Thursday, June 5, 2014

Indian Blitzkrieg

Thanks to the archiving powers of the internet we have access to the Indian media blitzkriegs. The audio-visual deposits are many and varied; breathlessly flashy, opiate, acerbic, and some utterly hilarious. 


Election coverage in India 

Throughout late April and May, I was either travelling or participating in some long-pending family affairs, even deferring my fortnightly column in Republica. I could not closely follow the recent Indian elections whose outcome has everyone talking about how our southern neighbor may have entered a new age, possibly redefining her relations with us in significant ways.

But election news in the media seldom entirely convey the views on the ground, or the extent of grassroots mobilization. People everywhere were talking, apparently about Narendra Modi, and in Nepal, about the implication of his rise on our politics.

I came across a bunch of young Bengali wage workers in eastern Nepal recently. Some of them make over Rs 1,000 a day working in our towns, more than double what they earn in Siliguri. Now swayed by Modi’s development promises, some were looking forward to better economic opportunities back home.

Time will tell if (and how) Modi will translate his promises of development and high economic growth, and how he will balance his right-wing, Hindu nationalist sentiments with the socio-economic needs of a liberal, secular democracy. For my part, I was thinking about the quintessentially loud and disruptive Indian media spectacles.

Thanks to the archiving powers of the internet we have access to the Indian media blitzkriegs. The audio-visual deposits are many and varied; breathlessly flashy, opiate, acerbic, and some utterly hilarious. Given the rapid growth of television and increasing penetration (60 percent households) even in the remote parts, some dubbed the polls India’s first “media election”, presided over by nationwide television broadcasts as tools to homogenize the diversity of voters.

With over 500 channels across the country, TV largely supplanted other types of news media in the election, form often trumped substance, trading reason for emotion. In an epic example, the US-based The Daily Show, a nightly news parody, lampooned the brain-numbing use of graphics on Indian TV screens and the endless shouting matches. Jason Jones, the Show’s reporter despatched to location, interviewed Rajdeep Sardesai, an anchor at CNN-IBN who admitted to “foxification” of Indian channels, a reference to the flashy and noisy Fox Television in the US. The reporter observed that Indian channels were actually outfoxing their American counterpart.

We are no strangers to Indian-style TV in Nepal. In fact, our channels pride in copying their formats. Twice removed, we imitate the imitators.

Visual bombardment is a desperate attempt by channels to win more eyeballs. As for the ears, media fell for sound bites and slogans of parties and candidates. Modi’s bite-sized aphorisms were perfect fodders for their news formats. Process and issues were largely left to print media, a massive industry comprising 80,000 newspapers and magazines but with relatively a limited grassroots impact. The Internet, with some 19 percent penetration, and mobile (32 percent) remains confined largely to a narrow middleclass. Compare that to Nepal’s mobile penetration of over 79 percent.

The media critic Sevanti Ninan noted that as the campaign progressed, reporters embraced horse-race journalism, foregrounding personalities over policy positions, replacing field reporting with poll updates, focusing almost exclusively on the chances of one candidate over the other. Obsessed about the unfolding contest, their earlier interest in Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party had all but vanished.

One of the worrying features of coverage was excess corporatization of news, polarization, bias and lack of fairness. Critics noted that rather than disseminating full and accurate information about the credentials and policies of candidates, media focused on noise and heat around certain candidates, at the expense of others. Their commercial logic became epitomized, yet again, in a report by Jones describing how he was able to literally buy a space in The Millennial Post daily newspaper for a fake news story about himself.

Indeed, the Election Commission served over 3,000 notices to media outlets, 694 of which were found to be genuine cases of “paid news”. Critics observed there is no accountability in the media. While some candidates paid for positive news coverage, most others paid to prevent negative coverage. That is a pretty damning case for an avowedly independent Indian press.

To be fair, despite the charges of shallow coverage and underperformance, media outlets, many already cash-strapped, ran exclusive programs and 24/7 poll updates. The alternative and vernacular press must have connected better with the voters.

Among the charges, media censorship and self-censorship were the most worrisome. Although Modi was often the target of criticism for his record in minority rights, critics pointed out that the corporate media, especially TV owned by major media houses, were biased towards BJP, and scripted interviews routinely filled the newshole. Media rarely raised questions about Modi’s role in the massacre of Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots or explained his much-trumpeted Gujarat model of development, described by some as a form of crony capitalism.

In the lead up to the polls, it was reported that corporate pressure to cover Modi and his party in a positive light resulted in a series of resignations, including by the editors of The Hindu and Open magazine, and the editorial director of India TV. Some high profile TV anchors at CNN-IBN, IndiaTV and other channels were warned not to be outspoken against Modi.

Pro-Modi corporate grip seems to be tightening. Last week Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and an open Modi supporter announced one of the biggest deals (worth US $678 million) in the country’s media industry. His Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) has acquired majority stakes in Network18 Media & Investments Ltd and TV18 Broadcast Ltd, two of the major media companies in India. The move has already triggered a series of resignations by top-level journalists working for channels with tie-ups with those companies.

Another aspect of the southern blitzkrieg was Modi’s multi-faceted media campaign involving print and electronic media, social networks, mobile telephony, hoarding boards, and even viral 3D holograms. BJP spent over IRs 5,000 crores for the purpose, four times that of the rival Congress party. Some analysts noted that Modi’s brazenly aggressive media strategy resorted to carpet bombing voters with messages, effectively blocking out other parties across media platforms.

BJP’s campaign approach, unprecedented in Indian elections, tapped on the powers of new media. It exploited the internet and mobile telephony to directly connect with voters. Brand Modi blazed across Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ Hangout, among others, with a large following. Supporters dominated political discourse online and on social media. Hate speech and threat against dissenting journalists were common online and in some cases, articles critical of Modi were forced to pull down.

The case of online censorship or bullying is a serious issue that resonates with our own experience, and involves non-journalists too. Take, for example, the death threat against our Home Minister made by a civil servant on Facebook recently and his subsequent arrest. In India, a youth has just landed in court for commenting that Christians in Goa will lose their identity if Modi won.

The outgoing Indian government did try to polish the internet, but there are genuine fears that Modi, with a landslide electoral victory, may tighten the control. Free speech activists have noted that he has a history of intimidating critical views and silencing journalists. Salman Rushdie, for instance, has said that Modi’s government will be “a fairly bullying government” and attacks on freedom of expression could worsen.

The Indian press, though vibrant, is far from free. The World Press Freedom Index 2014 by Reporters without Borders (RSF) describes it as suffering primarily from excessive owner control. India is ranked 140 out of 180 countries (party free), 20 points below Nepal.

There are dark shadows over the vibrant Indian press. It does not look neat, certainly not from Nepal, home to many journalists trained or educated in India whose media signals flood directly in our living rooms. The world’s largest democracy deserves not only a free press but also a quality press. It cannot and should not delay reforms to address the emerging issues in the media sector.

Published in Republica, 5 June, 2014