Churning brings out the best
Dr. JYOTIRMAYA PATNAIK
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic powers.
And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying—T.S. Eliot
There is nothing like absolute Freedom be it of media or an individual. Freedom and right action are two sides of the same coin. Accountability sustains it. Other factors are secondary and contextual.
Against this backdrop let us look at today’s media world. It is more chaotic than ever before. Old definitions, parameters are falling apart. The texture and character of media are changing rapidly. Freedom of media, so to say, ‘Press Freedom’ is passing through a turbulent phase. It is under attack from outside forces and subject to abuse from inside players. Yes, since its genesis the concept of press and its freedom have always been a target of vested interests, but current situation has reached a critical stage. Both state and non-state actors are pouncing upon media every now and then at the slightest opportunity. This trend is clearly perceptible even in democratic countries, let alone in autocratic states.
It makes no difference whether it is the oldest, the greatest or the largest democracy like Britain, the US or India, the freedom of press is constantly shrinking. Media has become the favorite whipping boy for elected leaders, government officials. A tectonic shift in attitude towards media becomes glaring if we compare statements of Thomas Jefferson and Donald Trump. Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States of America, had famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Trump, the incumbent president, outright brushes aside those reports that are censorious of him and labels them as Fake News. To tame the media, stringent measures are implemented and restrictive laws are being framed by governments.
Defamation, libel and privacy laws are used to muzzle journalists. Even there are instances when they are put behind bars without framing of any charge. Television channels are ordered to go off the air at the whims and fancies of governments. Extra judicially journalists are done away with without consequences. Bloggers and whistle-blowers are eliminated with impunity. Year by year the number of killings, disappearances and persecution of media personnel is rising. It’s a different matter altogether that their exact figures are never worked out as verifying every single incidence is an extremely difficult proposition. Furthermore, technological advancements in the media sector have created confusion about who is a journalist and who is not.
New technologies have altered the media landscape. Traditional concepts no more hold good. Old definitions become irrelevant. Smart phone is the new many-in-one media device. Social networking sites, new technology applications like WhatsApp, Skype and other live-streaming applications are turning to be new tools of real-time mass communication. The concept of citizen reporter has made every individual with a smart phone in hand a potential journalist. With new technologies bloggers are trying to break free from the tag of commentator or opinion writers. Particularly news oriented bloggers want to assume the role of a reporter-cum-editor. Through blogs they are breaking stories. It is a clear attempt on their part to turn blogging sites into news brands with an aim to thrust their own points of view under the veil of news. All these technology-driven trends have irrevocably affected the speed, tone and tenor of reporting. No gate-keepers, no editorial vetting. Such a fluid state obviously defies definition.
Let us come back to our point of discussion: press freedom in other words independent media. Though media’s primary role is to act as a public watchdog with an eye to expose crime and corruption by government officials and other powers that be, still its contribution cannot be emphasized less in nurturing development. Free Media works as an instrument of social change. It helps empower people, catalyze economy and bring accountability in governance. Media plays a very positive role in the field of education, health practices, and conservation of ecology. Independent media is integral to the process of delivery of social and governmental benefits to the lowest strata of society. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has drawn a conclusion in his study of democracies: “No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press”. Similarly researchers from London School of Economics found in a study in India that increase in public food distribution and disaster relief expenditure is directly proportional to the number of newspaper circulation in a given area.
A former president of World Bank had aptly commented, “A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development. You cannot enfranchise people if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices. The World will never solve its most difficult problems until news and information flow more easily across national and cultural borders.”
In spite of the recognition that free media is essential for democratic development, yet less than one fifth of humanity live in those parts of the globe where media is considered to be free. However, there can be no denying the fact that building up free media is no mean challenge.
Challenges are varied and huge. Professionalism among press personnel, supportive legal environment, and more over news literate citizens are pre-requisites for true media freedom. Not only that, media needs to be economically viable to sustain its freedom. Alternatively, focus on too much profiteering can also lead to compromises with the ethical standard which would consequently erode media’s credibility. Fortunately, a number of media houses run on non-profit basis. However, now a new trend is seen in media world. Aggressive bidding to take over media houses are taking place. The Meredith Corp is all set to buy Time Inc in a 1.85 billion dollar all-cash deal. A whooping 85 billion dollar acquisition of Time Warner media group by AT & T is just a step away- nod from the government. Concentration of media houses in a few hands is arousing contempt.
Of course, some media experts are of the opinion that in-built force of new technologies are capable of breaking governmental barriers. But see the larger picture. The new technologies work through internet and there are just a handful of internet service providers who can on their sweet will go for a black out. This may be an unlikely scenario, but its possibility cannot be ruled out. In addition to that, anonymity which is implicit in the new technology makes it vulnerable to abuse. Before chaff and grain are separated, untold damage might be perpetrated. Without digital literacy, people may not be able to differentiate between reliable unbiased information and corrupted unprofessional propaganda. Whereas ‘Paid News’ kills the credibility of press freedom, manipulation under the veil of framing of news is nothing short of internal sabotage.
This issue of Media Watch dwells on the theme of media freedom and important aspects related to it. The article “Politics of Fake News” has laid bare as to how WhatsApp is being used as a weapon of disruption, instigation and propaganda in India. Similarly, “Fake news: credibility…” reinforces the vulnerability of new age media as a credible platform for unalloyed mass communication.
In the write-up “News Consumption through SNS platforms” the authors have explored the direct and indirect factors determining students’ news consumption patterns through SNS platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter. ‘Media Narratives from the Margins’ delves deep into framing of the news from conflict zones by different newspapers and analyzes how a given incident is interpreted and presented differently to their respective audiences. In the same vein, ‘International media framing..” highlights the dichotomy in perception and presentation on China’s domestic politics by two highly-rated international media. “Fishing in the Troubled Waters” is an attempt to investigate using the framing theory how human rights violations were constructed in Indian print media and social media.
While “Journalism Education in the GCC Region” elaborates the factors behind not so fast growth of journalistic professionalism in Arab countries, “Students’ Participation in School press in Kuwait” tells how the young people are learning lessons on democratic values through such activities.
“The Trump Campaign Propaganda” dissects the digital strategy of electioneering in last presidential election in the US to micro-manage and influence the voting behavior and judgment. Taking social media data, computer learning, and psychometric profiles as inputs, algorithms can almost accurately determine sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views of an individual which makes him/her prone to political manipulation. In the article “Media Contouring the Societal Functioning”, the authors in their inference have reflected on the abuse of press freedom and torn the functioning of certain media in India to shreds for their misdemeanours—manipulation of facts, fabrication of news and propagandist attitude.
All said and done, we must have a faith in the resilience of media. Churning brings out cream in milk. Hindu mythology says churning of ocean produced Amrit (immortal syrup), but before that the world had to bear with the brunt of poison. Let us hope that the present turmoil in the media world will ultimately bring out the best. New Year, New Hopes.