India: Suppressing the press

Alexis De Tocqueville’s reflections on the value of a free press in his classic, Democracy in America is intriguing for many reasons. He argues that in a sovereign society, the notion of censorship is in conflict with principles upon which the society itself was founded. Furthermore, he was of the opinion that decentralization of the press; such as in the United States of America was beneficial for pluralism of thought. However, Tocqueville also warns against the evils of press when he remarks, “The spirit of the journalist is to appeal crudely, directly, and artlessly to the passions of the people he is addressing, forsaking principles in order to portray individuals, pursue them into their private lives, and lay bare their weaknesses and vices.  Such abuse of thought can only be deplored.”[1] He advocates for a democratic press and also notes the value of quality journalism in enhancing democracy. Through the lens of Alexis de Tocqueville’s ideas, I aim to dwell upon the relationship between journalism and democracy in the Indian context. More specifically, how recent attacks on the freedom of press and expression affects the preservation of liberty in Indian society

The World Press Freedom Index 2017 ranked India at the 136th position from among 180 countries, this puts India in the “least free” category. Statistically, between January 2016 and April 2017 there has been 54 reported incidents against journalists, 3 cases of news channels being taken off air, 45 internet sites blocked and 45 civil disorder cases filed against individuals and groups.[2] The freedom of press is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution of India[3], which provides for the freedom of expression. However, the constitutional guarantee allows for reasonable restrictions to be imposed on the right to expression (under sub clause 2[4] of Article 19) when the sovereignty and integrity of the nation is at stake. Tocqueville remarks that, “When it comes to the press, there really is no middle ground between subservience and license”. Thus, as per his argument, the guarantee of freedom of expression in India is counter-intuitive. Primarily because it implies that the democratic press, which is a tool for free speech and expression is subservient to the state in the interest of protecting sovereignty. Secondly, this subservient status of the democratic press is by default a threat to the preservation of liberty. His argument is controversial when regarding the functioning of the Indian press. Political analyst, Ashok Malik comments that, “The ecosystem that fosters freedom of expression in India has always been imperfect since the beginning of the constitutional process”[5]

To further the discussion, the eco-system that has come to be after the election of Narendra Modi in 2014 has adversely impacted free speech and expression for mainly two reasons; polarization of debate and Hindu nationalism. Maitreesh Ghatak, professor of economics at the London School of Economic writes that there has been increasing polarization of the political debate and a trend of ‘selective-outrage’ that is politically motivated. Furthermore, there is an impression of political discourse being driven by the ruling party and to some extent exerting control over the opinions held. Vertical censorship is rampant; especially since the word ‘free’, as in unconstrained and also without a cost or price, no longer holds its case with the party in power. However, a lax rule of law has been prevented the media from being an independent decentralized entity in India, contrary to Tocqueville’s past perception of the media in the United States of America. Furthermore, Tocqueville is of the impression that free press should not be captured by political parties and used as tools of propaganda. Having said that, discouraging divergent opinions and low tolerance towards dissent from the ruling party has forced softening of the media. Incidents in 2017 like death threats against journalists from Hindu nationalists, the gunning of a female journalist in Bangalore and lynching of a TV reporter in Tripura indicates escalating violence against journalists in India. Aggressive nationalism and Hindu supremacists have breached the ‘safe space’ of formulating, expressing and upholding one’s opinions. This has triggered increasing self-censorship among individuals and on social media platforms.[6] Al Jazeera reported that India has seen a “decline in the quality of the freedom of expression since Modi took office in 2014”[7] The evidence stated above indicates state encroachment on media but this is one part of the problem. It satisfies Tocqueville’s argument that by censorship, the freedom of press has been compromised but I argue that the Indian press has allowed itself to be compromised by not truly exercising the constitutionally granted license.

Journalism is an outlet for the dissemination of information to the community and thus, responsible reporting is vital to the quality of media. The power of press is immense and Tocqueville states, “ The press places a powerful weapon within every man’s reach…the press enables him to summon all his fellow men to his assistance…Press is the chiefs democratic instrument of freedom”.[8] Secondly, in this endeavor of reporting, it is essential that the press remains neutral. However, partisan biases towards political parties have cropped up with mainstream media outlets, especially television news channels. For example: Television news channels such as Zee News and Times Now have shifted from a liberal-left to right-wing variant of reporting to inflate their television rating point. Consequentially, it has aligned itself with the populist flavor of the ruling BJP and the style of communication the party resorts to. Pankaj Pachauri, media adviser to the former Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh commented in June that journalism in India is in a precarious situation as the “wall between marketing and editorial” is disintegrating.[9] He remarked that the content being aired on television news channels does not contribute to the enhancement of democracy. More specifically, the content being aired is dependent on the returns it can supply to the revenue. Tocqueville felt that the American press was not being revolutionary in attacking a policy or law of the government. He considered it the duty of the press to initiate discussion and question public institutions for their choices. Furthermore, it contributes to the normalization of such discussion and fosters active civic engagement as an instrument of democracy. Deutsche Welle (DW), an international German broadcaster reported on the quality level of India’s public discourse being lowered by the media. [10] There is skepticism regarding the degree of liberalism the press in India exercises based on the ownership of media houses. The share control of media houses by corporate owners, who are closely tied to the government, has been an issue of contention. For instance: Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and an open supporter of the Modi government holds 51% percent shares in NDTV, a prominent television news channel. The ministry of corporate affairs reported that along with NDTV; there are four other news agencies, namely News Nation, India TV, News24 and Network18 that are held by Mukesh Ambani or his industrialist associate, Mahendra Nahata.[11] There is also evidence of aides of political leaders owning shares in television news channel. The best example would be Jaya TV and Sun Network in the state of Tamil Nadu. The former was owned by Tamil Nadu’s ex-Chief minister, Jayalitha’s aide Sasikala and the latter was owned by the grand-nephew of the opposition party leader, Karunanidhi. The SUN News channel has been accused of being the opposition party’s mouthpiece.[12] These evidences clearly illustrate a conflict of interest that arises between owners and journalists part of these media houses. Furthermore, this issue of ownership has affected investigative journalism in the Indian scenario as it severs connections to those in power. The above evidences shed light on the shortcomings of the press and how it has failed to assert its independence.

