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The soul of democracy

Nagaland News

Monalisa Changkija

 On National Press Day today, what are Nagaland thoughts? In Kohima, Dimapur and Mokokchung, this day would be commemorated by programmes to laud or lambast our media, There would be also be a good number of people, who will come out, especially on social media, and give their “expert” two cents on what the media is and ought to be, how it ought to be and what the media should focus and write about. No doubt, such two-cents would be a learning experience for our media, as much as they would reveal to us how our public perceives the media, which would be an insightful measure of how knowledgeable our public is about the roles, responsibilities, the history, politics and the socio-economic milieu of the media in general and of Nagaland in particular ~ both of the past and the present.

The media, as is commonly referred to, is actually the Fourth Estate in a democracy, the emergence of which can be traced back to medieval Europe since the 1700s. The Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle called the press the ‘Fourth Estate of the Realm’. By this he meant that it acted as a sort of watchdog of the constitution and, as such, formed a vital part of democratic government. The term “Fourth Estate” is often attributed to British politician Edmund Burke. Thomas Carlyle, in Heroes and Hero-Worship in History, writes: Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate, more important far than them all. The media is also referred to as the fourth branch of the government because while the Constitution established the executive, legislative and judicial branches, the phrase “Fourth Estate” reflects the unofficial but widely accepted role the news media play in providing citizens with information they can use to check government power.

The Fourth Estate is also called the press. The term press comes from the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg in the 16th century and which, from the 18th century, was used to print newspapers, then the only existing journalistic vehicles. The origin of the term ‘Fourth Estate” is, in medieval Europe, where society was divided into three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the public, or commoners. The term Fourth Estate, referring to the press, was coined in 1837, reflecting its increasing prominence and power. The oldest media forms are newspapers, magazines, journals, newsletters, and other printed material. These publications are collectively known as the print media. Newspapers (Media) are considered to be the fourth pillar of democracy in the modern period, the other three being legislative, executive and the judiciary. In the post-modern era, referring to the medieval concept of “three estates of the realm” (clergy, nobility, and commoners) and to a more recently developed model of “four estates”, which encompasses the media, Nayef Al-Rodhan introduces the weblogs (blogs) as a “fifth estate of the realm”. The three types of media are commonly known as news media, social media and web media, but you might also see them referred to as earned media, shared media and owned media.

The Fourth Estate is vital for democracy because the existence of a free, independent and powerful media is the cornerstone of a democracy, especially of a highly mixed society like India. The pivotal role of the media is its ability to mobilize the thinking process of millions. Technically a democracy stands on the pillars of judiciary, executive and legislature. To many, journalism is considered to be so significant that it acts as the fourth branch of government. In many ways, it serves as a balance of power in a democracy. It keeps elected politicians in check and holds them accountable for their actions while in office. It is on the oasis of this information that we learn how the government works. Some of the most important roles the media play are: (1) Media also criticizes the unpopular policies and programmes that the government takes. (2) Media forms public opinion. (3) Media acknowledges us with several current issues; and (4) Media provides awareness among masses. In India democracy rests on four pillars: legislature, executive, judiciary and the press.

Since the emergence in its modern form particularly coinciding with the freedom struggle and movement, the Fourth Estate in India has made its mark as a steadfast vanguard of democracy ~ particularly evident during the dark days of Emergency (1975-1977). The history of the media in India during the Emergency is a must read for any self-respecting journalist. Till the 1980s, the country’s media was internationally respected but since the advent of the 1990s, coinciding with the introduction of the changed economic policy of liberalism, the media too was impacted. The 1990s liberalism policy opened avenues for foreign participation in the Indian economy, which also brought in a good number of Indians settled abroad to invest in India, and facilitated free flow not only of financial and technological investments but also of ideas. The traditional austerity and saving culture of Indians gave way to consumerism and commercialization ~ in the process, the media was commoditized. Editors and journalists were sidelined and the bright boys of the IIMs and IITs were centre-staged and allowed free access to newsrooms. The newspaper became a vehicle of trade, to sell goods, cricketers, movie and rock stars, fancy-fangled kitchen utensils and home appliances, branded attires, shoes and accessories. Fashion and beauty pageants became extremely saleable events to capture the minds of vulnerable youngsters and engineer their tastes in fashion and lifestyle mores. The newspaper was turned into a turf to create “public opinion” of young and old to sell the virtues of the “good life”; soon enough our political class saw and reaped the benefits of the newspaper as the publicity and the public relations platform of political parties, personalities and what they thought were ideologies. And even the mighty caved in, bent, broken and crawling to the political and corporate behemoths.

