We are entering the election season and the role of the media from now until May 23 will be minutely scrutinised. Did we uncannily or by design allow a political party to use our platform for electoral benefits? Were we fair to all political parties concerned in our the newspaper and television coverage? Were we slanted? Are we partners in crime in the paid news business or did we try to put a check to this assault on democracy? Did we actually inform the readers so that when they go to vote they do so with an informed judgment? After all, that is our primary role. Anything other than that is a public relations exercise, and, we are not in the PR business.
Alas! Quite a number of television news channels and newspapers have become instruments of propaganda for the ruling regime. Nothing can be more despicable than this capitulation of the so-called ‘free media’ to political forces.
The role of the media is to defend the Constitution and we do this day in and day out, every day. My limited understanding of the Indian Constitution is that it is the supreme law of India which defines the rights and duties of citizens and also circumscribes the powers and functions of the three pillars of democracy, namely the executive (government), the legislature and the judiciary.
The media is the informal pillar of democracy; a sort of watchdog that draws its strength from Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. The primary role of the media is to inform and educate the public on the functioning of the above three pillars which are also the bedrock of democracy. The media is, therefore, called the fourth estate of because it is supposed to check and balance the other three pillars. Hence, a free media is integral to democracy and for holding the above three foundational pillars accountable, mainly because they wield considerable powers.
As stated above, media freedom flows from Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution which grants to every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression. This freedom is, however, not unrestricted. The words ‘reasonable restraints’ are again subject to interpretation. Media self-regulates keeping in mind those restraints but often does so when the eco-system around it compels it to tailor its information or views in a manner that it does not bring risks to its own functioning.
So does the truth or facets of it then get buried somewhere because we have to be wary lest we tread on sensitive toes? Do we then become just a bulletin board with very little space for critiquing our vital institutions? This is a subject matter for a larger debate.
The judiciary interprets the Constitution for us and court rulings are published by the media for public information. Similarly, the executive (government), even though elected to provide good governance and to uphold law and order, often fails in its primary duty. It is the media which has to constantly be the referee and pull up the government for its acts of omission and commission.
The functions of the legislature, too, are widely reported by media so that people know which laws are enacted how their elected representatives perform inside parliament and state legislatures. We have had living examples of legislators in our state and in Parliament who have not spoken a word in their five-year tenure. Also, the media exposes how disruptions are created in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha where several laws could not be passed.
Today, MPs and MLAs are accused of drawing their salaries and their sitting fees without actually performing their designated tasks and without bringing the concerns of the people before Parliament or state assemblies. It is the media which ultimately becomes the whistleblower and does the work which should actually be done by elected representatives and governments because it is only when the public are informed of the lack of governance that they can put pressure on the government and elected representatives. People can then vote out the non-performing MPs and MLAs and elect those who they think can serve them better. Hence, the media helps in the functioning of democracy by enabling voters to make an informed choice.
The media is constantly reminding citizens of their rights and freedoms under the Constitution and urging them to claim those rights. The media also calls out whenever constitutional rights are violated by those who run the country. The right to freedom of religion; right to life, right to association, right to protest, right to decide one’s food habits, etc, are sometimes taken for granted by citizens and we only realise how important these rights are when there are restrictions on our claims to these rights.
However, it would be wrong to surmise that media is a homogenous entity that uses its powers to enhance or deepen democracy and to safeguard the freedoms of the public for their larger good. In a democracy, the media is supposed to be free and independent. But several media houses are today overtly partisan and have become propaganda machines.
This is unfortunate because in a democracy where power is actually vested with the people, the power of the media also flows from the people and should actually be used to give voice to that constituency which is powerless and voiceless. These categories of people are most in need of information so they can claim their rights and freedoms. That is where the media becomes the bridge between the public and those vested with power to dispense the public good.
Since the Constitution is a document given by the people of India unto themselves, it is the people too who should safely guard this document. People should own the Constitution and make it work to their benefit. Alas! That public duty is largely absent. As custodians of the Constitution, the people of India cannot allow their rights and freedoms to be usurped by any authority however powerful. Here the media is constantly reminding people to remain vigilant lest their freedoms are eroded.
Also, the media has to ensure that the three pillars of democracy don’t encroach into one another’s jurisdictions. These days we hear of words like “judicial overreach” where the judiciary is pushed to adjudicate on matters that should be executed by government. This happens because of the proclivity of the executive to shirk its responsibilities.
Very often, governments shirk their responsibilities towards the governed especially when it comes to taking decisions that affect vote banks. Those matters are then left to the courts to decide. People today are enlightened and approach the courts when the executive fails to deliver. We have cases of people approaching the judiciary because there are no roads to their villages or because the roads are in a state of disrepair.
An important role of the media as a guardian of the Constitution is to act as the whistleblower through use of the Right to Information Act. Hence the media calls out whenever constitutional rights are violated by those who run the country. Today, unfortunately, media is passing through testing times. While one accepts that we are not free from error in our day-to-day reporting, the role of the public is to bring those to our notice through a process and not through slanging matches on social media.
If we have been called names like ‘Presstitute’, it is also because some of us have forgotten our media ethics which govern our function. It is also a fact that we don’t really have a media watchdog body either then the Press Council of India. There is need for a public body to call out the media when we fail in our Constitutional duties.
As media persons, we will have to constantly do a reality check and ask ourselves whose side we are on? Are we giving voice to the depressed sections of the society and polity? Are we voicing the concerns of the powerless or are we camp followers of political parties? In fact, the question we need to ask ourselves today is whether media in our country is really free and independent.
With the onslaught of social media there are many who feel they don’t need the traditional media with its outdated news. They have a point, except that not everything on social media is verified. There are so many fake news portals which are like unguided missiles. To the untrained mind, every piece of news appears like Gospel. Hence, we have portals like AltNews to filter out fake news regularly.
However, digitisation of news is a real challenge. This is journalism on the run and we have to cope with these new challenges in the media. Adapt or perish is the new word. But are all news portals helping to safeguard our Constitution? Not always. Fake news is intended to brainwash people into a particular ideology. It’s a dangerous territory and one that we have to tread with caution.
Another issue is the climate of oppression under which media operates today. If media is expected to be the guardian of the Constitution, who will stand with the media when it is buffeted by powers that seek to throttle our freedoms? For the most part, media persons fight lonely battles. However, that’s a journey we have consciously chosen and all that we face on a daily basis come with the territory. Like they say, “No issues about that because hopefully the Constitution will defend us!”
(Patricia Mukhim is a social activist, writer, journalist and the editor of The Shillong Times. Recipient of various honours of national and international repute, she was also honored with Padma Shri in 2000 by the government of India. She tweets at @meipat. Views expressed above are the author’s own)