The Malaise of the Fourth Pillar

Written by Jeenal Gala

It is ironic that the entire world has been thrown into disarray by an organism that’s not even visible to the naked eye. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the truth that our world is still susceptible to the vagaries of life. While it is for posterity to understand how we as a country responded to the contingency, it also likely to be remembered for the responses from various sections of society. In a rare display of bipartisan efforts to respond to the contingency, Prime Minister Modi reached out to various political leaders soliciting their suggestions to fight the pandemic together.

The Congress president Sonia Gandhi came up with five points, which have widely been welcomed as pragmatic and sensitive suggestions to brace ourselves for the aftermath. Amongst these, the suggestion that the government stops all expenditure on media advertisement, except those involving public health has drawn much attention.

Much of the mainstream media was up in arms claiming that the such measures are unwarranted and would “kill the media”.

Perhaps large sections of the media were anxious that if the PM heeds Sonia Gandhi’s advice, they would lose crores of rupees in advertisement revenue. To put it into perspective, between 2014 and 2019 a whopping 5200 crores was spent by the government on publicity. It may appear that the anxieties of the media industry are justified.

However, it is appalling that the media is dependent on government publicity for their very survival. It calls for the media to introspect and do some soul searching. Despite not being a constitutional body, the media is often considered to be the fourth pillar of democracy. If they are dependent on the doles from the government, for their survival, how will they speak truth to the powers? The very essence of democracy is that decisions are taken collectively after meaningful deliberation. An uninformed citizenry doesn’t augur well for a democracy.

The caustic response of the media reveals what the malaise in Indian democracy is. It is not just the uninformed citizenry. Rather, it is the misinformed and misguided society, for which the media is perhaps solely culpable. The role of the media cannot be underestimated in building or decaying a democracy. Many people may brush them off as being meek and pliable. However, when the media actively misinforms people and propagates prejudice in society, the results can be extremely tragic. The world witnessed the horror in 1994 when the Rwandan media stoked the flames of radical majoritarianism in the African country.

Coincidentally, the debate over curtailing media spending took place on the 7th of April, which is the “International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda”. The Indian society, particularly the media would do well to recall what happened in Rwanda.  It is estimated that nearly one million people were massacred between April and July, 1994. The mindless violence was perpetrated by a populist majoritarian government which was supported by the Rwandan media. The Rwandan media was held particularly culpable in whipping up emotions against the minority Tutsi community and even the moderate Hutu majority people. The media systematically produced and disseminated prejudice and hatred. Today, there are several forces that are actively spreading hatred and deepening social schisms in the Indian society. With the advent of Social Media, the danger has become heightened. Rwanda suffered & never really recovered. A nation was destroyed by hatred and an irresponsible media.

We see this happening in India too. Certain sections of the media are notorious for singling out the minority community and often wilfully spreading misinformation. A couple of years ago, a sting operation by an online portal revealed that many big names in the media industry were willing to propagate the BJP’s ideology and tarnish the opposition leaders.

Hopefully the media will introspect and realise that it cannot be run by the money doled out by the government. If the Indian media continues to sing the government’s tune, it would become a swansong—not just for the media, but for our democracy too. It is the responsibility of every Indian to resist hatred and misinformation as it is shredding the fabric of our society. Many scholars opine that the world we live in today is akin to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. In this context, it would therefore be apt to remember the words of one of India’s greatest freedom fighters, Jawaharlal Nehru—Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might!

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