Recently at the Golden Globes while receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award the American actress Meryl Streep spoke for freedom of the media. I too support freedom of the media. However, the further question is whether that freedom is being properly used in the interest of the people. I submit that the Indian media, with some exceptions, is mostly used in an anti-people manner.
Historically, the media arose in Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time all the organs of power were in the hands of the feudal rulers (kings, aristocrats, etc). Hence the people had to create new organs which would represent their interests in their struggles against the feudal authorities. And the most powerful organ they created was the media, which at that time was only in print form, and that too not in the form of daily newspapers but leaflets, pamphlets, etc. This new media represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the feudal organs of power which wanted to preserve the status quo. That is why the press became known as the Fourth Estate.
The Indian media should be playing a role similar to the progressive role played by the media in Europe during the transitional period (from feudalism to a modern society).
Great writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Junius (whose real name we still do not know), John Wilkes, etc used this new medium to attack feudalism and religious bigotry. Thus, the print medium played a significant role in transforming feudal Europe to modern Europe.
In the Age of Enlightenment in Europe the print media represented the voice of reason. Voltaire attacked religious bigotry and superstitions, and Rousseau attacked feudal despotism. Diderot said that "Man will be free when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest." Thomas Paine proclaimed the Rights of Man, and Junius attacked the despotic George III and his ministers (see Will Durant's The Story of Civilization: Rousseau and Revolution). Louis XVI, while in the Temple prison saw books by Voltaire and Rousseau in the prison library and said that these two persons had destroyed France. In fact, what they had destroyed was not France but the feudal order. In the 19th century the famous writer Emile Zola in his article "J' Accuse" accused the French government of falsely imprisoning Captain Dreyfus in Devil's Island only because he was a Jew.
In my opinion the Indian media should be playing a role similar to the progressive role played by the media in Europe during the transitional period (from feudalism to a modern society). In other words, the Indian media should help our country get over the transition period and became a modern industrial State. This it can do by attacking backward, feudal ideas and practices—such as casteism, communalism and superstitions—and promoting modern scientific and rational ideas. It should help the Indian people in their struggles for a better life. But is it doing so?
In my opinion a large section of the Indian media (particularly the electronic media) does not serve the interests of the people. In fact, some of it is positively anti-people. Instead of playing a progressive role, it is often doing the reverse, because it has largely been taken over by corporates and big businessmen who want it to serve their own interests, rather than the interests of the people.
The basic problems of our people are great poverty, massive unemployment, lack of healthcare and good education, extreme malnourishment (particularly in the case of children), farmer suicides, widespread casteism, communalism, superstitions, and discrimination against Dalits, women, religious minorities and more.
Our media... seeks to project non-issues or trivialities as if they are the real issues of the nation, while pushing the real issues to the sidelines.
Instead of focussing on these basic problems of the people, much of the media seeks to divert attention from them, and instead highlights Bollywood, lives of film stars, cricket, babas, astrology, reality shows, fashion parades, petty politics (which has descended to the lowest level in our country), etc. In other words, our media (with some exceptions) seeks to project non-issues or trivialities as if they are the real issues of the nation, while pushing the real issues to the sidelines.
For instance, for years our media suppressed the farmer suicides, until a great journalist, P. Sainath managed to bring it to the public's notice by his intense investigations.
The Roman Emperors used to say that if you cannot give the people bread give them circuses. Much of our media seems to say, if you cannot give the people bread give them film stars, cricket, astrology, pop music. Cricket today is the opium of the Indian masses, doled out by the media to the gullible public. Astrology is really superstition, while what the country needs is scientific ideas.
Enormous space is given by our media to business, and very little to social sectors like health and education. Most media correspondents focus on the film stars, fashion parades, pop music, etc. and very few attend to the lives and problems of workers, farmers, students, sex workers, etc.
Some years ago, The Hindu published that a quarter million farmers committed suicide in the last 15 years. A Lakmé Fashion week was covered by 512 accredited journalists. In that fashion week women were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves an hour's flight from Nagpur in the Vidarbha region. Nobody told that story except one or two journalists locally.