In the process, the very essence of the Fourth Estate was eviscerated. Where pockets of resistance persisted, Editors and journalists were hounded, killed and jailed. The complete conquest of the political and economic corporate is unambiguously visible in our print and electronic media, as much as it is in the social and other technologically-driven media wherein ‘likes’ and subscriptions empowered individual-practitioners to fall deeper into the abyss of consumerism thereby enriching and empowering the corporate beyond imagination. We see this conquest in the media, music, fashion, sports ~ you name it. Nothing happens without corporate sponsorship. Under the circumstances, that the media’s ethos, quality, calibre and standards have nose-dived is not surprising but is a natural corollary. Today the market is god ~ even education is being steered towards worshipping this god hence the emphasis on shepherding it towards “entrepreneurship”. Of course, profits are what make the world spin but that at the cost of turning ourselves to mindless, docile herded sheep?

So, on National Press Day today, what are our local media’s thoughts? For sure technology has made our lives far simpler, comfortable and convenient ~ which I think makes us erroneously believe that our local media have really come a long way. Unfortunately, technology is only the medium, not the message. Therefore because technology has so seduced us, we have inadvertently become publicists and public relations practitioners. Also, because in the last couple of decades, our people have been so exposed to all forms of the global media, basing on their favourite channels and shows, our local media is bombarded with advice, suggestions, criticism, goading, etc., and we seem to have lost our way ~ so we are trying to be a little of the newspapers and television channels of the world all at one time thus rendering ourselves followers rather than the leaders we are supposed to be. This vulnerability of ours is basically a result of our ignorance of the roles the responsibilities that the history, politics and economics of the Fourth Estate repose on us.

At this point, I wonder aloud whether our young journalists have ever heard of, read, researched, analysed and understood the works of Naga Editors and journalists of the 1980s such as Chalie Kevichusa, T Senka Ao (who I still refer to as my Alokba. Senka also wrote a column titled Alokba, the village idiot, who raised hard-hitting and pertinent questions on numerous issues), Charles Chase, Masizeiko Zinyii, Kashito Aye, Lelie Legesie, Riato Zasokie and so many more. In the 1980s, Nagaland’s media was financially and technologically-challenged but there was so much passion, so much debate, so much daring and doing, so much commitment, so much dedication and so much depth, class and sophistication in their writings. I started my journalist journey in 1985 and I miss the camaraderie we had at that time. For sure, all of us suffered for our writings but we stood firm on our commitments because we knew that journalism is not a joy ride or an access to the powers-that-be, much less a money-making enterprise.

The media’s role and responsibilities are also very specific and they do not encompass publicity and public relations ~ much less dissemination of “feel-good” stories. One or a couple of Naga hair-dresser does not a spring of Naga hair-dressers make. See, it is not the media’s job to make anyone “feel good”. Today there is such a thing called advertorials ~ so if anyone wants to feel good, let them pay for the publicity they hanker for. The same goes for Government Departments and agencies that seek to inform the world how great they are doing. I am actually fed up of editing monologues of Central and State Ministers, Advisors, MLAs, Government officials, etc., that we pass off as “news” ~ especially because they will not give time to the media to question them on their policies for us to analyse and inform the reader of pros and cons thereof. We in the media do not question the expertise and experience of our Ministers and Advisors on the subject matter of portfolios they are in charge of and the policies thereof. We also mindlessly publish “news item” of any random press releases we receive. We do not question why the Christmas picnic of this or that union is of public interest and importance or why an individual or any organization’s donation(s) to an orphanage is of any public importance and needs media coverage ~ except to give publicity to the donee(s). Or, why any organization needs the media to cover their “social work” in this or that colony.

