A speech on Sunday night by Umar Khalid, a Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student, has gone viral on social media and has been reported widely in mainstream media. What make his speech interesting are his comments on the media and the way sections of the media covered the JNU ‘crackdown’.
The Delhi Police have issued a lookout notice against Khalid and four other students. These five students are facing charges of sedition for allegedly raising anti-national slogans in the university campus. The police have so far shown restraint and seem to be handling the situation better than how they did little over a week ago when they stormed into the campus and arrested a student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, on what now appears to be doctored footage — ‘evidence’ freely shown by some media outlets who either did not care to check the veracity of the video, or, worse, did not mind in distorting facts in their line of duty.
Khalid, in his speech, spoke about the ‘battle’ students across universities are waging, about ways the authorities intimidated his family, how the government is selling India to US interests, that ‘there will be no more Rohith’s’, among others.
But his comments on the media and its role in distorting the facts about the student agitation are what we need to ponder on. He said that ‘even after it became clear that there were no Jaish-e-Mohammad connection, [the media] has not given a disclaimer, apologised or done anything to correct it’, ‘each media house that distorted the facts will have to answer’ and ‘no one knows how to distort facts and lie better than the media’.
Even if one were to ignore the views of a Left-leaning student leader like Khalid, the decline in the credibility of the media cannot be ignored. While this has been a gradual decline reflected in different forms, it took a couple of agitating students to dramatically draw attention to it.
There was a time, in Independent India’s recent past, when the media was associated with words like ‘truth’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’. Today, unfortunately, that’s not the case. Many people ‘fear’ media persons and loathe what they represent — much like they do the police or goons who masquerade as lawyers.
Perhaps that is why words like ‘dalal’, ‘agents’ and ‘fixers’ are associated with certain sections of the media. Perhaps that is why when a minister chooses a derogatory tag like ‘presstitutes’, many people nod in agreement.
If the JNU ‘crackdown’ and the events that followed have exposed something, more than the agenda of the central government or the conduct of the Delhi Police force, it is the partisan and irresponsible sections of the media in India.
This is not the first, nor will it be the last, time the media are being caught on the wrong foot. But this is disturbingly important because it is one of those rare occasions when both sections of social and mainstream media simultaneously misrepresented facts, vilified innocent people and misguided the nation.
The advent of social media was seen as an antidote to the firm grip media outlets had on the dissemination of information. With platforms like Twitter and Facebook, news no longer was the propriety of a select few — social media, in that sense, democratised access to information. The flow of news, since then, has shifted to such an extent that it is often social media that decides the narrative in the mainstream.
The JNU ‘crackdown’, in this light, is a unique example and a case study of how both social and mainstream media can form a symbiotic pair where one feeds on the other.
Serious questions remain for the media to answer. More checks and balances on the media by the government — which would eventually mean curbing the shrinking space for press freedom — will be counter-productive. But at the same time, how much has self-regulation helped? Has the Press Council of India, set up ‘with the object of preserving the freedom of the press and of maintaining and improving the standards of press in India’ been able to take ‘appropriate steps’? An irony in this is that any corrective measures in the media will have to come from within... but, like the question in the fable, ‘Who will bell the cat?’
However, there are positives too to take away from these recent developments. The way sections of the media, and ‘well-known’ journalists, have conducted themselves has left little to doubt about their ideological leanings and journalistic credentials. Hopefully the veneer of credibility, the alleged ‘for-the-people’ stand and the moral authority with which they have been going about doing ‘journalism’ will now take a serious beating. The sensationalism that was till now being dressed up as news, will give way for more relevant issues, constructive dialogues and meaningful debates.
There is hope that things will change for the better because the one thing that distinguishes journalism from gossip is credibility, which is lost the moment people realise that what is being peddled as news is nothing but an agenda. And no matter how loud you shout, a fake video is no evidence — not even for a phoney media trial.
Today, more than ever, the media has to look within and turn those difficult questions about professionalism and objectivity onto itself. It’s not an easy process, but purgation never is.
It is only when these sandcastles of credibility crumble and these Trojan horses of neutrality are exposed will journalism start its ascent to its rightful place in the eyes of the people — as the fourth pillar of this democracy. Failing this, in the popular psyche of the nation, the media will find itself snugly placed along with primetime TV soap operas — as nothing but TRP-generating, highly-entertaining evening circuses meant to entertain and distract the people.