Two years ago, when Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) took the first step towards acquiring a stake in a large media house, there were a few murmurs, mostly outside mainstream media. Now that RIL has openly announced its acquisition of one of the largest media companies, one would expect to hear some expression of concern. Yet, not surprisingly, there is virtual silence. It would appear that no one really cares that India’s most powerful business house now controls one of the largest media companies. It is as if this convergence of corporate and media interests poses no threat to freedom of expression and media plurality.
Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but RIL announced its acquisition within days of the Modi government taking office. It now has the controlling share in Network18 Media and Investments Ltd and TV18 Broadcast Ltd. In effect, this means that RIL now controls a vast swathe of media that includes the television channels CNBC TV18, CNN-IBN, CNBC Awaaz; the news websites firstpost.com and moneycontrol.com; the print magazine Forbes India; the entertainment channels Colors, MTV and Homeshop Entertainment as well as around a dozen regional channels that are a part of Eenadu TV. Additionally, it will shortly roll out its 4G network on which it can offer exclusive media content.
That such concentration will have repercussions on media and politics is obvious. This was well illustrated during the recent Lok Sabha elections. Narendra Modi garnered far more media coverage than any other single individual in this election season. While one can debate whether and to what extent such excessive exposure of one personality impacted the final election outcome, no one will argue that Modi and his party made full and effective use of the visibility that the media readily offered, with or without incentives. It is also clear that the decision to accord such visibility to Modi was not an editorial decision taken on the basis of news values alone but because of nudging or directions from media owners who had openly endorsed Modi’s leadership even before the first vote had been cast.
The problem posed by the concentration of media ownership goes beyond its potential to determine political choices during an election. RIL’s latest acquisition could roll out the emergence of a handful of powerful media conglomerates. In the absence of any regulation on cross-media ownership and concentration, we are looking at a scenario where media could become purely instrumental in pushing corporate agendas, all under the cover of a “free” media. When the interests of those who own media and those who have political control converge, then there can be no room for dissent. Such convergence will determine not just what is reported, but what is ignored or hidden. In these conditions, the very idea of freedom of expression becomes a mockery. And when you add to this the government-controlled media, which in India still has a substantial reach, you can see the beginning of a uniformity of views and news, knocking out any idea of plurality.
Add to such convergence of economic and political interests the other disturbing signals of curbs on freedom of expression. What began last year with Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus being withdrawn by Penguin Books because of a case filed against it by Dinanath Batra, who belongs to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has now become a much larger game. Since then, two other publishing houses have either withdrawn books or are looking at their books afresh to rule out any problems with Batra and his kin. If this continues, serious scholarship on a range of subjects will be severely impacted despite the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.
We are also seeing a steady increase in the cases being filed against individuals who have expressed their opposition to Narendra Modi. Since the election results were declared on 16 May, an individual in Goa and five in Karnataka have been charged under provisions of the IT Act for posting criticism of Modi on social media. Earlier, writer U R Ananthamurthy was threatened and even sent a one-way ticket to Pakistan for his public statement that he would not support Modi.
Even if one dismisses these as minor cases, can we really dispute that they send out signals that are less than encouraging of freedom of expression? Would it really be an exaggeration to state that if this has already begun to happen within days of the new government taking office in New Delhi, more such developments will follow? This may not be censorship of the kind we experienced in India during the Emergency. But it is another kind of censorship, far more insidious because it is not obvious.
Noam Chomsky said about freedom of speech: “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favour of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.” With the advent of media being controlled by a handful of corporates, and political formations that “despise” dissent, the only “freedom” available will be one to praise and support the powerful. That is not freedom.