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What India loses when journalists lose jobs

December 09, 2020 11:42 IST
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When journalism is destroyed, what is destroyed is a common man's weapon against the might of the establishment, notes Sumit Bhattacharya.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Can you criticise the government without fear, a person from Belgium had asked me when he learnt I was a journalist. I had replied, truthfully, that it was easier to criticise the government than a few businesses. That means you are a democracy, the man had smiled.

That was many years ago.

By now we have achieved herd immunity to COVID-19 -- by now we all know or have heard of someone who has died of, survived, driven to penury by or had a brush with the disease -- but the battering journalism in India has taken from the coronavirus will need more than a vaccine or three.

The pandemic has had an alarming casualty rate across newsrooms in India, with hardly any major publication left that has not laid-off -- or found a nicer-sounding euphemism to sacking -- journalists.

Newspaper editions have folded up throughout the country, including some brands synonymous with cities -- such as the Mumbai Mirror. Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs.

From our Independence struggle to Bofors to Jessica Lal, there is ample evidence that journalism has united and helped the country, and anyone who thinks the WhatsApp boom can replace that does not know the difference between drinking filtered and unfiltered water.

When journalists lose their jobs, it is no 'Lutyens cabal' that is destroyed. In fact, many -- if not most -- journalists in small-town and rural India are also farmers, teachers, small traders.

When journalism is destroyed, what is destroyed is a common man's weapon -- that, of course, differs in its potency -- against the might of the establishment.

Away from the big cities and the Peepli [Live] syndrome of news TV, there are thousands of thousands of local journalists who serve as an essential point of leverage for common people against the State.

From helping register FIRs to celebrating local achievements to holding the authorities accountable to being 'sherpas' for 'national media' when events of big import happen away from big cities, they perform an essential public service.

The public perhaps is sick of that service because we have reached Ram Rajya levels of satisfaction with the government, but the wheels of democracy keep turning and one day we may not have that. Maybe the public will miss the service of journalists then.

"Hum to mar jayenge, sir, par iss desh ka kya hoga? (We will die, sir, but what will happen to this country?)," a retired government official who freelanced for a pittance from a remote region of one of India's poorest states told me when I had to tell him that his services were no longer required because the edition was being shut down due to losses from the pandemic.

Like the country's wealth, its media are also converging in the hands of a few. The business model that has evolved for news depends totally on advertisers. With the pandemic nearly wiping out spending, large media houses are depending more and more on government advertising.

No ad revenue giver wants the 'space around the ads' -- as an MBA-type told a famous editor once -- to be negative.

The result is that you get news that has been sanitised.

For example, you would be hard-pressed to find a major national publication that reflects the unprecedented crises this country is going through with a raging pandemic, millions of job losses and everyone from farmers to doctors on the protest path.

This year, India has fallen in the global press freedom index to 142. A look at the countries below us on the index is telling about its co-relation, at least, to democracy: Mexico, Cambodia, Pakistan (145), Russia (149), Bangladesh (151), Singapore (158), Saudi Arabia (170), China (177).

Senior journalists have meanwhile been busy gaslighting those aghast at the erosion of a pillar of democracy.

The normalisation of criminalisation of dissent and of becoming cheerleaders for the State has been done by senior journalists who should know better.

The wiping out of a wide net of journalism jobs also means that what is lost are local nuances and stories.

You get more Hindu-Muslim than why your local government app does not work. You get more opinion than reported pieces.

The digital revolution, like in everything else, has spelt destruction for journalism.

It is not as if print is dying and being replaced with digital. Even now, newspapers make way more money than digital publications -- because the tyrannosaurus's share of digital advertisement revenues go to Google and Facebook; the rest of the world is scrapping for the bits and pieces left.

The crisis of journalism is not unique to India; it is a global phenomenon, just like polarisation and the trend towards more authoritarian governments. But in the more advanced countries there is some pushback with initiatives towards nonprofit outfits and smaller, independent publications.

That Donald Trump will soon be a bad memory for the world at large is largely also thanks to robust media coverage of his outright lies -- and public support for the publications that kept their spine intact.

In India, a hate-crime tracker or non-cooperation from the government for an event by the media house is enough for an editor to be shunted out.

In India, the wiping out of journalism jobs has meant wiping out of coverage from already severely under-reported regions.

It makes for 'positive' news; it's also a recipe for disaster.

The ongoing farmers agitation is a case in point. Find a media outlet that foresaw the disaffection in a sector that encompasses most of India. Journalists were busy arguing for the government while those the laws affect were seething.

The top-heavy structure of most big-media outlets -- it is normal to have media publications with more people on the business side than editorial -- means that first on the chopping block have been boots on the ground.

Legal protection for journalists have been systematically destroyed by media owners in tandem with governments to such an extent that it is becoming extremely hard for honest journalists to find and hold on to both work and their morals.

That translates to press release and 'he said she said' journalism. Do the safe stories, don't ruffle any feathers -- unless you have in your crosshair someone who is not in power.

Everything is filtered through the prism of money.

It's 'paid media' but the ones getting 'paid' are not the ones you think.

That restaurant recommendation? It's paid for, just like that film recommendation, or political article. Just that the means of payment differ -- between money and the leeway to exist.

Sumit Bhattacharya mostly plays the guitar at home in Kolkata.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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