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Mixed Media: Are Indian journalists really free to write whatever they want to?

17-August-2009
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Mixed Media: Are Indian journalists really free to write whatever they want to?

On India’s 63rd Independence Day, just as everyone around us evaluates how the country has fared since our ‘tryst with destiny’, it perhaps makes sense to assess how free journalists are in this country.

Despite attempts by some elements in the government in the past or statements like those of the Press Council of India chief that I wrote about last week, the media in this country is largely free. Our democratic institutions and judicial systems have taken corrective action if and when policy-makers or law-enforcers have strayed. The fraternity, too, has shown solidarity in times like these forcing a turn-back.

The real worry is not with governments, but within the media itself and private enterprise. Since one can’t get anyone on record on issues, it wouldn’t be possible to take names, but there are enough cases of powerful advertisers withdrawing advertising or threatening publications with such an eventuality.

It happens all the time, putting tremendous pressure on not just editors but also the sales folk who go out and meet advertisers or their agencies. Thankfully for me, my employers thus far have backed my colleagues and me to the hilt whenever a biggie has been up in arms since what we did (by writing or not writing) was no wrong, but not many have this luxury. And for them: it’s damned if you do good journalism and damned if you don’t. In all of this I find politicians a wise lot. Despite getting the stick from the media – and we’ve seen television anchors often getting fairly aggressive with them – they speak to us to get their point across.

The concern is that publications tend to go soft on issues unnecessarily, especially with large marketers, because it could harm revenue interests. Many publications tend to not report facts as they know them in an attempt to please potential and/ or existing benefactors. Advertisers aren’t alone in getting special treatment. If a media company has broken civic rules – illegal construction, for example – municipal corporations are treated with kid gloves. Ditto if owners with varied investments use their media properties to extract favours for their other investments. The list of people they need to gratify could get endless then.

It’s not that only promoters are the root cause of all evil. There are many professional managers and journalists, too, who bend backwards to please people who matter. From chief ministers, who have a discretionary quota for housing at low rates, to hotels and restaurants who offer free hospitality, there exists a tribe which will do all that can be done for their personal benefit.

So, what’s wrong if you use a media vehicle you own to help generate revenues or get another group activity a push-up? Well, you make a concession once and you will need to keep doing it all the time!

I guess it’s important for stakeholders to realise the role of the media and ensure that it is allowed to be run in a free and fair manner. While this shouldn’t allow the media to abuse its powers and report or comment incorrectly, it is important for everyone to know that unlike the past, where you could only have a whisper campaign against incorrect practices, we now have social networks and blogs that can transmit info in minutes. And if that happens too often, it could adversely impact credibility, which can take a long, long time to rebuild.

There have been cases of promoters of news media who have opted out because the publications got too hot to handle and it impacted their existing businesses. Although it was quite a blow to the careers of the staff then, I think it was a wise decision. Media entities that attempt to report and comment on news must do so without any interests coming in the way. One could of course decide to only feature certain type of content, given the audience that is being targeted, but it is vital that all is above board. Only then can Independence Day be celebrated as a day of freedom by the news media too.

(The views expressed here are personal. Post your comments below or mail your views at mixedmedia@exchange4media.com.)

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