factors such as ‘institutionalisation’, ‘politicisation’ and ‘corporatisation’ of the media have proved to have a pernicious effect on the nature and growth of government-public relations, ultimately resulting in malfunctioning of democracy.

The role of the media from the pre-Independence period to the era of globalisation has changed, and is now defined in the light of preserving, enriching and generating democratic values such as fundamental rights, duties, directive principle of state policy and the ‘none of the above (NOTA)’ option in elections in the world’s largest democracy.

Democracy is accepted when it extends its supports to good governance. However, for various reasons, democratic choices are increasingly founded on prejudice and ignorance. Rational thought and careful deliberation on the part of citizens are declining. What responsibility does the media hold as a source of information in a deliberative democracy? Numerous defamation suits against journalists, mounting pressure on whistleblowers and RTI activists, low level of media activism and rise of political infotainment, are potent threats to the effective functioning of the media. Political Public Relations as a discipline further hampers journalism which is in the best interests of the public.

Since participation is the lifeline of democratic ethos, dialogue and interaction between the media and the public in general are of utmost importance. The emergence of digital media in general and social media in particular has given massive impetus to culture, governance and society at large. The advent of citizen journalism – a platform of user-generated content – is a boon and a sharp weapon in the hands of common citizen, according to some quarters. Opinion is divided among journalists on the importance that should be given to citizen journalism and social media.
Krishna Prasad, former editor-in-chief, Outlook, underlines that journalism is a special skill which can be learnt through a certain amount of training and experience. There is no doubt that social media is a democratising force.

But mere re-tweeting, sharing or ‘liking’ a Facebook post is not adding to journalism or democracy. Several social media posts are just border-line truths. It is at best spreading the news, or adding noise to the con-tent. There is a difference between content and journalism. Journalism is also about a number of reporters, editors, filters and gatekeepers of content. The Indian media, especially the news media, is weak in respect of ownerships patterns, top-level editorship, promoters and proprietorship, which have multiple vested interests. However, the readership, viewership and Internet penetration are on the rise and this can strengthen Indian democracy.

Sandeep Sahu, a senior correspondent with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), asserts that the role of the media has undergone a sea change after the advent of social media. More often than not, news these days breaks first on social media rather than on mainstream media. Consequently, the monopoly of mainstream media on news and wisdom has been seriously undermined, he says.

Social media has also made it virtually impossible to sweep any news or information under the carpet as it often happened earlier. This has been a healthy development for democracy despite the all too obvious pitfalls of new-age- or Internet-based media such as peddling of unverified news and trolling, he points out.

The media as a whole is now a much more democratic space than it ever was, he says, adding, on the negative side, corporate control of the levers of the media has emerged as a major threat to independent media because commercial con-siderations invariably supersede public interest and sound editorial judgment these days. Political parties have two major roles – one when in power and another when in Opposition. The motto should be ruling the state under democratic standards. They admit that certainly there is a strong relationship between media and democracy in the state.

With reference to this, Prof P.L. Vishweshwar Rao, convener, Aam Aadmi Party, Telangana State, points out that the mainstream media is not able to perform its job of retaining democratic norms in India because of the political economy of the media and monopoly of media ownership. Indian media is not reflecting plurality and diversity in its coverage. It is not rendering a voice to the voiceless. Social media is not an apt platform to disseminate information on democratic norms such as fundamental rights and duties, directive principles of state policy and NOTA because of the digital divide, he feels. There is no reflection of freedom of expression.

The media should be committed to address the issues of women, Dalits, Muslims and other disadvantaged sections of the society in the light of social justice, he says.

Commercialisation of the media drives political communication and this undermines the level of democracy. In other cases, corporate houses have hijacked the media’s social agenda and made it their own with an eye on profits.
However, Kamlesh Sharma, director, Public Affairs and Communication, Coca-Cola India & South West Asia, stresses that the media is called the Fourth Estate, which instantly clubs it with the other three pillars that ensure the functioning of a vibrant and healthy democracy. In the business of media, what matters most is honesty, ethics and reliability. As long they hold these values, ownership should not be an impediment to good journalism. Media pedagogy has bearings on the smooth functioning of democracy. In this context, Krishna Sankar Kusuma, AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, reasons that the pedagogy needs to be amended. Journalism students should be given updated knowledge on political science, public policy and governance.

Judging by the guidelines laid down by UNESCO, Indians are not consuming minimum media content. Hence, more and more students should be trained so that the dearth of media professionals and media content can be corrected, he says.

(The writer is assistant professor with Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Symbiosis International University, Pune.)

January – March 2017