The media coverage of education concentrates (if at all) on the elite colleges like the IITs, but there is very little coverage of the plight of the tens of thousands of primary schools, particularly in rural areas.
In Europe the displaced peasants got jobs in the factories which were coming up because of the Industrial Revolution. In India, on the other hand, industrial jobs are now hard to come by. Many mills have closed down and have become real estate. The job trend in manufacturing has seen a sharp decline over the last 15 years. For instance, TISCO employed 85,000 workers in 1991 in its steel plant which then manufactured 1 million tonnes of steel. In 2005 it manufactured 5 million tonnes of steel but with only 44,000 workers. In the mid-90s Bajaj was producing 1 million two-wheelers with 24,000 workers. By 2004 it was producing 2.4 million units with 10,500 workers.
Most media correspondents focus on the film stars, fashion parades, pop music, etc. and very few attend to the lives and problems of workers, farmers, students, sex workers, etc.
Where then do these millions of displaced workers go? They go to cities where they became domestic servants, street hawkers or even criminals. It is estimated that there are 1 to 2 lakh adolescent girls from Jharkhand working as maids in Delhi. Prostitution is rampant in all cities, due to abject poverty.
In the field of healthcare, it may be pointed out that the number of quacks in every city in India is several times the number of regular doctors. This is because the poor people cannot afford to go to a regular doctor. In rural areas the condition is worse. The government doctors posted to primary health centres usually come for a day or two each month, and run their private nursing homes in the cities the rest of the time.
In "Shining" India, the child malnutrition figures are among the worst in the world. According to UN data, the percentage of underweight children below the age of 5 years in the poorest countries in the world is 25% in Guinea Bissau, 27% in Sierra Leone, 38% in Ethiopia, and 47% in India. The average family in India is consuming 100 kilograms of food grains less than it did 10 years ago (see P. Sainath's "Slumdogs vs. Millionaires").
All this is largely ignored by our media which turns a Nelson's eye to the harsh economic realities facing up to 80% of our people, and instead concentrates on some Potemkin villages where all is glamour and show biz. Our media is largely like Queen Marie Antoinette, who when told that the people have no bread, allegedly said that they could eat cake.
Today India is passing through a terrible transitional period in its history—the transition from feudal agricultural society to modern industrial society, which in my opinion will last another 20 years or so. The transitional era is a very painful and turbulent period in history. If one reads the history of Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries (when Europe was passing through its transition) one finds that it was full of turmoil, wars, revolutions, social chaos, etc. It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe.
India is presently going through that fire. We are going through a very painful period in our history, which I guess will last another 20 years or so. In this transitional period the role of ideas becomes very important, and therefore the role of the media becomes very important, because the media is not an ordinary business which deals in commodities, it deals with ideas. It is the duty of all patriotic Indians, including media persons, to help shorten this transitional period and make it less painful, so that India becomes a modern, powerful, industrial power, with all its people (and not just a handful) leading decent and prosperous lives, with food, employment, healthcare, education, etc available to the masses. For this it is essential for intellectuals, including the media, to promote modern and scientific ideas and combat backward and feudal ideas and practices like casteism, communalism and superstitions.
Instead of pandering to the low tastes of the Indian masses our media should spread scientific and rational thinking...
But is the Indian media doing its patriotic duty? No doubt there are some media persons, like P. Sainath, who are doing a great job, but what about others? Film stars, petty politics and cricket dominate much of or media. Many TV channels show astrology, which is promoting superstitions, when the media should promote scientific ideas. At a time when our nation should be united if we are to progress, a section of the media promotes communalism by demonising Muslims and portraying them as terrorists.
In my opinion, the Indian media should give leadership to the people in the realm of ideas, the way Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, etc did when Europe was passing through its transitional period. Instead of pandering to the low tastes of the Indian masses our media should spread scientific and rational thinking and seek to uplift its intellectual level so as to make our masses part of enlightened India.
The truth, however, is that most of our media, much of which has been taken over by corporates and big businessmen who only want it to serve their own interests, instead of serving the people, is doing just the reverse.
So when we talk of freedom of the media we should also consider the above points.