JUSTICE KATJU – MEDIA DEBATE : Why our media is anti-people



To understand the role which the media should be playing in India we have to first understand the historical context. India is presently passing through a transitional period in its history: a transition from a feudal agricultural society to a modern industrial society. This is a very painful and agonising period. The old feudal society is being uprooted and torn apart; but the new, modern, industrial society has not yet been entirely established. Old values are crumbling, everything is in turmoil. Recollect Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Fair is foul and foul is fair” — what was regarded good earlier, for example the caste system, is regarded bad today (at least by the enlightened section of society), and what was regarded bad earlier, such as marriage for love, is acceptable today (at least to the modern-minded). It is the duty of all patriotic people, including the media, to help our society get over this transition period quickly and with less pain. The media has a very important role to play in this transition period, as it deals with ideas, not commodities. So by its very nature the media cannot be like an ordinary business.

Historically, the print media emerged in Europe as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time the established organs were all in the hands of despotic feudal authorities. Hence, the people had to create new organs which could represent them. That is why the print media became known as the “fourth estate.” In Europe and America it represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the established feudal organs, which wanted to preserve the status quo. The media thus played an important role in transforming feudal Europe to modern Europe. In my opinion the Indian media should be playing a role similar to the progressive role played by the media in Europe during its transitional period. This it can do by attacking backward, feudal ideas and practices — casteism, communalism and superstition — while promoting modern scientific and rational ideas. But is it doing so?

In my opinion, a large section of the Indian media (particularly the electronic media) does not serve the interest of the people; in fact, some of it is positively anti-people. There are three major defects in the Indian media which I would like to highlight. First, the media often diverts the attention of the people from the real issues to non-issues. The real issues in India are socio-economic — the terrible poverty in which 80 per cent of our people live, inflation, the lack of medical care, education and backward social practices like honour-killing, caste oppression and religious fundamentalism. Instead of devoting most of its coverage to these issues, the media focuses on non-issues — like film stars and their lives, fashion parades, pop music, disco dancing, astrology, cricket, reality shows and so on.

There can be no objection to the media providing entertainment to the people, provided this is not overdone. But if 90 per cent of its coverage is related to entertainment, and only 10 per cent to the real issues mentioned above, then something is seriously wrong. Its sense of proportion has gone crazy. Entertainment may get as much as nine times the coverage that health, education , labour, agriculture and environment together get. Does a hungry or unemployed man want entertainment — or food and a job?

To give an example, I switched on the TV recently, and what did I see? Lady Gaga has come to India; Kareena Kapoor standing next to her statue in Madame Tussauds; a tourism award being given to a business house; Formula One racing, etc, etc. What has all this to do with the problems of the people?

Many channels show cricket day in and day out. The Roman emperors used to say: “If you cannot give the people bread, give them circuses.” This is precisely the approach of the Indian establishment, duly supported by our media. Keep the people involved in cricket, so that they forget their social and economic plight. What is important is not poverty or unemployment, what is important is whether India has beaten New Zealand (or better still Pakistan), or whether Tendulkar or Yuvraj Singh have scored a century. Recently, The Hindu published that a quarter of a million farmers committed suicide in the last 15 years. The Lakme Fashion Week was covered by 512 accredited journalists. In that fashion week, women were wearing cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves an hour’s flight from Nagpur. Nobody told that story, except one or two journalists locally. In Europe, displaced peasants got jobs in the factories created by the Industrial Revolution. In India, on the other hand, industrial jobs are now hard to come by. Many mills have closed down and have become real estate. The job trend in manufacturing has seen a sharp decline over the last 15 years. For instance, TISCO employed 85,000 workers in 1991 in its steel plant, which then manufactured 1 million tonnes of steel. In 2005, it manufactured 5 million tonnes — but with only 44,000 workers. In the mid ’90s, Bajaj was producing a million two-wheelers with 24,000 workers. By 2004, it was producing 2.4 million units, with 10,500 workers.

