Justice Markandey Katju–
(Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own)
November 16 is celebrated each year in India as National Press Day, and this year too it was celebrated by some people. I regret I cannot celebrate it, and I wish to explain why. George Orwell once said, “Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”
But, as Ravish Kumar, winner of the Magsaysay Award says, the Indian media today cannot be called the Fourth Estate, it has largely become part of the First Estate. Instead of serving the people, which it was supposed to do, the Indian media has largely become anti-people.
Historically, the print media emerged in Europe as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time, the established organs of power were all in the hands of the feudal despotic authorities (the king, aristocrats, etc).
Therefore, the people had to create new organs which could represent them. That is why the print media became known as the fourth estate. In Europe and America it represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the established feudal organs which wanted to preserve the status quo. The media thus played an important role in transforming feudal Europe to modern Europe, by giving leadership to the people in the realm of ideas, and attacking feudalism.
In the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, the print media represented the voice of reason. Voltaire attacked religious bigotry and superstitions, and Rousseau attacked feudal despotism.
Diderot said that “Man will be free when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”. Thomas Paine proclaimed the Rights of Man, and Junius (whose real name we still do not know) attacked the despotic King George III and his Ministers (see Will Durant’s ‘The Story of Civilization: Rousseau and Revolution’).
Louis XVI, while in the Temple prison saw books by Voltaire and Rousseau in the prison library, and said that these two persons have destroyed France. In fact, what they had destroyed was not France, but the feudal order.
In the 19th century, the brave American journalist William Lloyd Garrison attacked slavery at the risk of his own life, and the famous French writer Emile Zola in his article J’Accuse accused the French Government of falsely imprisoning Captain Dreyfus in Devil’s Island only because he was a Jew.
In India Raja Ram Mohan Roy, through his newspapers Sambad Kaumadi and Mirat-ul Akhbar attacked inhuman social practices. Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi opposed communalism (and in fact fell victim to it), and Nikhil Chakraborty wrote of the horrors of the great Bengal famine of 1943.
In our own times, P. Sainath exposed the extent of the largescale farmers suicides, which no other journalist had cared to investigate.
In my opinion, the Indian media should be playing a role similar to the progressive role played by the media in Europe during the transitional period in Europe.
In other words, the Indian media should help our country get over the transition period through which India is presently passing, and become a modern industrial and prosperous nation.
This it can do by giving leadership to the people in the realm of ideas, by attacking backward, feudal ideas and practices e.g. casteism, communalism and superstitions, and promoting modern scientific and rational ideas. But is it doing so? The truth is, a large section of the Indian media (particularly the electronic media) does not serve the interest of the people, and in fact much of it is positively anti-people.
There are several major defects in the Indian media which I would like to highlight.
Firstly, Indian media often deliberately diverts the attention of the people from the real issues to non issues. The real issues in India are socio-economic, the terrible poverty in which 75% or more of our people are living, massive unemployment, skyrocketing inflation, lack of proper medical care and education, appalling level of child malnutrition (every second child in India is malnourished, according to Global Hunger Index), and backward social practices like discrimination against women, Dalits, and minorities, honor killing, caste oppression, and religious polarisation.
Instead of devoting most of its coverage to these real issues, the media focuses on non issues or trivialities like petty politics, film stars and their lives, self-styled spiritual babas, fashion parades, pop music, disco dancing, astrology, cricket, reality shows, etc.
There can be no objection to the media providing entertainment to the people, provided this is not overdone. But if 90% of its coverage is related to entertainment, and only 10% to the real issues facing the nation, then there is something seriously wrong with the media. The question is of proportion.
In the Indian media, the sense of proportion is skewed. Entertainment gets 10 times the coverage that poverty, unemployment, healthcare, malnutrition, education , labor, agriculture and environment together get.
Does a hungry or unemployed man want entertainment, or food and a job?
If we switch on TV news, what do we see? Communal propaganda and petty politics which has sunk to a very low order, cricket, film stars, astrology, babas, etc. What has all this to do with the massive problems facing the people? Is this not really anti-people?
Many channels show cricket day in and day out. Cricket is really an opiate of the Indian masses. The Roman Emperors used to say, “If you cannot give the people bread give them circuses”. This is precisely the approach of the Indian establishment, duly supported by our media. Keep the people involved in cricket so that they forget their social and economic plight.
For them, what is important is not poverty or unemployment or price rise or farmers suicides or lack of housing or healthcare or education. What is important to them is whether India will win the World Cup, or whether Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma will score a century.
The Indian media hypes some cricket matches to such an extent (for example, the India-Pakistan match) that they become a veritable Mahabharat war!
Enormous space is given by our media to petty politics, film stars, babas, petty crimes, stock market, cricket, astrology, etc and very little to social sectors like poverty, child malnutrition, unemployment, price rise, health and education.
Most media correspondents attend political meetings, functions showing film stars, fashion parades, pop music, etc. and very few attend to the lives and problems of workers, farmers, teachers, students, sex workers.
Some time back ‘The Hindu’ published that 250,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves in the last 15 years. The Lakmé Fashion week was covered by 512 accredited journalists. In that fashion week, models were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves an hour’s flight from Nagpur in the Vidarbha region. Nobody told that story except one or two journalists locally.
What should be the correct role of the media? This was explained by Justice Hugo Black of the US Supreme Court in New York Times vs US, 1971 (the Pentagon Papers case) in these stirring words:
“In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.
Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.
In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.”
The truth is that today most of the Indian media has lost the respect of the Indian people, and have become shameless sycophants.
Paid news, fake news, etc are rampant in the Indian media, and as a senior journalist said, many media people are “bribeable” and “manipulable”.
The huge salaries which many top media people nowadays get (some are said to get packages worth several millions annually, often linked with television rating points or TRPs) enables such media people to lead fancy life styles with huge cars, houses and bank balances, thereby making many of them docile hirelings of their corporate masters, who in turn kowtow before the political rulers.
Many Indian media people raised a big hue and cry about assault on media freedom after the action of the authorities on the website Newsclick and its alleged associates, but my article may also be seen in this connection.
In view of all this, how can I celebrate National Press Day?