Governments of the days have always attempted to control and muzzle the print and electronic media since their emergence at different points of political and economic history and technological development ~ in what are believed to be modern and democratic societies and states. This has a lot to do with the composition of the society, out of which emerges the “modern” state ~ and “modern” is a word and/or term on which the jury is still out. Now, because in representative democracies the political realm is open to all, the understanding of power, democracy, government, etc., are varied and various ~ depending on societal upbringing, level of education and exposure, impact of cultural and religious edification, colonial history, etc. So, in such representative democracies, these understandings coalesce to construct the larger culture of policy-making of those who form the government. On a larger canvass, throughout history the unappetizing truth is that democratic and liberal ideals have not been allowed to thrive on the level and at the scale they demand. And they cannot as long as societies continue to fall back on cultures, customs, traditions and religions, etc., as the moral compass of human life. Besides, individual principles such as integrity, honesty, etc., are also equally tied up with the religious, cultural, customary and traditional milieus s/he has been breast-fed with.
Across the globe there were and still are laws based on cultural, customary, and traditional and religions texts and teachings, beliefs and practices, which defy all logic. The British had introduced and enacted a whole set of laws related to adultery, divorce, homosexuality, etc., that were based on their understanding of the Biblical precepts ~ likewise the laws that are related to individuals’ understanding of other Holy Scriptures. Governments alone don’t enact laws ~ there are other “custodians” of law in all spheres of human activities. So somebody makes a law on who should wear and eat what. And it never occurs to them that in the days when Holy Scriptures were written, Jeans and T-Shirts were not invented. When such laws are challenged these centres of political, economic, social, cultural, religious, customary and traditional powers see their hold over the larger spectrum of the masses slipping away. And so the insane scramble to regain and retain that power.
It is much the same with attempts to control and muzzle the print and electronic media ~ and not just in India alone. Because the emergence of the media is a consequence of the power of ideas and facilitated by the development of technology, which is also based on the power of ideas, these attempts are basically aimed at desisting the flow of ideas, which most traditional power centres are unable to comprehend and/or perceive as threats. And let us not discount that prevalent belief that “everyone must stick to her/his station in life”. So, when the media question, argue and refute, the powers-that-be cannot digest being countered. This has a very patriarchal dimension to it too. That women journalists can think and talk back obviously riles the traditional thinking that women should be seen, not heard.
Today traditional power centres feel threatened at the increasing erosion of the traditional power structures in society and state therefore the attempts to control and muzzle the media. Not that the print and particularly the electronic media have not given enough reasons for the powers-that-be to make these attempts. But these reasons are not good enough to control the media ~ much less encumber and obstruct democracy ~ and ideas. Yes, all power centres always want to come out smelling like a Rose but even a Rose doesn’t always smell like a Rose because its decay stems from within.
As technology advances much beyond traditional boundaries and every day newer technologies emerge over which Governments and other powers-that-be have no control, much less any decipherable comprehension about them, confusion is rife about the print, electronic and social media. Yes, fake news are a reality but the Government that seeks to control and muzzle the media seems unable to discern the different media and identify its cause of ire ~ surprising considering the slogan of “Digital India”. For the print media, not just the Government but any individual can seek relief with the Press Council of India (PCI) when the situation arises, and the National Broadcasters Association, in the case of the electronic media. And so the Government’s recent attempts to control the print and electronic media and render them voiceless seems to be off-target because most fake news are said to be conveyed through social media such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter, etc., none of which are part of the Fourth Estate, which we loosely call the media.
The other development is the emergence of news and views portals ~ over which the Government appears to have no control because of the technology involved but primarily because the Government failed to see the emergence of this media because of the available technology. There is much to mull over and discourse on this form of media, especially by the Government but it cannot be categorized with the print or the electronic media. The Government would have to rely on its wisdom to deal with news and views portals. And in its bid to curb fake news, it must not target the print and electronic media, not even news and views portals, without reason and evidence. If and when the print and electronic media indulge in fake news, the Government can always approach the appropriate platforms for redress.
There is also another perspective to the attempts to control and muzzle the media ~ some time since the 1980s, a newer form of reporting emerged, which saw reporting clubbed together with opinions. Ever since, the average reader/viewer is confused about the actual report and the opinion of the reporter. Over time, such reporting have transcended into a fine art of opinion-making impacting on the political economic and social decisions of the citizen, more importantly the voter. Everyone cashed on it ~ particularly the political and economic classes. Every Government has made full use of this blurring of news with opinions and every Government has also tried to rein in the media when such reporting didn’t work out to its advantage. So, while the problem of fake news reaching uncontrollable heights exists, there is also the issue of painting unpalatable news as fake news. But who will arbiter over this?
Fake news has always existed right from the village level and above. Till recently it was called gossip-mongering and even propaganda, which is as old as human history ~ to blame the Fourth Estate for it is derisory. To hide behind the excuse of fake news to control the media is even more pathetic.
(The Columnist, a journalist and poet, is Editor, Nagaland Page)
(Courtesy: Assam Tribune. Published on April 12, 2018)