Free media are essential for India, the world's largest democracy. But religious intolerance, political influence and corporate control over the media constitute a common set of factors which harm freedom of expression.
Despite the fact that India has a vast and varied mass media, freedom of expression has been constrained and restricted from time to time on account of various considerations. Such considerations include intolerance on the part of religious hardliners or fundamentalist groups, pressures exerted by politicians and political parties, as well as the influence of corporate captains who control advertising expenditure which funds the media. Despite the diversity of the media in India, this sector experiences market concentration at the same time. Large media organisations operating as oligopolies determine to a considerable extent what people read, listen to and watch in printed publications, on radio, television, internet websites and on mobile handsets.
The domination of media markets by the big "few" accompanied by the marginalization of the small and medium "many", has reduced choices for readers, viewers and listeners by diminishing the diversity of content. While such convergence makes for sound economic rationale by availing the benefits of economies of scale and scope, it also creates leeway for risks that leads to the curbing of freedom of expression and subtle forms of censorship in the pursuit of goals like profit maximization and increasing market shares.
In the political economy of the media the world over, there is an alarming absence of not-for-profit media organizations and the marginalization of small and medium media organizations. Neither subscription nor advertising revenue based business models have been able to restrict this tendency of the corporate media to align with elite interest groups. Not just in economic terms, the corporate media is an active political collaborator seeking to influence voting patterns along lines of allegiances of owners which can, and often does, constrain free and fair exchanges of views to facilitate and strengthen democratic decision-making processes. This is especially true as far as India is concerned.
The Political Economy of the Media and Media Freedom
On 1 May, as general elections were taking place in the world's largest democracy, the Annual Index of Media Freedom brought out by Reporters Without Borders ranked India in the 140th position among 197 countries. Even as the declining media freedom was seen as a worldwide phenomenon, India's score slipped marginally "reflecting an increased interference in content by media owners in the run-up to the 2014 elections" including "dismissal of key editorial staff".
With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi coming to power in the 16th general elections that concluded in May 2014, apprehensions have been expressed that particular supporters of the right-wing, Hindu nationalist political party will seek to stifle the expression of views that run contrary to the opinions subscribed to by the majority community in the country. There have been instances of physical attacks on individuals and attempts to stop the sale of books that ostensibly offend the religious sensibilities of a few individuals, some of whom may be politically connected.
In one particular instance in early June 2014, a young Muslim man was killed in Pune, Maharashtra, in western India, allegedly by members of a fringe group of Hindu fundamentalists after offensive morphed images of a historical figure and a political leader had appeared briefly in posts on the social media website, Facebook, though he apparently had nothing to do with their creation or dissemination. Individuals in Goa and Karnataka in western and southern India have been accused of violating provision of the Information Technology Act for posting critical comments against Prime Minister Modi. The Act itself, and the rules and guidelines framed under it, have in the past been severely criticised for being arbitrary and draconian. Writer U.R. Ananthamurthy has been threatened and sent a one-way ticket to Pakistan after he said that he would not like to remain in India if Modi became Prime Minister, a statement he claimed he had made in an emotional moment.
In the recent past, there have been a number of other instances when religious intolerance has adversely impacted freedom of expression. One of the most prominent of such examples was when two Indian publishers, Penguin and Aleph, agreed to pulp two books written by American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s on Hindus and Hinduism following complaints that the publications contained offensive content. Penguin withdrew one book on 12 February 2014 followed by Aleph Book Company (promoted by Rupa Publications) on 5 March.
Religious intolerance, political influence and corporate control over the media constitute the common set of factors in current instances of attempts to stifle freedom of expression of the media and the creative expression of authors and artists in India. Further examples that indicate the blurred and arbitrary lines along which the limits of freedom of expression are drawn in India are attached (1).
Biased Reporting and the Corruptibility of the Media
A distinctive feature of the recently-concluded general elections was the manner in which large sections of the mass media extended wholehearted support to the candidature of Modi. The media, in turn, was greatly benefitted by an unprecedented advertising campaign launched to promote him on a scale that was unparalleled in Indian history not only in the traditional media (print, radio, television and outdoor banners) but even more so in the new media (on internet websites, blogs and social media platforms).
An equally distinctive aspect of the elections was the support given to Modi and his party by the corporate sector. Never before have big business houses and industrial groups so openly advocated the candidature of an individual. Since a substantial section of India's mass media is owned and controlled by corporate conglomerates, the corporate media can be credited with ensuring that the BJP led by Modi won a resounding victory in the polls.
Soon after the elections were over, Reliance Industries Limited, India's largest privately-owned corporate entity led by the country's richest man Mukesh D. Ambani, took over the ownership of one of India's biggest media conglomerates, the Network18 group. The left-wing Economic and Political Weekly argued that this takeover marked a convergence of corporate and media interests that posed a threat to freedom of expression and media plurality.
