The media today faces twin threats to its freedoms and its very existence
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ver the last week, news reports of gender segregation in Aligarh Muslim University have snowballed into a national issue following indiscreet statements by its vice chancellor that appeared to justify denial of access to undergraduate girl students to the university’s main library. In the resultant furore, courts and the Union HRD minister have weighed in. But the brunt has been borne by the media — specifically this newspaper, which first reported the VC’s statement.
The reporter was threatened and “advised” to leave Aligarh, while the VC verbally endorsed some students’ demand for a “ban” on the newspaper from the university campus. There has been a countrywide outcry against these crude attempts at muzzling our free press. The Editors’ Guild, the Indian Newspaper Society, senior editors, as well as writers, intellectuals, activists, educationists and scholars have all criticised the AMU administration.Banning newspapers, however, is only the most visible form of attacks on press freedom. The truth is, Indian media today is subjected to all kinds of pressures from authorities, institutions, governments and corporates. Reporters are denied access to information or simply banned from entering certain offices even as media managements are threatened with legal notices and other forms of bullying the moment there is an uncomfortable report.
Governments deny media advertisements and misuse taxpayers’ money to pressure or influence media entities which are critical of them. Some private sector companies also try to influence news coverage by using similar intimidatory tactics and by withdrawing advertising.
Simultaneously, regulators, systems and processes are misused by introducing rules and laws that have the potential of further squeezing media freedoms which are already abridged, and enfeeble media companies, using the pretext of content regulation or quality of “service”.
This is nothing but “soft censorship”. And the practice is rampant in India. In its most overt form, soft censorship is the practice of influencing news coverage through allocation or withholding of spending/advertisements. Covertly, it promotes or diminishes the economic viability of sections of the media, or of all of it.
“Soft censorship” by governments, corporates and regulators was highlighted in a recent report by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, which had described the practice as a “very serious threat to media independence and the very viability of media companies”. WAN, which is the umbrella organisation of newspapers representing more than 18,000 publications and 15,000 online sites in 120 countries, has urgently called for rapid action to stop this blatant repression of media and press freedom, pointing out that “soft censorship” is less noticed than direct attacks on press freedom like assaults on journalists, but is much more widespread.
The report pointed out that the “abusive allocation of government advertising to reward positive coverage and punish critical coverage is doubly pernicious, as taxpayer money and public wealth is used and abused to promote partisan or personal interests”. In the Indian context, apart from ad bans, governments try to keep the industry constantly on tenterhooks either by threatening to bring new content “regulators” or by outlining new media laws on top of the several layers that already exist, or by dusting out settled industry issues and reopening them.
Hardly any of these initiatives aim at growing the industry — basically, they are excuses for greater controls over the media. Governments have also been seeking to weaken the media by getting into nuts and bolts of the media business in all sorts of ways.
Till now the media has held back hoping that better sense will prevail, and governments as well as corporates will desist from chipping away at this key pillar of democracy. However, it is now important for the media to come together and name and shame those who indulge in soft censorship. The social media too can play an activist role in identifying these ills and individuals responsible.
This is not all. All those who cherish our democracy and believe that media plays a crucial role in it, must press for laws with strict criminal and financial penalties to act as a deterrent against these anti-media freedom practices. Think of it — would you vote for a government or buy the products/shares of companies which indulge in these practices?
A robust intervention is today necessary to guarantee media freedom as well as to ensure viability of the industry. The Indian media industry can still become the next big sectoral story with great potential for employment, technological edge and growth, as well as push India as a soft power across the globe.
But this potential can be realised only in an enabling environment — and not when reporters are threatened, newspapers banned, corporates and governments deny advertising for inconvenient coverage, or when policies are designed to emasculate media entities or when there is a subterranean war against the media to prevent it from becoming strong, independent and free.
The practice of using financial leverage and regulatory powers against the media whenever coverage is “adverse” has to stop, otherwise it will all-too-quietly strangle free media — especially when people are unaware of these insidious tactics and their pernicious impact on our democracy. Soft censorship is pervasive in India today, and needs to be fought to ensure media independence and basic press freedoms.