Mixed Media: Is the news media really free to report the truth?

On World Press Freedom Day yesterday, more than issues concerning violent attacks or government interference, it’s a worry to see some private enterprises and individuals coercing media owners to buckle under, writes Pradyuman Maheshwari.

e4m by Pradyuman Maheshwari
Published: May 4, 2009 8:02 AM  | 4 min read
Mixed Media: Is the news media really free to report the truth?

It was World Press Freedom Day yesterday. I’m sure most journalists don’t know that May 3 is observed as that, but since it is, it’s perhaps a good opportunity for one to discuss some of the issues that the Day throws up.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a customary statement on the occasion. “A free press makes governments accountable, increases awareness of important issues among people and benefits society. It is an essential pillar of any democracy. On World Press Freedom Day, I call upon everyone to respect the freedom of journalists and contribute towards a fearless and free press in all parts of the country and the world.”

On the occasion, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), an NGO that highlights issues on press freedom, presented its annual report on the state of the trade. An IFJ press communiqué summed up the situation in India as this: “India, despite its long and well-established journalistic traditions, continues to be convulsed by debates on ethics. Concerns about the coverage of middle-class crime and terrorism have led to greater public interrogation of the media.”

Further, the release says that the overall prognosis of the report is “gloomy”. “An urgent requirement is for journalists’ unions and associations in the region to unite on the basis of agreed principles, to establish the foundations for a shared discourse on press freedom, which could be the precursor for a larger project to bring peace to a region that is torn by deep internal turmoil.”

While the violent threats to the media have upped with growing fundamentalism and the inefficiency of the law enforcers to check rabid elements, the “fallout of the global economic downturn” is an anxiety. “Job losses in journalism are undermining professional morale in a region where physical threats are already taking a serious toll,” the IFJ notes.

Hmmm… but there are other worries regarding the freedom of the media. Government interference is one. The PM may have called upon everyone to respect the freedom of journalists, but his Information and Broadcast Minister of State Anand Sharma tried his ‘bestest’ to rein in news channels with the threat of regulation.

The government is not the only one needling the media. Sections of the private sector aren’t any better. Many media owners don’t think twice about ensuring that influential moneybags are treated with care. So, negatives on them are off, or at least not pushed with the same enthusiasm as any other similar story would. Large advertisers, too, get special treatment, and this holds true not just for the usual suspects in the news media, but even those who would otherwise champion press freedom.

Also, it’s not just corporations who do this. Individuals – professionals, performers and even sportspersons – lobby hard. Regrettably, they have their way since publications these days have interests beyond just the media. For instance, a publishing group also in the business of made-for-telly awards, may hesitate in critiquing film folk as that could lead to stars (and their clique) pulling out. Or a print media entity, whose promoters are also into television, may get its editors to black out a certain actor because he/she features in a rival channel’s programme.

News journalists are often asked by owners to soften their stance on government or municipal departments so that the law-enforcers go easy on possibly an illegal mezzanine floor built somewhere or for favours granted. Mind you, I’m not being a prude here and saying it’s incorrect to publish the photographs of the boss’ kid’s school sports or some such. Or a large advertiser or a minister requesting for his sister’s art exhibition to be covered. Most publications these days feature community events to facilitate plugs like these. The problem is when the advertisers or government authorities ask for favours as a right and managements are forced to comply.

Given business and social compulsions, it’s perhaps not easy for media owners to withstand pressures, but it’s critical for them to be aware that by making compromises, they are also devaluing their brand. My sense is that some know all of this, but there are various others who don’t care. For them, the news media is a business. Returns on investments are critical and the feeling is that readers aren’t too fussy about integrity.

On World Press Freedom Day, while issues such as attacks on the media need to be discussed, it is also critical to figure whether there is complete freedom in the routine functioning of the Indian news media professional. Bottomline: assuming you have supporting documents and/ or statements are on record on a subject of public interest, is there a restriction on you to write/ publish a report? Satyameva Jayate? Is truth allowed to triumph?

(The views expressed here are my own.)

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