Saturday, December 5, 2020
Column

Role of Media during the COVID-19 Pandemic & its Impact on Media

Monalisa Changkija

            With each passing year, to me it becomes all the more crucial to reiterate and re-emphasize the essence of the term Fourth Estate/Press/Media. Google says: “Though it is not formally recognized as a part of a political system, it wields significant indirect social influence. The derivation of the term Fourth Estate arises from the traditional European concept of the three estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners”. Google also says: “Power in most democratic countries is divided between the legislature, executive and judiciary”, and “The Fourth Estate keeps government, legislators and big business in check by keeping society or the public informed. Investigative journalism plays a big part in uncovering bribery and corruption and in uncovering human rights violations.” Google further says: “The term Fourth Estate is commonly used to designate the critical watchdog role of the news media, especially the press, in democratic societies. The expression refers to the concept of the separation of powers, which divides the state into different branches, typically the legislative, executive, and juridical branch.”

            As you know, the Legislative is the body which makes laws for the state. The Executive executes and enforces laws. The governing body is the executive. The Judiciary works to protect, interpret and review laws. The Press/Media/Fourth Estate is the watchdog of the three other Estates of democracy. And, all these Four Estates constitute Democracy. So, clearly, the concept of the news media or press as a fourth branch stems from a belief that the media’s responsibility to inform the populace is essential to the healthy functioning of democracy. Media plays the crucial role in shaping a healthy democracy. It is the backbone of a democracy. Media creates awareness of the various social, political and economic activities happening around the world. Therefore, the media is called the fourth pillar due to its important role in shaping public opinion. For more on this, please refer to books on the subject and of course, Google.

            Now that the term Fourth Estate/Media/Press is understood, let us look at its emergence in a democracy. As for the history of the larger emergence of the Fourth Estate in Europe, please read European history, which I am sure, you have studied in school and college. In any case, there are several books on the subject and you can always Google. Even if a cursory knowledge, it is important that members of the Fourth Estate know history to understand what we are doing and why we are doing what we do. In any case, the what, when, why and how is the very fundamentals of our mission, isn’t it? Now, let us look back at the history, or emergence, of the Fourth Estate in Nagaland.        

            As of now, we have 4 English Dailies, 2 Ao Dailies, 1 Angami, Sumi and Nagamese Dailies each . This is the present but what about the past? The past, or let’s say history, is crucial because the past creates the present. Contrary to what many, especially the younger generations, believe the media in Nagaland is a recent development ~ it is definitely not something that happened since the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, origins of the present form of the Fourth Estate in Nagaland date back to much before Indian Independence. Since the 1960s till the 1990s, we had several Weeklies, based at Kohima and Dimapur, which folded up in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to various reasons. Now all our Dailies are based at Dimapur while 1 local dialect Daily is based at Kohima and 1 at Mokokchung.   

Many may not be aware but Ao Milen, based at Mokokchung,started in the 1930s. I wrote a piece on Ao Milen on its 73th anniversary ~ titled: Tribute to Ao Milen: The Unmatched Institution & Legacy. The problem is I don’t remember which year but it was sometime in the early 2000s. Ao Milen is not only the oldest newspaper in Nagaland but possibly the second oldest in this region ~ although The Shillong Times, which celebrated its 75th anniversary only in 2019, claims that position. Unfortunately, we don’t have a documented history of the Fourth Estate in Nagaland but I believe that a newspaper/newsletter, in a very rudimentary form, existed even in the 1940s and 1950s, which was said to be started by the Naga nationalists of that era. However, I have not done any independent study to establish the veracity of this claim. But I believe that the possibility exist because many Nagas of that generation had been to Europe during the First World War and they couldn’t have returned without being influenced by reportage of events at that time. I would encourage members of our fraternity as well as researchers and academicians to study the emergence, evolution and the history of the Fourth Estate in Nagaland. This documentation is critical to democratic institution-building in Nagaland.     

