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India’s press under siege says NYT: a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black
August 17, 2014, 11:38 am
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India is the second most populous country in the world, with its billion and a quarter people accounting for roughly one-sixth of the global population. And, with more than 814 million registered voters in the recently concluded General Elections to Parliament, India is also the world's largest democracy by electorate. The fact that there were more eligible voters in India than the combined population of the United States and the 28-member European Union, and that over 64 percent of them cast their votes in the recent elections, speaks volumes of the depth to which democracy has become entrenched in the country.

It is true that India faces challenges to its democracy on several fronts; while many of these tests are general to democracies around the world, some are unique to the Indian context. Nevertheless, it is heartening to note that as India celebrates its 68 Independence Day, the country remains dedicated to democracy, and is committed to improving its democratic credentials by refining, reforming and further strengthening various democratic institutions.

Indians have shown through the results of the last general election that they want a responsible government in which the executive is answerable to the legislature and the legislature to the people, under the overarching umbrella of an independent judiciary. Through their vote the people of India have called for a democracy where the executive, the legislature and the judiciary work in tandem for the benefit of the people, and where a free media enlightens the public through its communications in a fair and independent manner.

The role of a free media in developing and reinforcing the democratic values and processes in a country, and in portraying diverse viewpoints in an impartial manner cannot be overstressed. It is a matter of pride for all of us that for most of the sixty-eight years of our Independence, the Indian media have in general been doing a great job in entrenching democracy in the country. Today, India is the biggest daily newspaper market in the world with over 100 million copies of newsprint sold each day. There are more than 70,000 newspapers, over 690 satellite channels and several hundred radio stations dispensing news, views and entertainment across the country. By contrast, the United States, the second largest democracy in the world, has less than 1,400 daily newspapers.

In 2013, the daily readership of India’s largest selling newspaper, the Hindi language ‘Dainik Jagran’ was over 15.5 million copies; this was more than the combined sales of the top-25 daily newspapers in the United States. The Times of India, India’s largest English language newspaper, with a daily readership in excess of 7.3 million, easily trumped the combined daily circulation of the top-5 newspapers in the States, including the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, the first and second largest circulated dailies in the United States.

This revealing statistics on print media profuseness in India and its comparison with media in the United States becomes relevant and gathers added significance in the wake of a recent editorial in the New York Times (NYT), which under a hysterical headline ‘India’s Press Under Siege’, decried the lack of press freedom in India.

Press censorship seems to be back with a vengeance in India, this time imposed not by direct government fiat but by powerful private owners and politicians,” said the NYT editorial in an obvious reference to the 19-month ‘Emergency’ imposed in 1975, by the government of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, during which the media in India were muzzled by the authorities.

Another issue raised in the NYT editorial was the growing influence of private businesses over media enterprises in India. The editorial also cited the French NGO ‘Reporters without Borders’ which ranked India as one of the most restrictive countries in the world for press freedom. In addition, the editorial called on India’s government, “to act to protect the free press before corporate consolidation and private censorship further erode citizens’ right to know.”

There are several colorful ways to describe NYT’s pontification on press freedom and media ownership in India; unfortunately none of them can be published here on account of editorial propriety. To put it in mild language, the editorial lamenting the lack of press freedom and of “media owners in India bringing direct pressure on journalists to curb reporting or to change editorial direction” is a classic case of a pot calling the kettle black. It is akin to a man whose face is covered with warts referring to someone with a zit as being disfigured.

India does not need a cue from NYT about the shortcomings of its media; we are fully aware of the functioning and operational limitations of our newspapers and TV Channels. The point that advertisement revenue and other financial concerns, as well as the political and social leanings of media owners, impact how news is portrayed is well recognized by Indian media audiences. Also, the fact that consolidation of media ownership will stymie journalists and editors from expressing views in a free and fair manner is not something uncovered firsthand by NYT. Perhaps, what needs to be highlighted is that this economic model is something that Indian media inherited from the West; it is an integral part of the globalization and free-market policies that we embraced when we shed our socialistic trappings in the 1990s.

It is understandable that newspapers in the West with their declining print runs should look with envy at the thriving print media in India. However, what we do take issue over is that NYT, which is fully aware of how media operates in the United States, should take umbrage when the same functioning style is mirrored in India. Let us take a look at all the accusations raised in the NYT editorial that led the paper to summarize that the ‘Press is under siege in India.’

