The Role of the Indian Media


Justice Markandey Katju-

Today, 3rd May, is World Press Freedom Day. It is a day on which to reflect on and review the performance of the Indian media, not just the print media, but also the electronic one.

Historically, the media arose in the 18th century in Western Europe as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time all the organs of power were in the hands of the feudal authorities (kings, aristocrats, etc). Hence the people had to create new organs which could represent their interests, and the media (which was then only print media) was one of these new organs which enabled the people to fight feudalism. Great writers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, John Wilkes, Junius (whose real name we still do not know) used the media (in the form of pamphlets, leaflets, etc ) to attack religious bigotry and feudal autocracy.

Justice Markandey Katju

At that time the media represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the feudal organs which wanted to preserve the status quo. Hence, it played a progressive role, and greatly helped in the transformation of feudal Europe to modern Europe.

In India, there were great journalists like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who through his newspapers Sambad Kaumudi and Miratul Akhbar fought against inhuman practices like Sati and promoted widow remarriage etc. In the 20th century, there were Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, Nikhil Chakraborty, etc., who bravely criticized British rule in India. Even today we have P. Sainath who almost single-handedly exposed the truth of largescale farmers suicides in India, Siddhartha Varadarajan, Karan Thapar, etc who did many exposes of high ups.

But apart from these exceptions what about the rest? Regrettably it must be said that most journalists today are sold out, and hardly doing their duty to the people. 

Today most of the media diverts attention of the people from the real issues facing India e.g. massive poverty, record unemployment ( as admitted by National Sample Survey ), largescale farmers suicides ( over 300,000 by last count ) which is continuing unabated, appalling level of child malnourishment (47% Indian children are malnourished, a figure far higher than that of the poorest countries of sub Saharan Africa like Somalia which has 35% ), 50% Indian women are anemic, almost total lack of proper healthcare and good education for the masses, etc.

Instead, most of the coverage by our media is of lives of film stars, cricket, fashion parades, astrology and petty politics (e.g. Ali and Bajrangbali ). TV is perhaps the greater offender than the press, and what is often seen there is irresponsible jingoism, war mongering and pretense of ultra-nationalism, branding all who disagree with anchors like Lord Haw Haw as anti-national, Tukde Tukde gang or urban naxals. 

Paid news, Radia tapes, and other issues are well known malpractices. Regrettably it has to be said that this is what many professed journalists who strut around like peacocks pretending to be ‘intellectuals’ have brought the profession down to. While during the Emergency (1975-77) the media, which was only asked to bend, had crawled (as L.K.Advani said ), in recent times even without an Emergency much of the media did shaashtang (laid prostrate ), abandoning its duty to the people.

I will conclude by quoting the immortal words of Mr. Justice Hugo Black, former Judge of the US Supreme Court, in his judgment in New York Times vs United States (see online) to remind the media of its solemn duty to the people, a duty it seems to have forgotten.

” 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 censure the press was abolished, so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. 

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 which the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of the government which led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.”

[Justice Markandey Katju is former Judge, Supreme Court of India and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own]

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