Where then do these millions of displaced peasants go? They go to cities — where they become domestic servants, street hawkers, or even criminals. It is estimated that there are one to two lakh adolescent girls from Jharkhand working as maids in Delhi. Prostitution is rampant in all cities, due to abject poverty.

All this is largely ignored by our media, which turns a Nelson’s eye to the harsh economic realities facing up to 80 per cent of our people, instead concentrating on some glamorous Potemkin villages. Second, the media often divides the people. Whenever a bomb blast takes place anywhere in India, within a few hours TV channels start saying an e-mail or SMS has been received from Indian Mujahideen or Jaish-e-Muhammad or Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islam claiming responsibility. The name will always be a Muslim name. Now an e-mail or SMS can be sent by any mischievous person who wants communal hatred. Why should they be shown on TV screens, and next day in print? The subtle message being sent by showing this is that all Muslims are terrorists or bomb-throwers.

About 92 to 93 per cent of the people living in India today are descendants of immigrants. Thus, there is tremendous diversity in India: so many religions, castes, languages, ethnic groups. It is absolutely essential that if we wish to keep united and prosper, there must be tolerance and equal respect to all communities. Those who sow the seeds of discord among our people, whether on religious or caste or linguistic or regional lines, are really enemies of our people. The senders of such e-mails and SMS messages are therefore enemies of India, who wish to sow the seeds of discord among us on religious lines. Why should the media, wittingly or unwittingly, become abettors of this national crime?


Freedom of press and journalistic ethics – II

Justice Markandey Katju   IN THE HINDU

India now has a disconnect between the mass media and mass reality. Often the media concentrate on some Potemkin villages where all is glamour and show business.

Underdeveloped countries like India are passing through a transitional stage, between a feudal-agricultural society and a modern-industrial society. This is a painful, agonising period. A study of the history of England of the 17th and 18th centuries and of France of the 18th and 19th centuries, shows that for them such periods of transition were full of turbulence, turmoil, revolutions, intellectual ferment, and social churning. It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. India is going through this fire. The barbaric ‘honour killings’ in parts of the country of young men and women of different castes or religion who get married or wish to get married, among other incidents, show how backward we still are — full of casteism and communalism.

India’s national aim must be to get over this transitional period as quickly as possible, reducing the inevitable agony. Our aim must be to make India a modern, powerful, industrial state. Only then will India be able to provide for the welfare of its people and get respect in the world community.

Today, the real world is cruel and harsh. It respects power, not poverty or weakness. When China and Japan were poor nations, their people were derisively labelled ‘yellow’ races by Western nations. Today nobody dares use such terms as they are strong industrial nations. Similarly, if we wish India to get respect in the comity of nations, we must make it highly industrialised and prosperous. For this, our patriotic, modern-minded intelligentsia must wage a powerful cultural struggle, that is, a struggle in the realm of ideas. This cultural struggle must be waged by combating feudal and backward ideas, for example, casteism and communalism, replacing them with modern, scientific ideas among the masses.

The media have an extremely important role to play in this cultural struggle. But are they performing this role?

No doubt, the media sometimes refer to farmer suicides in different States, the price rise, and so on, but these form only a small part of their coverage — maybe 5 to 10 per cent. Most of the coverage is given to cricket, film stars, astrology and disco-dancing.

Sadly, India now has a disconnect between the mass media and mass reality. Here are a few facts from a speech delivered by P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu and Magsaysay award winner, on September 6, 2007 in Parliament House in the Speaker’s Lecture Series.

•The mass reality in India (which has over 70 per cent of its people living in the rural areas), is that rural India is in the midst of the worst agrarian crisis in four decades. Millions of livelihoods in the rural areas have been damaged or destroyed in the last 15 years as a result of this crisis, because of the predatory commercialisation of the countryside and the reduction of all human values to exchange value. As a result, lakhs of farmers have committed suicide and millions of people have migrated, and are migrating, from the rural areas to the cities and towns in search of jobs that are not there. They have moved towards a status that is neither that of a ‘worker’ nor that of a ‘farmer.’ Many of them end up as domestic labourers, or even criminals. We have been pushed towards corporate farming, a process in which farming is taken out of the hands of the farmers and put in the hands of corporates. This process is not being achieved with guns, tanks, bulldozers or lathis. It is done by making farming unviable for the millions of small family farm-holders, due to the high cost of inputs such as seed, fertilizer and power, and uneconomical prices.

