The suicide of Rohith Vemula, doctoral student at the Central University of Hyderabad, and the ongoing Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) impasse over controversial speeches and slogans raised by the students in the campus have been extensively covered by media. The incidents have not only been covered in print media and TV channels but also reverberated on popular social media and other forms of web communication.
No doubt traditional print media and TV news channels are more prominent and influential as far as impact and moulding of public opinion is concerned. But today any discussion about media will remain incomplete and futile unless we consider the role and influence of social media and other forms of web platforms. There is noticeable penetration of communication technology in the country where people use mobile not only for communication, but also for entertainment and depend on it for seeking information by forming groups of like-minded people.
In a country where literacy rate is sluggish, visual language becomes more powerful because you are not required to read but just to see and listen. As a result audio-visual mediums, be it news channels or video clips, have a wider reach, where professionals as well as laymen play their own part as creators as well as communicators.
Unlike the good days where the only way of communication was either through newspapers or periodicals or over radio waves mostly controlled by the government, today possibilities of using different formats for communication have become enormous. Despite this proliferation, people still depend on newspapers and to some extent news channels. This has placed an enormous responsibility on these platforms to adhere to time-tested policies of speedy but flawless and impartial dissemination of information. This is the minimum that is expected from the fourth pillar of democracy.
The debate over Vemula’s suicide as well as the JNU controversy followed by the arrest of JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar have not remained confined to mere incidents. These controversies have become much more serious with charges of sedition slapped against the students by the authorities. These developments naturally provide an opportunity to the opposition parties which will be using them against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Front (NDA) government during the budget session.
The political divide is increasing between the BJP and Congress and other left-of-centre parties over allegations of harsh treatment meted out to students for their alleged anti-national slogans. The debate has touched upon the very definition of nationalism and how differently it is interpreted by various political groups. What is disturbing is the way the media is responding and participating in the coverage of the controversies and in the debate over these issues.
What role media should play under the circumstances where there is not only an ideological clash but it also leads to polarisation of public opinion? When the debate remains confined to the political arena, issues are sorted out over time, based on public support and involvement of democratic as well as constitutional institutions. But when the fault lines are stretched and frenzy is created by involving the man on the street, it becomes a real threat to existing institutions.
The first and second press commission reports had discussed and debated everything related to the media, including the definition of a journalist, the role that media should play at any crucial juncture, giving instructions as to what should be done and what should be avoided while reporting or expressing opinions on sensitive issues. Though much has changed with the advent of technology and these reports may appear outdated, the basic issues related to the media and its role in the parliamentary democracy as a fourth estate remain unaltered.
The question is should the media also get divided along these fault lines as the polity in the country gets sharply divided too? If you take a look at the social media, there is a lot of stuff that is personalised and many a time part of the propaganda couched in something looking simple and harmless. But it helps to build up hype over sensitive issues. There actually is no boundary between mainline media and the material circulating on the Internet. There is symbiotic relationship between the social media and the mainline media where material flows without any check or supervision.
In these days when professionals are expected to respond immediately, there is no check on what appears in print or carried on TV channels. The news channels are much more afflicted with this malignancy than the print but many a time print media picks stories or issues reported or discussed on these hungry-for-TRPs channels.
Usually, when journalists doing their job are attacked and freedom of expression is under threat, the media stand by such journalists putting aside their own personal preferences. However, the disturbing trend in recent times shows that the debate and discussion on sedition and anti-national activities has divided the media like never before.
CP Scott who pursued progressive liberal agenda in his ‘Manchester Guardian’ newspaper as an editor firmly believed that comment is free but facts are sacred. When media becomes proactive and takes stand either way, the first victim is accuracy and the authenticity of what it reports. Take for example the video clip showing slogans of “Pakistan Zindabad”. There is so much confusion as allegations of manipulation fly all around that the common reader or viewer is left confused. Sharply divided opinions are developed around such information which has been carried without checking the authenticity and facts. There is so much confusion already prevailing due to the manipulation of social media by vested interests that it becomes the responsibility of mainline media to sift facts from opinions, and help develop opinion based on facts.
The media appears to be sharply divided over the debate on charges of sedition against the JNU students due to differences in perception and definition of what constitutes patriotism. There seems to be no middle ground from where media can take a reasoned stand and have an impartial view. It has become thus: Either you are with us or against us, there cannot be any other way of looking at sensitive things.