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Media Meltdown—When Free Speech Dies

"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” - George Orwell (1984 )

Sometimes it takes a couple of reads to comprehend the brilliance of a book. Set against the backdrop of World War II, the novel being referred to is a political manifesto that warns future generations about the consequences of totalitarianism. It is the international bestseller by George Orwell—1984.

According to Jim Morrison, American singer-songwriter and poet, whoever controls the media controls the mind. Big Brother, the dictator of Oceania, regulated the society through fear and manipulation. However, the most important means that Big Brother used to spread propaganda was none other than media itself.

Every house has telescreens- a two-way television- that not only monitors and spies on the people, but also was used to watch the 'two-minute hate speech.' Every record was destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture was repainted, every statue and street building renamed, and every date altered. The media reported an increase in clothing, homes, furniture, fuel, ships, babies, and food. Meanwhile, Winston, the protagonist of the story, only had a stale loaf of bread which he had to save for breakfast. This mirrors a striking contrast between what was reported, and the reality of the situation. Such was the power of the media in a world like this, where people fully believed that their nation was flourishing while being starved themselves.

Published back in 1949, 1984 might come across as a dystopian fiction, as something too distant from reality to have relevance in the current day and age, but it does. What if I tell you that thoughtcrime, Newspeak, media representation and control exist in the 21st century?

Reporters Without Borders - an international non-profit and non-governmental organisation - releases the World Press Freedom Index to reflect the degree of freedom journalists, news organisation, and netizens have in a sovereign state. According to the World Press Freedom Index, India's ranking slipped to 161st in 2023. It ranked 172nd in the Security indicator, indicating poor journalist security. Thus, India finds itself among the 31 countries where the situation for journalists is 'very serious'.

Relevance of Media

Often termed as the fourth pillar of democracy, Media is a means of mass communication and circulation of knowledge and information. Media ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices and do not act out of ignorance or misinformation. It enables people and civil societies to keep a check on the elected representatives and helps the state to ensure good governance and become a 'welfare state'. Global dissemination of information also facilitates cultural exchange, common issue sharing, and international problem-solving.

Post 1991, India saw the emergence of satellite televisions, private media companies and the liberalisation of the media industry. We now have access to 24/7 news channels and entertainment. With the increasing use of cell phones, media is now accessible at our fingertips. Recently, mass media, originally intended to provide objective and factual data and raise awareness, has faced various obstacles.

Paid news

The elections in India are like festivals. Political parties invest a significant amount of money to win the hearts of voters. Sometimes, political parties use mass media to manipulate voter perceptions. It is done for a price in cash or kind as a consideration. It is similar to an advertisement. However, it is malpractice since it deceives the citizens, and the payment modes usually violate tax and election spending laws. Journalists should be accountable to their readers. In such cases, they become liable to their clients. Indian Express reported the first case regarding paid news in 2012. It was when Raman Singh’s BJP government had paid for favourable news stories and regular live coverage to a host of national and local television channels. The senior editors of the channel had also alleged the then Chhattisgarh government of negotiating rates to show particular news stories and ensure positive coverage. During the 2013 Gujarat assembly polls, more than 400 cases of paid news were discovered, and almost 700 cases of paid news were identified in India during the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Fake news

The advent of digitalisation and social media, in particular, has led to a rise in cases of fake news. India has approximately 376.1 million active social media, and Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube are the four most popular social media platforms. In 2017- the earliest year for data regarding the circulation of fake news is available- there were 257 reported cases of the circulation of fake news.

By 2020, that figure had jumped to 1,527 cases, showing a 500% rise. Today, almost 60% of respondents to a digital news consumption survey claim that sometimes they encounter potentially fake news online. Fake news can be of four types: disinformation, misinformation, hoax, and rumour. In India, the five major themes covered by fake news are overwhelming content, nationalism, religion, gender, and miscellaneous. While social media has provided a platform for all to put forth their opinions, it has exacerbated the problem of fake news.

For example, Manipur saw a massive ethnic clash between the majority Meiteis and the minority Kuki-Zo community in 2023. During the same time, an image of a woman's dead body wrapped in plastic went viral with a fake narrative. Despite the Internet shutdown in Manipur, the image gained massive attention and led to sporadic violence. However, it was later revealed that it was an image of an old honour killing incident from Delhi.

 The recent improvements in Artificial Intelligence have led to the rise in deepfake cases. Deepfakes are 21st-century photoshops where the video of a person is digitally altered to appear as someone else. For example, a video of Mark Zuckerberg bragging about the total control of billions of people's stolen data or actress Rashmika Mandanna, who was in the news for the same. According to a 2023 UK-based Identity Fraud Report, India is among the top ten countries in Asia-Pacific that is most affected by identity fraud committed using deepfake technology.

Violence Against Journalists

The Polis Project is a New York-based radical and independent art, research and journalism organization. In response to violence in India, it set up 'Watch the State' to remind the state to maintain peace and hold it accountable for state violence. 'Watch the State' reported 256 cases of violence against journalists between May 2019 and August 2021. Over the last few years, reporters and journalists in Jammu and Kashmir have struggled to report amid a media blackout and a military siege. Several cases of journalists being assaulted or charged under draconian laws have been reported. The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on 11 December 2019 created a lot of stir. Many journalists who covered this significant moment in history were subjected to threats, intimidation, FIRs and assault by the Police.

A pressing case on this issue is Ms Gauri Lankesh's murder. She was the editor of the Kannada weekly, Lankesh Patrike and ran her weekly, Gauri Lankesh Patrike. She was shot dead on 5 September 2017 outside her house. According to the Special Investigation Team, her killer and the people who hatched the conspiracy were against her political stands, left-leaning ideology, and her influence amongst tribals and Dalits.

Internet shutdowns

The advent of digitalisation has made billions of people rely heavily on media to work, learn, keep in touch or gain vital information. However, this connectivity is threatened by internet shutdowns. An Internet shutdown is when someone – usually a government – intentionally disrupts the internet or any mobile app to control communication or the spread of information.

In 2022, India implemented at least 84 shutdowns. It was the most for any country that year. According to the Software Freedom Law Centre, India has been the global leader in internet shutdowns in the past five years.

The age of total internet shutdown in India began on August 5, 2019. Despite the amendments in the Indian Telegraph Act in 2017 to allow only a state government's home secretary to declare a shutdown in case of necessary and unavoidable public emergencies, Kashmir underwent the world's longest internet shutdown-lasting 552 days- when the Indian government revoked Article 370. The recent ethnic clashes in Manipur led to the state government imposing an internet shutdown in the name of misinformation.

According to media reports, the internet shutdown in Punjab and Manipur cost $1.9 billion to the Indian economy. It led to a loss of $118 million in foreign investment, and 21,268 people lost their jobs. In Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, it was held by the Supreme Court that access to information via the internet is a fundamental right under Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution.

However, the government continues to believe that such shutdowns will restore peace.

“The quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined.”

-Bill Moyers(American journalist and political commentator)

Therefore, to maintain the world’s largest democracy, we must take impactful steps. Several professional media bodies have proposed the constitution of a Media Commission. The proposed Media Commission will recommend and help in setting up a Media Council of India to replace the existing Press Council, which only regulates print media. The Media Council will adjudicate all types of media. Implementation of legal measures has become crucial to protect a journalist's right to factual reporting and personal safety. Reporters and journalists must follow the five principles of ethical journalism-Truth and Accuracy, Independence, Fairness and Impartiality, Humanity and Accountability. It is integral for countries to also promote the development of media ethics, a comprehensive set of principles and standards for journalism. It is the only way to ensure that free speech, a fundamental human right, thrives.

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