            But let us also be very clear that the emergence of the Fourth Estate doesn’t owe its existence today only to European roots. The need for dissemination of news and information always existed in Naga society ~ as indeed in societies across the globe. In fact in Nagaland, traditionally we had the village news disseminator, who, I was told, would go around the village beating a drum and informing villagers the news and information of the day ~ much as in any traditional society before the Industrial Revolution and the invention of modern printing machines. In every society the need for information dissemination was strongly felt, as also the need for “holding up the mirror”, so to speak. So, since then the Fourth Estate in Nagaland till today is an evolution of the rudimentary form of the media we always had. Today we are an evolution of a very ancient need of society but its manifestation is not permanent. The present manifestation is a by-product of the changing times, needs, challenges and developments of the local and global society. Tomorrow, we may not recognize ourselves. Especially now with the emergence of the Fifth Estate, which is said to be a socio-cultural reference to groupings of outlier viewpoints in contemporary society, and is most associated with bloggers, journalists publishing in non-mainstream media outlets, and social media or “social license”. Some media experts assert that the Fifth Estate constitute political pundits. We will have to wait and see how this pans out.

Now let’s come to our theme today. I felt it necessary to go into some general details about the Fourth Estate so as to focus on our role during the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has on us. Clearly, pandemic or no pandemic, our roles and responsibilities do not change ~ in fact, they need to be vigorously enhanced and revitalized. Now, since the pandemic is a health issue and in Nagaland whatever was passed off as our healthcare delivery system collapsed at the sign of our first reported COVID-19 patient, who was hastily packed off to Guwahati, and ever since, the Fourth Estate here has lived up to our roles and responsibilities and met the expectations of our people. This, despite the constraints we faced every day and continue to do so. In the process, we have exposed our Government’s lies about the quality of our healthcare delivery system and enabled the people’s grievances and angst reach our Government’s ears. Much neglect and corruption were exposed but our failure lies in our inability, or unwillingness, to further expose specific instances of neglect and corruption and hold the Government, or those directly involved, accountable.

The collapse of our healthcare delivery system occurred simultaneously with the exposure of defectiveness and incompetence of our over-all civil and police governance, which not only threw light on various other neglect and corruption but also gross civil and human rights violations. This in turn exposed how ill-trained our personnel in Police Force are. Once again, we stopped at exposure but failed to hold anyone accountable. This definitely reflects that justice was denied to the people. Otherwise, how do we explain that a good number of people were randomly physically assaulted across the State ~ ostensibly for violating lockdown rules and other reasons ~ but the perpetrators were never held accountable and penalized. Except in the case of the physical assault of a Reporter of Nagaland Page by a Police personnel. You see, penalty is not for the police to decide and dispense ~ it’s the court’s brief. Forget about filing FIRs, reportedly victims have been threatened and brow-beaten into silence and/or there are blatant refusals by the Police to file complaints. We have also failed to call out police personnel, who threaten victims with counter-FIRs. These are civil and police administrative lapses that directly impinge on numerous constitutional rights of people and it is our job to highlight these constitutional violations and ensure that perpetrators are called out and held accountable. So many instances of rape, domestic violence, child abuse, etc. also go unreported, hushed-up and are allegedly discouraged by the Police to be reported.

Basically what I am saying is that we have a Constitution that clearly enunciates the roles and responsibilities of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary and our role and responsibilities are to ensure that they do their jobs and ensure that the humblest citizen is protected, safe-guarded and secure. This is further underscored during this time of the pandemic because of the abnormality of the situation, which arms the Government with powers to exceed its brief and to circumvent its constitutional obligations. We are witness to that and to power being abused. Our role to speak truth to power and to call out power, when abused, is further heightened during this time because the pandemic has further distanced the people from police stations and the courts. Our role as the watchdog of society is further accentuated at this time because Governments have taken an even larger-than-life role during the pandemic by imposing so many rules, laws, SoPs, etc., that in normal circumstances could be challenged in court. This is happening globally and so amongst the concerned, especially government-watchers, there is an ongoing discourse on whether Governments are assuming more powers and becoming more authoritarian and repressive, as also enacting anti-people and anti-democratic legislations even in democracies in the name of the pandemic. This is a discourse we too need to initiate in Nagaland ~ especially because of the increasing COVID-19 cases despite numerous government strictures. This then also underscores where, why and how government measures to control the pandemic have failed and adversely impacted the economy increasing poverty levels.

