A year after Gauri Lankesh was shot outside her home in Bengaluru, there is every reason to believe that the environment for free expression of views has deteriorated in India. Pressures on civil society and the media to conform to the ruling regime have intensified. Self-censorship is on the rise. Many mainstream media organisations prefer to play safe and have become overly cautious when it comes to criticising those in power, as well as advertisers. Over 43 years after the imposition of the Emergency, the country is going through a phase in which the adversarial role of the fourth estate is being downgraded. Journalists are today discouraged from antagonising the elite, be they politicians, corporate captains, senior government officials or the top brass of the military and security establishment.
To argue that everybody in the media is kowtowing shamelessly to the rich and the powerful would be an exaggeration. However, the space for dissenting voices has diminished over the past four and a half years. During the Emergency, political opponents of the Congress, including some journalists, were put behind bars. Fast-forward to 2018: the law-enforcing authorities are threatening to jail activists and lawyers painted as 'Urban Naxals'. During the Emergency, public buses in Delhi used to have a slogan painted on them — 'rumour-mongers are enemies of the nation'.
When LK Advani was Minister for Information and Broadcasting in Morarji Desai's government in 1977, he was asked why so many senior editors had bent over backwards to support Indira Gandhi. He famously remarked that 'when they were asked to bend they crawled'. Why are so many media professionals and proprietors of media organisations now crawling without even being asked to bend?
Over four decades ago, when censorship was imposed, the government of the day — through direct pressure more than allurements of advertising support — was able to come down with a heavy hand on the Press. Radio and television were, in any case, owned by the government then. Much has changed, but why are some television channels, notably Republic TV, Times Now, India TV and Aaj Tak, to mention only four, apparently more subservient to the country's rulers than even Doordarshan and AIR, and far more critical of those in opposition than Modi's government?
The last decade has witnessed the media-scape in India and the world go through tectonic changes. The Great Recession saw expenditure on advertising and sponsorship shrinking, stagnating or decelerating. It also coincided with the exponential rise in the use of the Internet. This double-whammy has broken the revenue models of the so-called mainstream mass media. Whereas these are global phenomena, there are certain distinctive features of the current media scene in India. The financial dependence of much of the mainstream media on the government and, equally importantly, the ruling political party with its huge war chest, has grown. It will not be surprising that as spending on advertisements by political parties rises in the run-up to the elections, large sections of the media will become even more subservient.
'Paid news' has also increased. The compulsions to earn profits in a difficult earnings environment has made proprietors more vulnerable to pressure from political leaders and advertisers, amply demonstrated by the recent goings-on in ABP News, which saw the departure of Punya Prasun Bajpai, Milind Khandekar and Abhisar Sharma. Barkha Dutt has gone on record stating that the 'most powerful' persons in the government and the BJP have dissuaded promoters from allowing her to host a regular programme.
There are a few other noteworthy aspects of the media. Corporate ownership has existed from the days when Nehru and VK Krishna Menon derogatorily described newspapers as the 'jute and steel press'. In the 1980s and 1990s, profits earned from media operations enabled corporate conglomerates to diversify into many unrelated sectors, from coal mining to packaging and real estate. This trend has become stronger than before. As telecommunications and broadcasting have converged, some of the richest men in India have become the biggest owners of mass media. The control of political parties and their supporters have also become stronger and large sections of the media have become an integral part of the nexus between business and politics.
The other new aspect is the proliferation of fake news. The use of social media (particularly WhatsApp and Facebook) for distributing disinformation has gone up by leaps and bounds. It is hardly a secret that the overwhelming majority of the disseminators of propaganda and false information are aligned with the present ruling dispensation. As elections draw near, their activities will expand — targeting the youth who have become increasingly addicted to social media, together with gullible sections of middle-aged and senior citizens.
Those in power have always been intolerant towards dissenters. But the Modi regime may have taken this phenomenon to new heights, rather lower depths. The Prime Minister chooses to speak only to those in the media who will not ask him difficult questions. His email interviews give the sense of a compilation of handouts from government departments.
Gauri Lankesh had challenged the establishment, like the rationalists who were killed before her — Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi. Their views were left-of-centre. Gauri was a rare woman editor and a journalist-activist who chose to work in her mother tongue, Kannada. The biggest tribute that we can pay to her is to refuse to be silent, to refuse to be intimidated by those in positions of power and authority. If journalists have to hold truth to power, they have to stop playing the role of stenographers, advertisers and public relations officers.