Public culture in India, especially in the past decade, is not a fan of accountability. Politicians have never been a fan of accountability. It seems the dominant among the journalistic community, too, do not like to be held accountable. Ironic, because the very definition of the word journalism assumes a sense of accountability. Journalism is defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as “the collection, preparation, and distribution of news and related commentary and feature materials through such print and electronic media.” And the word news can be defined as “reporting or intelligence of an event that has lately taken place.”
Both definitions assume the centrality of events taking place, things happening, or facts. Thus, journalism has come to assume a certain objectivity and neutrality when reporting these facts, if it is to be considered serious journalism. So when journalism came to include interviews and commentaries, it became protocol to hold interviewees and commentators accountable if they made claims that were misleading.
Of course, nothing exists in a pure, uncorrupted form and journalism everywhere in the world has faced pressure in the form of succumbing to government diktat or falling prey to the commands of owners of media outlets. Two extreme forms of corrupt journalism that the world has witnessed are the state-dictated news that comes out of North Korea or China and the genocide-mongering Radio Rwanda stations.
From 1993 to 1994, a Rwandan radio station received support from the government-controlled Radio Rwanda, which allowed it to transmit using their equipment. Listened to by wide swathes of the population, this channel projected hate propaganda against Tutsis, moderate Hutus, Belgians, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). It is now regarded by many Rwandan citizens and the United Nations as having played a crucial role in creating the atmosphere of racial hostility that normalised the genocide of the Tutsis.
Indian media, especially electronic media, has in the last decade come disturbingly close to resembling the Radio Rwanda stations in its hysterical demonisation of minorities, chiefly the Indian Muslim community, its relentless communal dog-whistling, vilification of dissenters, and its servile parroting of the government’s position on almost all issues. India must be the only democracy in the world whose leader has never in nine years taken a press conference.
It is also a country where the democratically elected government is using overwhelming majority in Parliament to change laws and push its agenda changing the very nature of the Indian state. Most electronic Indian media channels have acted as lapdogs of the government. But what is probably more damning is that citing the TRP excuse, they have also aired fake news, targeted and vilified critics of the government.
After a decade of such poison masquerading as journalism, in the run-up to the critical 2024 general election, the opposition parties comprising the INDIA alliance have (finally) decided to boycott 14 anchors known for communal propaganda and rabble-rousing. The parties will not send their representatives to the shows of the named (and thus shamed) anchors. A lot of feathers have been ruffled. The anchors are hysterical in their indignation, the BJP is self-righteously touting free speech and even the silent-in-the-face-of-hate-speech News Broadcasters and Digital Association (NBDA) and News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) have issued critical statements claiming an attack of democratic principles reminiscent of the Emergency era.
I frankly find the clamour amusing. In my opinion these 14 (and a few more who were left out) are not journalists. They are propagandist rabble-rousers with jobs in news channels. They haven’t been banned. The political parties have exercised their right to protest by not appearing on these channels.
Boycott is an accepted form of peaceful protest in India, used most effectively against the British by Mahatma Gandhi himself. Those who are offended are actually stung that they and the Indian media are finally being held accountable for their words and actions. They abused their journalistic power and continue to do so, but for once the mic is pointing at them!
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.