Our roles and responsibilities take on more significance during this pandemic at the micro and macro levels. Right from the civil and human rights protection or violations of our health workers and other front-liners, women, children, disabled, the elderly, minorities and other vulnerable sections, etc., to policy making that inevitably impact on every section of society and paves the way for our future one way or the other. If we lose sight of, and let our guard down from, constitutional provisions and the imperatives of transparency and accountability of those in power, we will fail in our role as the watchdog of society and negate the very reasons for our existence. This, no society, no democracy can afford.

We also cannot ignore the darker side of technology, which is ominously colouring our narratives and clouding our judgments. While we are blessed to live at this time of unimagined scientific and technological advances, which have made our lives so comfortable and convenient, we also are witness to the abuse of technology. While technology has brought people together, it has also been abused to create distances and divisions amongst people, communities and societies. I cannot over-emphasize on the numerous other pandemics caused by fake-news, distortions of truth, events, causes, reason and interpretations leading to much unfounded suspicions and mistrusts in society, which are debilitating assaults on democracy. We have much to learn about how to confront these challenges head-on since we also need to speak truth to the people because people deserve to hear and know the truth to make educated decisions and judgments on all spheres of life. We stand between power and the people to speak truth to both, which demands utmost integrity in us. Ours is not an enviable calling but we if are serious about our mission we cannot afford to dilute and divert our roles and responsibilities, especially in the sphere of meticulous investigations and verified truth and the discernment of facts from opinions.   

The pandemic has taken a very heavy toll on the media across the globe. As it is, even before the pandemic, with newer technologies, older media forms were confronting insurmountable challenges and numerous newspapers, magazines and journals folded-up across the globe, or forced to skeletal survival. But of graver concern is the laying-off of journalists. This may be attributed to depleting revenues but simultaneously we are witnessing the increasing corporatization of media outlets across the globe, sending out the message that journalists are dispensable and that marketing wizards are more important. This may or may not have started in Nagaland but is inevitable so it is a matter of debate how many of us be able to withstand these changes. Will we continue to stand up or cave in before corporate behemoths owned, or backed, by powerful, influential and wealthy individuals and groups, for whom profit-making stand above the ethos and essence of democracy, freedom, justice, truth and free speech? We are living in very uncertain times and to survive we need to refocus even more energetically on our roles and responsibilities, ensure that governments do not violate the integrity of the Constitution and never stop standing with and by the people.

Local papers’ circulations and revenues have reduced drastically, which have severely impacted individual journalists and non-journalists working in the local media here. Today we are facing challenges and struggles that demand our grit and our ability to evolve into a stronger institution, which meets the needs and challenges society and state are confronting now ~ without compromising on the core values of the Fourth Estate in a democracy. So, what are the foundations we have created and are standing on today to meet and overcome these challenges? What is our sensitivity quotient to look at members of our fraternity, as indeed every citizen, from the prism of humanity? Against the background of an uncharted path before us, do we have the ability and willingness to stand as one media fraternity of Nagaland? Will we allow competition cripple each other or be the crutches to hold each other up? These are the some primary questions we need to ask ourselves on this auspicious National Press Day ~ because the answers will reveal what we think of ourselves, how we see ourselves and generally our perceptions and perspectives of the Fourth Estate itself. As elsewhere across the globe, there will also be lay-offs, salary cuts, more restrictive hiring terms and conditions, increased working hours, etc., besides more pressure from powers-that-be, interest groups and advertisers. And don’t forget the temptation and pressure to fall prey to fake-news and sensationalism, and to insidiously pander to religious, racial and misogynist sentiments, just to keep one step ahead. Ultimately, much will depend on our individual integrity, expertise, sensitivity, humility, knowledge, wisdom, vision, inclusivity and our ability to swallow our egos to prevail over these trying times. We can do this and we must. You see, we are morally obliged to leave behind an institution and a legacy that those who come after us will be proud of and take recourse in.

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