•India was ranked fourth in the list of countries with the most number of dollar billionaires, but 126th in human development. This means it is better to be a poor person in Bolivia (the poorest nation in South America) or Guatemala or Gabon rather than in India. Here, some 83.6 crore people (of a total of 110-120 crore) in India survive on less than Rs.20 a day.

•Eight Indian States in India are economically poorer than African states, said a recent Oxford University study. Life expectancy in India is lower than in Bolivia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

•According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, the average monthly per capita expenditure of the Indian farm household is Rs.503. Of that, some 55 per cent is spent on food, 18 per cent on fuel, clothing and footwear, leaving precious little to be spent on education or health.

•A report of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations shows that between 1995-97 and 1999-2001, India added more newly hungry millions than the rest of the world taken together. The average rural family is consuming 100 kg less of food than it was consuming earlier. Indebtedness has doubled in the past decade. Cultivation costs have increased exorbitantly and farming incomes have collapsed, leading to wide-scale suicides by farmers.

•While there were 512 accredited journalists covering the Lakme India Fashion Week event, there were only six journalists to cover farmer suicides in Vidharbha. In that Fashion Week programme, the models were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves at a distance of an hour’s flight from Nagpur in the Vidharbha region. Nobody told that story except one or two journalists, locally.

Is this a responsible way for the Indian media to function? Should the media turn a Nelson’s eye to the harsh economic realities facing over 75 per cent of our people, and concentrate on some ‘Potemkin villages’ where all is glamour and show business? Are not the Indian media behaving much like Queen Marie Antoinette, who famously said that if people had no bread, they should eat cake.

No doubt, sometimes the media mention farmers’ suicides, the rise in the price of essential commodities and so on, but such coverage is at most 5 to 10 per cent of the total. The bulk of the coverage goes to showing cricket, the life of film stars, pop music, fashion parades, astrology…

Some TV channels show cricket day in and day out. Some Roman emperor was reputed to have said: if you cannot give the people bread, give them the circus. This is precisely the approach of the Indian establishment. Keep the people involved in cricket so that they forget their economic and social plight. What is important is not price rise or unemployment or poverty or lack of housing or medicines. What is important is whether India has beaten New Zealand (or better still, Pakistan) in a cricket match, or whether Tendulkar or Yuvraj Singh has scored a century. Is this not sheer escapism?

To my mind, the role of the media in our country today must be to help the people in their struggle against poverty, unemployment and other social evils and to make India a modern, powerful, industrial state.

For this, scientific thinking should be promoted. Science alone is the means to solve this country’s problems. By science I do not mean physics, chemistry and biology alone. I mean the entire scientific outlook, which must be spread widely among our people. Our people must develop rational, logical and questioning minds, and abandon superstition and escapism. For this purpose the media can, and must, play a powerful role.

The nation is passing through a terrible socio-economic crisis. Artists, writers and mediapersons must start acting responsibly and help the people solve their problems. And this they can do by focussing on the real issues — which are basically economic — and not by trying to divert people’s attention to non-issues.

The Urdu poet Faiz wrote: Gulon mein rang bhare bade naubahaar chale/ Chale bhi aao ki gulshan ka kaarobaar chale. Urdu poetry often has an outer, superficial meaning, and an inner real meaning. The real meaning of this sher is that the objective situation in the country is ripe, and patriotic people to come forward to serve the country. (The word ‘gulshan’ ostensibly means garden, but in this sher, it really means the country.)

(Markandey Katju is a Judge of the Supreme Court of India. The first part of this article was published yesterday.)