by Jatin Desai
The recent Maharashtra Legislative Assembly elections and its ‘coverage’ have raised certain serious questions before the journalist community. The credibility of journalists, journalism and media is at stake. Various newspapers carried advertisements in the form of news. This is totally against professional ethics. The case of Ashok Chavan, Chief Minister of Maharashtra blatantly exposes the 'paid news' phenomenon. The record submitted to the Election Commission of India shows that he paid only Rs. 11,379 on advertising., which is nothing compared to the coverage by way of supplementaries he got. Gujarat Samachar, a leading Gujarati newspaper, carried 'news' of various candidates contesting against each other as winners. In a few newspapers reporters were told not to give stories regarding elections and there were ‘deals’ with the candidates and parties. Ironically, some time same pages were carrying ‘news stories’ of victory of rival candidates from the same constituencies.
Everyone loves elections. The money was pouring in. It was a festival season for many media organizations and activists of various parties. While the upper limit of expenditure is a mere Rs. 10 lakhs. (http://ceo.maharashtra.gov.in/canFaqCon4.php), most of the candidates of established national and regional parties spend more than two crores of rupees.
The assembly election coverage raises many questions regarding credibility of media and answers are not easy. Journalists must introspect and find out ways to combat the scourge of 'paid news'. Indian journalism has a long history of commitment, sincerity and fighting for just causes. During the Independence struggle, many leaders of the country brought out dailies and periodicals to spread the message of freedom in a most effective way. The media played an important role in the freedom struggle. It created an atmosphere and made people aware.
The same spirit continued even after Independence. Again, during 1975-77 when emergency was imposed and freedom of expression and speech were curtailed, the journalist community fought it heroically. The Bihar Press Bill was passed by Bihar Assembly on July 31, 1982. It was an onslaught on the freedom of expression and speech by the entrenched ruling class in power and within a few minutes of the passing of bill , journalists from all over country were on the roads to oppose the draconian bill. The journalist community of Mumbai was in the forefront of the agitation. Hundreds of journalist took out a rally from the Press Club to Hutatma Chowk. The journalists of Mumbai also fought against the fascist Shiv Sena, when they started attacking newspapers critical of them.
It is in this background that we must evaluate the role of media in the present context. Media has undergone a lot of changes since we adopted new economic policy in 1991. It was also a period when the cold war ended., and the United States of America became the single power center. It was also a period when the movement of working class was on the defensive. All this affected the journalist movement globally.
With the advent of the electronic media, Indian media industry started growing at an unbelievable speed. Media moguls took charge of industry and they brought in corporate culture. Priorities changed and visibly so. . Fashion and socialites started getting importance over the issues affecting common people. Lakme Fashion Shows gets more coverage than the burning issues like farmers’ suicides. Media people queue up to cover fashion shows. Truth has become victim in the age of neo-con policies.
At the same time we need to understand the Indian psyche. Even today the majority of Indians believe in the printed word. They believe that ‘Printed words do not lie.’ Many media organizations took advantage of this in the Maharashtra Assembly elections and the Lok Sabha elections held earlier in the month of April-May 2009.
Senior journalists like late Prabhash Joshi, Kuldip Nayar, B G Verghese, Ajit Bhattacharjee and others made a representation, after Lok Sabha polls, before the Press Council of India alleging advertorials becoming editorials and the massive flow of money into the media. The Press Council, though a toothless body, expressed a serious concern and set up a committee to look into the matter.
Alhough the Press Council is generally a toothless body, it can help in making public in general aware of the grim reality. It can also strengthen the journalist community opposed to the ‘paid news’. ‘Paid news’ is affecting credibility of the journalists, journalism and media; it has to be fought tooth and nail.