But this has come about because our own media community is ignorant about our roles and responsibilities, our job. We don’t have trained and experts journalists on subjects such as our political, economic and social history, or subjects such as culture, religion, environment, disability and LGTBQ rights, visual and performing arts, literature, sports, music, anthropology, education policies and pedagogies, etc., as well as in the numerous science, medical and health, public policy making, international politics, world economy, etc. But the pages must be filled up, right? How many of our young journalists have researched on Nagaland electoral politics and the speeches delivered in our Assembly on various crucial political, economic and social issues since statehood? Do our young journalists have the patience and persistence to pour over tomes of material in our State and other libraries to give a perspective of the present through the lenses of the past? How many of our journalists have studied the impact of the emergence of our NGOs and civil since the 1990s and their footprints on our policy-making? How do we educate our people and help them make informed decision on any issue unless we ourselves are well-informed and educated on issues? Technology is a boon but it is only a means to an end ~ the means being holding the Government to account, criticizing unpopular policies and programmes that the government makes, forming public opinion, keeping the public updated on current issues and providing awareness among masses.

Another aspect of the media is the position of the Fourth Estate in a democracy. As aforesaid, it is one of the Estates of democracy besides the legislature, executive and judiciary. Especially in India, particularly in the Northeast and Nagaland, there seems to be a lot of confusion ~ even among the media community ~ about the status of the media especially vis-à-vis the civil, police and technical bureaucracy. The Fourth Estate is independent but the bureaucracy is manned by paid employees of the Government consisting of the legislature, executive and judiciary, broadly known as the bureaucracy ~ as indicated in a crude diagram below:

pRESS

Media being the most visible and powerful pillar of democracy, any government will always try to control it and make it pliable to its wishes and commands. It is up to the media to have a spine and uphold its independence. Ultimately, it a matter of knowing our place in the grand scheme of genuine and self-respecting democracy ~ and having self-respect, which is crucial for the other three Estates and the public to respect us. One of the ways we lose respect is by being seduced by and surrendering to technology ~ often abused and misused. Our job is to verify everything we hear and see on the ground ~ not be taken up with whatever does the rounds on social media. The Fourth Estate and social media are not synonyms and what separates us is our ability to discern the difference and do our job.

 The Fourth Estate also functions within the economic culture and milieu of the democracy. So, the over-all, including financial, health of the media reflects not only on the economic health but more importantly the democratic traditions, culture, ethos, values, degree, calibre and credentials of the country and its government. Hence, the global index for freedom of press. Now, if India decides to rank States on freedom of press, how would Nagaland fare? Besides, hounding, killing and jailing journalists, the economic and financial health of the media is also very closely linked to freedom of press and reflective of the government’s democratic measure. It is well-known that governments do deny and cut off revenue sources to newspapers to ‘bring them to line’ or ‘toe the line’. Sikkim has 10 Dailies and 40 Weeklies (English and Vernacular). I am told that in order to encourage and nurture the democratic culture of a free press, one of the Sikkim Government’s policy is to indiscriminately issues advertisements to all papers irrespective of their size, colour and circulation figures. This policy is religiously implemented by all Sikkim Government Departments and agencies, which the Government strictly monitors. There are two aspects to this policy: (1) nobody and no government can know exactly who reads which paper ~ in fact, in remote villages, one paper is enough for its entire population; (2) every reader above the age of 18 is a voter. And, one vote can cost a political party or a candidate and change electoral politics and history. Clearly, the Sikkim Government seems to know how intrinsically a healthy media is linked to a political party and candidate’s fortunes.

We love to talk about Nagaland’s developmental dreams and designs but development outside democracy is just a house, not a home. Development is so much bigger and more than infrastructure, technology, resources, revenues, investments, industries, agriculture, corporatization, high rates of education and employment, entrepreneurship, etc. Development without a soul is merely a statue, a symbol and a seal, of a democracy’s economic progress. It is the Fourth Estate that is the soul of a democracy ~ a fact that has been established and acknowledged since the 17th century; a soul that centre-stages the humblest citizen; a soul that hold in the highest esteem the humblest opinion of the humblest citizen. To give voice to this is the primary responsibility of the media and to act on it is the primary responsibility of the government. If the government doesn’t uphold its obligations, it is the job of the media to hold it accountable. If the media doesn’t uphold its roles and responsibilities, it negates the raison d’être of its existence.

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