Media has long served democracies with its essence and meaning. It has ceaselessly been adopted as a powerful weapon towards causes that benefit society at large. Right from the years following the breakthrough advent of the printing press, media have instilled and created a scope for the public to address and receive adequate redressal. It was the commencement of a powerful tool of citizen empowerment in Democracies that dominated the later world. Johannes Guttenberg’s 15th-century invention of the printing press galvanized an awareness movement that people gave themselves into, considering the first of its kind level of mass influence. People across the world separated by seas and lands found common interests and new meaning to the potential of their solitary existence. Further technological advancements helped a wider circulation of causes and consequences that ushered historical events like Protestantism and the European Renaissance. Martin Luther is widely considered to be the world’s first mass-media figure whose ‘95 Theses’ (The Genesis of Reformation) and public persuasion through the distribution of pamphlets made him a pioneer in the field1. In India, the publication of J. Augustus Hicky’s newspaper ‘The Bengal Gazette’ of the 1780s marked the opening of an informative bridge between the Government and the governed. The Bengal Gazette did not have a smooth trail of purpose and was short-lived, preceded by a long battle between East India Company and Hickey, who exposed the large-scale corruption in the Company to a larger audience. Thus the historical intent of ‘mass media’ is indicative of an upsurge of a group of people united through words of change and action against a rigid authority. It has been instrumental in bringing out a level of transparency between rulers and the ruled and to empower the masses against ideological blindfoldedness and arbitration. It is an important tool to connect people and ideas in order to facilitate progressive changes for humankind.
With advancements in technology, there emerged different forms of mass media shackling a generation of the population in consumer affairs, both of information and entertainment. The Internet has become one of the highest forms of content delivery and acts as the harbinger of the present Information age. It has become an inevitable tool of globalization. The transition from traditional forms of media predominantly towards a new global digital media have enormous consequences which are frequently overlooked. Studies have shown that there is a steady decline in the rate of television viewers across the world, with a rising rate of viewers switching to online videos, view-on-demand platforms and online news portals2. Canadian communication professor Marshall McLuhan proposed this idea of ‘medium is the message’ which suggests that besides the content of the medium, the character of the medium plays an important role in shaping the scope of media3. There is a considerable difference between the nature of media outreach through newspapers and books on one hand and the Internet and all its associated platforms on the other. The Internet has taken the media’s purposeful role of information and education to a broader level with greater scope for influencing opinion and lifestyle. Along with the growing number of journalists facilitated by the digital space, online news portals have mushroomed the web engaging young writers in journalistic apprenticeship. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Youtube are gradually becoming hotspots for mixed opinions and intense debate, where every piece of polarized information has a source backing its legitimacy. Information and news today have taken a course to extreme polarities (Left/Centre/Right inclinations) and linear dissemination of information can be called a thing of the past. Places that were started as tools of connecting people have become hubs of ideological conflicts and polarization. Thus, digital journalism has set forth a different form of media content delivery which is often more easily accessible with varied opinions and fabricated information. With its ever-widening tentacles, the internet has also played a vital role in mobilizing campaigns and influencing election processes and outcomes both progressively and maliciously. While this structural shift in the paradigm of media usage has garnered an unprecedented audience, several underlying dynamics are bringing about a change in the political economy of a nation, including important players at each level.
Towards the media market.
The 21st-century spur in the market economy and resultant capitalist boom have altered the role and nature of media today. Media houses and online news portals are on a rapid rise as are the levels of corporate and political interests over them. In India according to data of 31st March 2018, there were over 118,239 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers, which include over 36,000 weekly magazines alone. There are over 550 FM radio stations in the country and, according to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, over 880 satellite TV channels, including over 380 which claim to be television channels broadcasting “news and current affairs”. Clinging along, there is an unfathomable number of news websites in India. Digital journalism has brought a massive change in the landscape of traditional journalism which is manifested in the TV news channels and newspapers. All of these combined gives the Indian audience a robust set of information outlets both in English and regional languages, influencing people and communities with versions of news and opinions that favour their ideological, cultural and economic needs.
As per the figures released by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) for 2018, the Indian Media recorded a cumulative growth of 13% in 2017 to reach USD 22.54 Billion (INR 1.50 trillion) and it expects the sector to cross a volume of USD 30.06 Billion (INR 2 trillion) by 2020 at a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 11.6%, faster than the country’s GDP growth4. At such a level of media’s proliferation, which is growing faster than the country’s economy, hefty transactions necessarily pull in corporate and business houses to invest in media houses and expand its reach internationally aided by scientific advancements. The research on media ownership comprises a “contested and congested” body of literature5. Ownership of news media is relevant to journalism scholarship because of the assumption that journalism has a potential impact on policy, culture and the public debate, and that owners, seeking to influence political developments, are using media to push societies in a certain direction, for the benefit of interested parties.6
Cross-media ownership (ownership of multiple media sources by a single person or corporate entity) in India is considerably high and contributes to squashing competition and gaining wholesome revenues thus creating hegemonies in the economic field. Five Indian news media companies — NDTV, News Nation, India TV, News24 and Network18 — are either indebted to the richest conglomerate Mukesh Ambani, or Mahendra Nahata, an industrialist and a partner in Reliance Jio. In 2014, Ambani acquired ETV news, which boasts to be “the largest regional news network in terms of geographical reach and the number of languages it covers”, and in 2018, it increased its shareholding to establish the Viacom18 media.7
The concentration of media sources within a small group of people, apart from rivalling stiff competition, imparts a purely oligopolistic character to the Indian media sector. The escalating era of governance based on Public-Private Partnership (PPP) is apparently paving good bridges between major industrialists and government officials, anointed by the promise of development. Critics also address this systematic handover of major areas (like railways and civil aviation) to dawn upon the middle class as the worst form of crony capitalism. Thus media becomes one of the most crucial instruments to disseminate and propagate information that would be of specific business and political interests.
