When India’s information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry, headed by Ms. Smriti Irani, recently announced that it was proposing a bill to regulate and curb the spread of fake news, it created an outrage in India’s typically noisy media as well as the public. The outrage was expected. The proposals were draconian, involving punishments that included rescinding government accreditation for journalists as well as media outlets that were found to publish or telecast fake news. Complaints that a piece of news was “fake” would be sent to the Press Council of India (PCI) for print or the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) for electronic media who would basically decide if complaints were valid. Interestingly, while the PCI is a statutory body established by the government, NBA is an industry association, which is supposed to ensure best ethics, standards and practices among its members.
That little anomaly apart, what raised the ire of India’s mainstream media was that the I&B ministry’s proposal could possibly be abused and used by the government to target media outlets that make things uncomfortable for it by probing scandals, instances of corruption, injustice and conflicts of interest that could likely be too close for comfort for a government that in in the four years it has been in power has amply demonstrated that it is extra touchy towards criticism. No sooner was Ms. Irani’s missive in the form of a press release from her ministry made public, it triggered an uproar by editors, writers and opposition politicians who took to social media to decry what they thought could be an end to freedom of press, a vital element in any healthy democracy.
As it happened, the prime minister’s office (PMO) intervened and the offending press release was withdrawn. Relieved, many who had protested now turned to thank and praise the PMO for it. Ironically, the protests and the relief were both unnecessary. In fact, viewed in the context of reality, they could seem absurdly ridiculous. Save a rare exception or two, India’s mainstream media—widely circulated print publications and news television channels—have already been neutered (or spayed, depending on what gender you assign to them). Few pursue stories that could seem unfavourable to the ruling regime, particularly to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his senior cabinet colleagues, and to his powerful aide, BJP president Amit Shah. Unlike in a healthy, vibrant media environment where even if a small publication breaks a story everyone quickly follows up on it, India’s mainstream media prefers to look the other way if it concerns the country’s political establishment.
There are several such instances. A story by a website questioning the inexplicably meteoric growth in the businesses of the BJP president’s son went largely un-pursued by others; another pointing to a possible conflict of interest involving the railway minister was treated like a hot potato; and even when a reputed US publication did a lengthy, well-researched expose of how US President Donald Trump’s real estate businesses had tied up with Indian partners who used political clout to bend rules in order to serve their interests, Indian media largely ignored it. In fact, India’s mainstream media doesn’t need overt instructions to steer clear of topics touchy to the establishment or government leadership. It does so in a D-I-Y (do-it-yourself) manner, self-regulating, self-censoring and second-guessing what those in power would expect of it. So timid is the attitude that even news that would make bold headlines anywhere else in the free world—such as the criticality of a senior cabinet minister’s health—is either downplayed, diluted, or disposed of in a couple of sketchy paragraphs.
What all of this means is that despite the self-righteous indignation that senior editors and journalists from mainstream media pour out in their tweets and other social media posts about the government’s failings, when it comes to publishing those views in the large and widely circulated newspapers, magazines and TV channels they work for, everything ends in a whimper. With few exceptions, mainstream newspapers these days are full of tame, and anodyne stories and have begun resembling newsletters for the establishment rather than meaningful Fourth Estate institutions that in any democracy ought to hold a mirror up to the establishment and ask for accountability.
So if print, TV and traditional media pose no threat to a media-allergic government, what does? The youngest, most vibrant part of India’s media: online, digital publications. Nimble and creative, the rash of new entrants in this arena is mostly not fettered by ‘legacy’ or ‘baggage’ issues. Many of them are start-ups run by professionals with little or no other commercial interests that require a quid pro quo arrangement with the government. And that’s where some of the more worthwhile journalism is taking place. Most of the major story breaks, particularly those that could make the government uncomfortable, do not happen in the mainstream newspapers any more, nor are they telecast on the mass media news TV channels, some of which have come to resemble shamelessly sycophantic fan-boys of the BJP-led ruling coalition. Instead, they happen on the new digital publications. As of now, these are little Davids compared to the Goliaths of Indian media—the big multi-edition newspapers, magazines and TV channels. But slowly and surely, they have begun carving out for themselves meaningful audiences that are growing.
It is this rise of the digital media that may be raising the ire of those in power. Soon after the much-lauded (by mainstream heavyweight editors, no less) withdrawal of Ms. Irani’s hasty little press release, came news of another little missive from her ministry. The government now plans to form a committee that would be tasked with drafting regulations for online news portals and online content. Loaded with bureaucrats with scant or no knowledge of media and bereft of any representation from digital media itself, the committee would ostensibly formulate policies; and decide codes of conduct and guidelines for online news and content.
There are several problems with this, but chiefly two. First, the government perhaps doesn’t realise that the difference between online, digital content and content that is published in formats such as print is only this: how they are distributed. Online content reaches its readers virtually; print content reaches them physically. That is all. PCI and NBA, flawed as they may be, already exist; and if they can oversee ethics, fairness and other conduct of physical publications, why can’t that oversight be extended to the online arena? Second, India’s existing Information Technology Act (which is not without controversies of its own) has provisions that give the government sweeping powers to regulate content and even ban websites. What then is the need for another set of rules, regulations and guidelines for online media? For the answer, think about what in media today really irks the government of the day. Are they the big media houses that resemble toothless gentle giants? Or are they the growing swarms of feisty little warrior elves that could create ripples in the digital world? The answer is obvious.