By Rahul Jambhulkar
Democracy is considered to be one of the best systems of government in modern times. The system has come a long way from proto-democracies of ancient times to its contemporary form. What distinguishes democracy from feudalism, monarchy, dictatorship, oligarchy and other political systems, is the peoples power to choose and decide what is best for them. Every democracy strives to reach the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. With the constitution being the guide, the Trias politica model viz. independent executive, legislative and judiciary are means to achieve these democratic ideals. These three cumulatively are also called the three pillars of democracy.
Media is often considered the fourth pillar of Democracy. And rightly so! This is the pillar that captivates people the most. Media nurtures democracy as much as the other three pillars. With more than 17000 newspapers, 100,000 magazines and 178 television news channels and innumerable websites in every Indian language, Indian media is possibly the biggest in the world. The first thing that reaches the home of a literate person in India (and other countries too perhaps) is the newspaper. The ‘paperwala rushes at 4 am to collect his bundle of papers from the distributor, loads it on his bicycle and delivers freshly brewed news at the doorsteps, latest by 7 am. For the millennials, it is easier, one tap and swipe on their smart phones and the e-paper is right by them any time of the day. For the illiterate, there are 24/7 news channels in every single Indian language, which s/he switches on for the daily dose of information. Basically, everyone in India is a consumer of some sort of news that is intended for mass consumption, rich or poor, brahmin or Dalit.
The lockdown during the covid-19 pandemic has, with utmost certainty increased this consumption by multitudes, for most humans across the world.
In the past one month weve witnessed the bombardment of data and news related to Covid-19; to top it all every individual has taken it upon themselves to update every other on their contact list about the news they access. Every morning as we open our chats, therell be at least a couple of people sharing screenshots or links about the rising number of Covid-19 cases in India and the world; juxtaposing their own fears onto us or assuming we dont read news!
But bad and old habits die hard, and we do read news! As we skim through international news reports printed by major Indian newspapers and magazines on Covid-19 for the consumption of audiences specifically in India, there seems to be a pattern. The pattern as we dig deeper and observe, gets clearer. From the end of March until now, some Indian media houses seem to have taken it upon them to be pro-government optimists.
The reports they have been publishing have three consistent frameworks. First, are reports of the high and rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in the West opposed to India. The second is about State action and fines imposed on people for violating the terms of the lockdown in countries like US, Germany, Italy and Spain to state a few. And thirdly about the failure of the West to contain the virus, unlike India which, thanks to the efforts of the Prime Minister, is in absolute control of the spread.
A recent report by The Times of India, The Hindu and the Indian Express among other top newspapers about protests in Berlin against the lockdown, caught our attention. Their source was Reuters. Reading these reports and cross verifying from people who were protesting in central Berlin at the Volksbuhne, a very different picture came to play. The police did in fact arrest people for their demonstrations when they started crowding in one place on Saturday; but the protests werent a one-off event. The German government had granted them permission to distribute pamphlets and maintain physical distancing while protesting. People have been protesting for over three weeks, peacefully, with enough physical distance; protesters demanding access to constitutional rights and freedom. The German Chancellor herself, has been gracious enough to express her disbelief over enforcing a lockdown and having to ask people to stay home. She has been apologetic about placing such a demand in a democracy and German people have been respectful enough to protest democratically throughout the lockdown. Not one person has been subject to state violence for stepping out of the home. Homeless and migrant workers received state relief as soon as the lockdown came into force. Germany, for us has been an epitome of how/what a democracy should be. The Dutch Welle, Germanys public international broadcaster has been posting news and opinions presenting both pro- and anti- government views.
The Indian media has however painted a very different picture of the world for Indians. Living in Berlin and being testimony to life here, let us try to paint a picture of how life here is, in fact for people. Life in Germany slowed down but never came to a standstill. From day one of the lockdown, people were allowed to step out for shopping, buy a drink at the local bar, play ball in the park with their family, go for walks or a run, or any other essential needs. There were hefty fines announced for groups of more than three people hanging out without reason. Public transportation never ceased to work. Trains, buses, taxis ran with reduced frequencies and people could commute if needed. Offices, university and schools were shut, but children were everywhere, playing, cycling, skating, running and yelling as they must! This however, was not the case in India beginning 24 March 2020. From what we heard from family and friends across India, the lockdown in India is nothing short of tyranny. Are there facts that could prove us wrong? Not from the privileged sections, but uninhibited stories from the vulnerable? Wed be genuinely happy to be proven wrong.
From the most insignificant, untouched villages to urban slums and gated communities in cities, everyone had to retreat into their houses, big or small and not step out. In slums people were lathi charged by the police if spot stepping out, middle classes very privy to home deliveries and other privileged sections had access to necessities anyway.
Experts say there are not many deaths in hospitals being recorded due to corona, but medical doctors in India that we spoke to on conditions of anonymity say, We are seeing so many people die daily due to COVID-19 infections. The homeless remain perpetually invisible for the state and for the media, even now when they have no place to go. We have not seen coverages that present a case of the urban homeless in these trying times in any of the mainstream newspapers and magazines. Where and how are they quarantining?