The first is with regard to Indian media owners, and the government in power, having influence over which news is disseminated and how it is slanted. There is no denying that this happens in India, just as it does in the United States. Going way back  to the period shortly after American Independence in 1776, the Congress of the United States passed a law that prohibited the publication of "false, scandalous, or malicious writing" against the government, and which made it a crime to voice any public opposition to any law or presidential act.

During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln accused many newspapers of bias in favor of the Confederate cause, and ordered many of them closed perfunctorily. Even, the grand-daddy of American publishing industry, William Randolph Hearst, who was the publisher of several major newspapers, has been accused of falsifying stories and regularly interfering in editorial policies. He is even alleged to have fabricated incidents that contributed to the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898.  

More recently, in 2006, an internal memo from ABC Radio affiliates revealed that powerful sponsors, including Wal-Mart, GE, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Bank of America, Fed-Ex, Visa, Allstate, McDonald's, Sony and Johnson & Johnson, and government entities such as the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Navy, had placed a "standing order that their commercials never be placed on syndicated ‘Air America  programming’ that aired on ABC affiliates but was considered too progressive. Should we go on about the rampant interference in editorial content by media owners and government? Shall we pick on the Vietnam era when US media regularly concocted stories, or dropped them altogether, depending on the political leanings of their owners? Or let us look at the even more recent egregious silence of mainstream media to the widespread snooping on friend as well as foe by the FBI and NSA?

No wonder then that Gallup Polls conducted in the United States since 1997 have shown that most Americans do not have confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly". In 2013 a whopping 59 percent majority reported a perception of bias in reporting by media in the US. And according to Gallup, in every year since 2007 more Americans have been distrusting of the mass media.

Now let us take a look at accusation of media consolidation in India. It is true that business houses and families have controlling stake in many of the media outlets in India. But it needs to be said that when it comes to corporate consolidation and control over the press, the United States beats all other countries hands down. Six corporate conglomerates (Disney, CBS Corporation, News Corporation, Viacom, Time Warner, and Comcast) own the majority of mass media outlets in the United States. With the purchase in February 2014, by Comcast of Time Warner for $45 billion control of media in the United States has become further narrowed and the media has taken a step closer to becoming a monopoly.

Such uniformity of ownership means that stories which are critical of these corporations and their interests may often be underplayed or removed from the media. For instance, in the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, the media presented the riots as being a black problem, portraying blacks as being solely responsible for the riots. However according to reports, only 36 percent of those arrested during the riots were black; over 60 percent of the rioters and looters were Hispanics and whites, facts that were not reported by any of the mainstream American media.

However, biased reporting and the lack of editorial integrity is most evident when it comes to how the US media depicts the Middle-East in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. It has been reported that mainstream and conservative Jewish organizations have mobilized considerable lobbying resources and financial contributions and brought citizen pressure on news media and other forums of public discourse in support of the Israeli government. This was blatantly evident during the most recent conflict in Gaza.  Not only was reporting in mainstream US media pro-Israeli, but both CNN and NBC News withdrew their reporters from Gaza after they expressed views contrary to that held by those media.

In 2003, a study released by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting on the US media reporting on the Iraq war stated the network news disproportionately focused on pro-war sources and left out many anti-war sources. According to the study, 64 percent of total sources were in favor of the Iraq War while total anti-war sources made up 10 percent of the media. Moreover, it was reported that media failed to question government policies for fear of being labeled anti-patriotic.

Let us now look at the report by the NGO ‘Reporters without Borders’. This is the same organization that ranked India below Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and many other countries that have flagrant repression of press freedom Ironically, we find that the United States, which is often thought of as the leader of the free world, ranked only 53rd out of 168 countries, well below nearly all European Union countries and below most OECD nations.

Finally the suggestion by NYT that the government should "act to protect the free press" flies in the face of everything that the editorial asks for earlier. Perhaps the editor of NYT was not aware that in India the responsibility of protecting the free press rests mainly with journalists and media owners, not the government, as might be the case in the United States. It is they, along with freedom-loving and vigilant members of the public, who have to reform the Indian media from within.

The illusion of choice in US media:

Six media giants now control over a staggering 90 percent of all that Americans read, watch or listen to.

In 1983, over 90 percent of American media was owned by 50 companies, in 2011 that same 90 percent is owned by six companies.

These six companies are GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS

232 media executives decide the information diet consumed by 277 million Americans

Total 2010 revenue for the Big Six was $275.9 billion, to put in perspective that is $36 billion more than the GDP of Finland

News Corp owns the top newspapers on three continents

AOL spent $124 billion to buy Time Warner in 2001 that works out six times what the US Congress funded to rebuild Iraq

 

 

 

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