Another phenomenon that curbs freedom of expression is corruption within the media itself in the form of "paid news" which entails illegal payments in cash or kind for content in publications and television channels that appears as if it has been independently-produced by unbiased and objective journalists. Simply put, paid news is a form of advertising that masquerades as news. In different forms, paid news has existed for many years but when this phenomenon becomes prevalent during elections, the democratic process gets subverted.
Despite the Election Commission's best efforts, the difficulty in curbing this phenomenon is that paid news is difficult to identify. Black money - which is also difficult to track - is usually involved in paid news. The deception involved in passing off advertisements as news entails a clandestine activity and can be established only by those involved in it, and this means that the individuals concerned would have to themselves concede that they are violating various laws of the land relating to fraud, deception and non-payment of taxes, besides the Representation of the People Act.
The Press Council of India, which is a quasi-judicial authority set up by an act of Parliament, has no statutory powers to punish. Far from putting a person behind bars, the PCI cannot fine anyone. The writ of the Council does not extend beyond the print medium to television, radio or the internet. The PCI also has no real teeth to enforce its findings or to penalize any individual or organization for violating its journalistic code of ethics which is, at best, a set of recommendations of good practice.
The Indian Media Debate and its Limitations
Discussions and arguments on freedom of expression and what should or should not be censored are as old as civilization itself, across the world and in India. In recent years, these debates have acquired new dimensions with the growth of the mass media especially the internet. Maintenance of public order, national security, religious tolerance, blasphemy, libel, defamation, invasion of privacy, artistic licence, pornography, obscenity, copyright and other intellectual property rights have all become issues linked to freedom of expression, often under highly contentious and controversial circumstances. Whereas Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India guarantees freedom of expression as a fundamental right of all citizens, Article 19 (2) imposes "reasonable restrictions" on the exercise of such freedom. There is no consensus on what constitutes "reasonable" restrictions and/or who or which body should determine what is or should be "reasonable" restrictions on freedom of expression.
Debates on these issues have multiplied with the proliferation of the mass media in India. This is the only country in the world which currently produces roughly 1,000 feature films each year, has over 90,000 registered publications, more than 900 television channels, in excess of 250 radio stations, over 900 million mobile phone subscriptions and some 700 million subscribers, over and above an unspecified number of internet websites. Quantity has, however, not translated into quality and there are periodic outbursts of outrage and anger at what some section of Indian society or the other deems inappropriate or unfit for public dissemination. There has been constant questioning of the role of government bodies (such as the Central Board of Film Certification and the Press Council of India) as well as self-regulatory organizations (such as the News Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Advertising Standards Council of India) that seek to regulate and monitoring of content that is publicly disseminated.
Many argue that Indian society has become less tolerant to dissent even as sections of the population have apparently become increasingly vociferous in protesting against what is considered offensive. Vocal minorities often drown out the voices of passive majorities in issues pertaining to artistic freedom and independence of expression. A dividing line must be drawn between an individual's right to offend and her or his obligations towards maintenance of social harmony. What cannot be denied is that a free media is fundamental to the existence of a democracy.
- On 25 January 2012, Salman Rushdie was to address the Jaipur Literature Festival on his book The Midnight’s Children. He did not come after threats of violence. Even a video conference had to be cancelled.
- On 10 October 2011, the University of Delhi dropped from its history syllabus an essay written 24 years earlier by scholar A.K. Ramanujan entitled Three Hundred Ramayans after representatives of hard-line Hindu groups said they were offended by his essay on the topic.
- Maqbool Fida Hussain, one of contemporary India’s greatest artists, died in exile in London on 9 June 2011. He spent the last years of his life outside India apprehending violence from fundamentalists who objected to his paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude.
- In West Bengal, the Left Front government banned Bangladesh author Taslima Nasreen’s book Dwikhandito on 23 November 2003 fearing that its sale would create communal disharmony.
- On 20 November 2012, two young women – Shaheen Dhada and Renu Shrinivas -- from Palghar, Thane, Maharashtra were arrested over a post on the social-networking site Facebook questioning the shutdown of Mumbai city because of the cremation of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. They were sent to judicial custody, but granted bail within hours on personal bonds. In January 2013, the Supreme Court said that the arrests had a “chilling effect" and were unwarranted. This instance highlighted how the rules under the Information Technology Act could be interpreted and enforced in an arbitrary manner.
- On 9 September 2012, the police arrested Aseem Trivedi, a Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh-based political cartoonist on charges of sedition for displaying cartoons depicting India's national emblem in an allegedly derogatory manner. He was thereafter released on bail.
- On 20 March 2011, the Gujarat state assembly voted unanimously to ban Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India after reviews claimed it portrayed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the "father of the nation", as bisexual, a claim the author denied.