India was congratulated by a WHO spokesperson for containing the number of COVid-19 cases and every media report celebrated reading his quote. The ruling governments spokespersons, publicised the news like hot cakes! The masses rejoiced! But a reference to a census report of 2017 brought up an interesting fact. Only 22% of deaths in India are medically certified and approved by a doctor. Could it be that a lot more have died than we know in India? Knowing how our systems function, should we really be congratulating ourselves, like the government and media seem to want us to?
A story on the Caravan helped us make sense of the trends in mainstream media. On 24th March 2020 few hours before announcing countrywide lockdown, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a long video conference with the owners and editors-in-chief of the countrys mainstream media houses. The agenda laid down was to tackle Covid-19 by not circulating pessimistic stories, negativity and rumours. In short, these media houses were taken into confidence to be uncritical of government handling of the crisis. From 25th March onwards many of these print media houses glorified and celebrated Modis interaction with the media on their front pages. Until today, there is not a single critique of the sloppy lopsided management of the pandemic in India by any of these newspapers and publishing groups.
It is easy to understand the nexus between the executive and media. This lap-dog phenomena in the mainstream media puts a democracy like India in great peril; stories of stranded migrants, urban poor, rural distressed families, homeless and many other marginalised groups are replaced by the thaali-taali, batti bujhao-diya jalao and communal stories that intended to polarise Indian society further and glorify right wing populism.
The leader of the opposition at the state legislative assembly of Maharashtra, Mr. Devendra Fadnavis wrote to the Governor of the state that the state government (Shiv Sena and allies) is harassing journalists and terrorising media. The letter by Mr. Fadnavis objected the arrest of Rahul Kulkarni of ABP Maza, criticised Home Ministers (Maharashtra) threatening letter to the Times Now and condemned the 12 hour long questioning of Arnab Goswami of Republic TV. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the centre is taking media into confidence for not doing stories against the government handling of the crises and the same party at the state is demanding media to be free and independent. It is a strange paradox. As the opposition, BJP in the state seems to be upholding democratic values that the Indian constitution enshrines by extending their loyalty only to the media houses who have been an ally to the (BJP) government. Such a dichotomy always existed in the sacred game of politics and the media has been an integral part of this game. There are many incidences which are brought to light, and many more that one would never be able to find - it doesnt mean the nexus doesnt exist.
When stories representing multiple realities disappear from mainstream news, views and analysis, it becomes a matter of grave concern and a threat to democracy. The days of Questioning power seem bygone. Penning non-dominant realities are termed pessimistic, criticising government is equated with being anti-national, writing empathetically about Adivasis is branded naxal, and writing about the plight of Dalits is casteist.
How can story of stranded migrants be negative? How does the story of Dalits and urban poor in times of Covid-19 become pessimistic? Are medical professionals demanding PPE kits from the government rumour monger's? The government that feels threatened by these reports, is the same government that should be held responsible for these after-effects of announcing a haphazard lockdown. It is the prime source of despair, negativity and panic, not the stories mentioned above. Peoples lives have been jeopardised by the lockdown in India. It has crushed the democratic rights of people. Media is complicit in this crime as they conveniently chose to escape, surrendered to power and denied the reality. We have become fearful as a society and misled as a result of it.
The role of executive and judiciary has been scrutinised from time to time, so has the role of media. The executive has often been found influencing the three pillars in matters concerning the ruling class political ideology. Many such cases were exposed by academics, scholars and independent journalists. The hyper-commercialisation of media and media houses being owned by big businesses for profit maximization has become the biggest liability for the journalists profession. The tie up between politicians and these corporate managements is an open secret. The latter has been funding political campaigns which benefit them in more ways than one. Tax leniency, cheap availability of land to setup industries, dirt cheap electricity, water and other resources for industries, massive subsidies are some of the known benefits. Despite this, the pillars co-exist harmoniously complementing each other, without losing their credibility.
This is the story of only one such instance where the executive and media seem to be inseparable, rescuing each other in the current health crises. In the words of Robert W. McChesney, rich media, poor democracy.
We question the credibility of the major media houses today, that are run by big businesses in collaboration with ruling governments. They have been questioned by many others in the past, but their credibility only seems to grow. A rigged system perhaps nourishes the growth of such parasitic medium. In a pandemic like situation, does media deserve to be called the Fourth Pillar of Democracy today? Well, does Democracy exist today? In India, at least, we seem to have forgotten the meaning of what it means to live in a Democracy. Is it because we never really understood the borrowed concept ever since we became a republic? Is blaming the West our only defense when questioned? Are we seemingly afraid of the true power of democracy?
We believe, we have forgotten the art of debate and the purpose of questioning hegemonic systems. We are asking the wrong questions to the powerful, allowing them to bring in new forms of domination under the pretext of a crisis. The disturbing power dynamics and efforts to control humanity are a blueprint for oppression.
*The headline is one among Prof. Kunhamans hundred memorable one-liners that he threw at us during lectures at TISS.
Sanjana Krishnan, who is a co author of this article is a German Chancellors Fellow at TU Berlin.
Rahul Jambhulkar is a Visiting Fellow at TU Berlin and PhD Scholar at IITB Mumbai.