To conclude, Tocqueville as a strong advocate of freedom of press does make relevant arguments but his idea on how to keep the press independent would not fit in contemporary settings. Furthermore in the Indian context and most democracies today, there is a middle way. Constitutional limits exist as safeguards from the possible abuses of full license in my opinion. On the basis of the facts listed, television news channels surely seem compromised and inefficient in the preservation of liberty. Yet, all hope is not lost. The advent of social media and online platforms run by the civil society has broadened platforms of citizenry activism in India. It may not necessarily be autonomous neutral platforms but it reinforces public discourse on common matters. The choice of subscribing to anonymity while rendering an opinion on these platforms does to a certain degree attract those holding dissenting opinions and safeguards them from persecution but it could be dangerous too. There are other inherent evils of subscribing to such platforms for information (e.g.: Fake news) but it is an alternative to mainstream mass media in such an eco-system. In a representative democracy like India and a 1.2 billion population, the media is extremely essential as a link between the government and the people. India has witnessed a 40% growth in Internet usage over the past year and has the 2nd largest Internet usage base. With close to 26.7 million projected Twitter users for 2018 and world’s largest number of Facebook users at 195 million users, journalism has a larger audience to be responsible to. Advancements since Tocqueville’s time clearly indicate that despite status of press being suppressed by the state, there exist third party platforms that allow mainstream press to circumvent the state and reclaim their freedom in some sense. Furthermore, freedom of press in India is ever so relevant to longevity and regime legitimacy. Lastly, as the world’s largest democracy, the absence of this instrument could illicit extreme responses to the actions and inactions of the government. This puts at stake the character and quality of Indian democracy.

 

Bibliography:

  1. Alexis De Tocqueville – Democracy in America, Volume. Part II, Chapter 3. p. 211
  2. Press Freedom: Is free speech under threat in Modi’s India, Al Jazeera. Accessed at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/07/free-speech-threat-modi-india-170712131837718.html
  3. Ministry of Law and Justice ,Constitution of India, Part III – Fundamental Right, Article 19. p. 9-10 Accessed at: http://lawmin.nic.in/coi/coiason29july08.pdf
  4. World Press Freedom Report Index 2017. Accessed at: https://rsf.org/en/india
  5. Press Freedom: Is free speech under threat in Modi’s India, Al Jazeera. Accessed at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/07/free-speech-threat-modi-india-170712131837718.html
  6. Alexis De Tocqueville – Democracy in America, p. 817 – http://catarina.udlap.mx/u_dl_a/tales/documentos/lco/cruz_r_m/capitulo9.pdf
  7. Journalism in India is in crisis, says senior journalist Pankaj Pachauri, Hindustan Times, 25 June 2017. Accessed at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/punjab/journalism-in-india-is-in-crisis-says-senior-journalist-pankaj-pachauri/story-b5b0WJIj5uh75qa0VDuTGP.html
  8. Murali Krishnan, Indian media facing a crisis of credibility, DW, 05 June 2017. Accessed at: http://www.dw.com/en/indian-media-facing-a-crisis-of-credibility/a-39120228
  9. The News Minute: All you wanted to know about who owns Tamil news channels, 26 November 2014. Accessed at: http://www.thenewsminute.com/tamils/245

Notes

[1] Alexis De Tocqueville – Democracy in America, Volume1. Part II, Chapter 3. p. 211

[2] Press Freedom: Is free speech under threat in Modi’s India, Al Jazeera. Accessed at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/07/free-speech-threat-modi-india-170712131837718.html

[3] Ministry of Law and Justice ,Constitution of India, Part III – Fundamental Right, Article 19. p. 9-10 Accessed at: http://lawmin.nic.in/coi/coiason29july08.pdf

[4] Ibid ^ Full text sub clause (2) – Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause ( 1 ) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

[5] Ibid^ Article section: Always imperfect.

[6] World Press Freedom Report Index 2017. Accessed at: https://rsf.org/en/india

[7] Press Freedom: Is free speech under threat in Modi’s India, Al Jazeera. Accessed at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/07/free-speech-threat-modi-india-170712131837718.html

[8] http://catarina.udlap.mx/u_dl_a/tales/documentos/lco/cruz_r_m/capitulo9.pdf[8] Alexis De Tocqueville – Democracy in America, p. 817

[9] Journalism in India is in crisis, says senior journalist Pankaj Pachauri, Hindustan Times, 25 June 2017. Accessed at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/punjab/journalism-in-india-is-in-crisis-says-senior-journalist-pankaj-pachauri/story-b5b0WJIj5uh75qa0VDuTGP.html

[10]Murali Krishnan, Indian media facing a crisis of credibility, DW, 05 June 2017. Accessed at: http://www.dw.com/en/indian-media-facing-a-crisis-of-credibility/a-39120228

[11] Ibid.^

[12] The News Minute: All you wanted to know about who owns Tamil news channels, 26 November 2014. Accessed at: http://www.thenewsminute.com/tamils/245

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they can be relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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