New media and the State’s approach.
The change in the role of media today is recognized and deliberated upon by experts globally, besides the number of studies and research over its changing role vis a vis National policies. Framing policies addressing the protection and safeguard of the Press is a logical tenet on which any democracy is based on. Even though India might appear as an ‘overly legislated’ country in many ways, media laws relating to the concentration of ownership are fragmented, incoherent and largely ineffective – also because TV ratings remain non-transparent and owned by the industry. The gradual change in media dynamics has roped in many other players other than journalists and reporters/writers, to control its content, reach and expansion. India is specifically seen to be flunking in its record of upholding freedom of the press for the last couple of years now, as compared to World charts. The world’s largest democracy is ranked at 142nd out of 180 countries in World Press Freedom Index 2020, with countries like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand preceding its rank. Additionally, The Edelman Trust Barometer report in 2017 labelled Indian media as the second most untrusted institution in the world8. The survey also clearly showed that the trust of people in the media was at an all-time low and the credibility and motive of these institutions have been under question.
The attacks on journalists and media persons have been particularly concerning in India. Even after highlighting the important role of the media as a ‘pious mission’ and their commitment to safeguard and promote ‘fearless journalism’, the Indian Government has been held responsible for allegedly ignoring the issue of attacks on journalists and media persons. According to reports prepared by the Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RAG), during the period of national lockdown imposed by the end of March 2020, 55 journalists faced arrest, FIRs, summons or show-cause notices, physical assaults and threats for reportage on COVID-19 or exercising freedom of opinion. Interestingly, the Press Council Of India (PCI) only intervened in four out of 55 documented cases, clearly depicting its stance on selectivity and inaction9. A study titled “Getting Away with Murder” by Geeta Seshu and Urvashi Sarkar and funded by the US-based Thakur Foundation, documents that in five years from 2014-2019, 198 journalists in India were attacked. Among them, forty journalists have been killed and 21 among them have been killed in direct relation to their work. Controversy strikes when most of the accused are set free and in many instances, the cases do not proceed beyond FIR registration. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in its 2018 Global Impunity Index ranks India 14th among States where Journalists are murdered and their killers go free10.
India has not been receiving an appreciative International gaze because of its falling standards for the safety of journalists and media persons. The fears among journalists exist ceaselessly as many reporters are targeted over ideological and propagandist interests. Many reporters also share experiences of harassment and threats over covering issues that concern general public interests like the anti-CAA protests and the ongoing agitation by farmers. Critical evaluation of important issues is hardly visible in the news channels today, dissent is institutionally suppressed through draconian laws and social media which contains a flurry of ‘seed’ accounts is frenzied by IT cells affiliated with political parties11. The present state of the media is not welcomed by many experts as it is found to be the source of misinformation and debunked stories, even at a time when a pandemic has practically put the whole world at a halt. In fact, fake and manipulative news has been on a rapid rise since the beginning of nationwide lockdown as a precautionary measure against the virus. The question of the independence of the media is becoming more pronounced with the unfolding of the latest political and economic interplays. Media that is honoured as the watchdog of democracy is eventually slipping out as a lapdog of powerful players.
"The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Renaissance"
Naughton, M, 2016, ‘Luther’s Media Phenomenon’, Harvard Divinity School, < https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2016/03/23/reformation-luthers-media-phenomenon> ↩
Nielson,RK; Sambrook, R;2016; ‘What is happening to Television News’; Digital News Publication; University of Oxford, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. ↩
Eudaimonia; 2016; <https://medium.com/@obtaineudaimonia/the-medium-is-the-message-by-marshall-mcluhan-8b5d0a9d426b> ↩
Chisti, AH; ‘Big, Ever Bigger Business’; Media Ownership Monitor-India; RWB <https://india.mom-rsf.org/en/findings/corporateownership/> ↩
Hardy, J, 2014, ‘Critical Political Economy of the Media: An Introduction’, pg 79, Routledge Publication ↩
Alam, Mahtab; 2020; “Attacked, Arrested, Left without recourse- How 2020 was for India’s Journalists”, The Wire; <https://thewire.in/media/journalists-arrested-press-freedom-2020> ↩
Kamdar, Bansari; 2018; “Journalism in India- A dangerous pursuit?”; The Diplomat; <https://thediplomat.com/2018/11/journalism-in-india-a-dangerous-pursuit/> ↩
Staff reporter, 2020, “For the first time in India, Twitter flags BJP IT cell’s Manipulated media”, The Wire < https://thewire.in/politics/twitter-amit-malviya-bjp-it-cell-manipulation> ↩