Selling the Fourth Estate: How Free is Indian Media?

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The Thread offers context to news through EPW Archives.
17 September 2018

A reading list examining the state of freedom of press in contemporary times through EPW’s archives.


For a country that prides itself on the strength of its democracy, India’s record in upholding the freedom of press has been consistently poor. Currently, India ranks an abysmal 138 out of 180 in the Press Freedom Index — the position not having changed much for over a decade. While the current administration may seek to suppress critical reportage, structural issues have limited the Indian reporter long before the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ascendency.

This reading list examines the institutional shackles which constrain a reporter’s right to free speech, and consequently, prevent important stories from being published.   

1) Censorship Begins From Within

What do you do when the very institution you work for stifles your voice? Commenting on the Hindustan Times’ abrupt closure of four of its editions in early 2017, Samrat Choudhury’s article traces the link between employment conditions of journalists and the corresponding effect on their work. He argues that unstable working environments dissuade many journalists from speaking up against the management. The Working Journalists Act of 1955 lays down service conditions for journalists, but newspaper managements refuse to follow them.  

“Most journalists including editors are employed on contracts of three years or less, with an exit clause that permits them to leave or be fired on a notice of between one and three months. As a result, journalists have lost the courage to speak up or write about any issue that owners and managements do not want them to, including the issue of their own unstable working conditions.”

2) Balancing Freedom of Trade and Freedom of Speech

Smarika Kumar’s 2016 article examines various cases brought before the Supreme Court which have sought to regulate the dissemination of information, primarily through newspapers. Set against Reliance’s managerial takeover of Network18, this article looks at government policies and court cases since independence which have debated curtailing established newspapers’ circulation to allow entry to newer aspirants, questioning whether the freedom to trade infringed upon the fundamental right of speech and expression.

The concentration of ownership of media implies that the influence and power which result in distribution of news and culture among other forms of expression and opinion-building in the country is now vested in only a handful of people—those who own or control the media.…..Is the prevention of concentration of media ownership one such claim for freedom of speech and expression? At the other end, the freedom to trade becomes an obvious claim to consider when the issue is that of ownership of media, since ownership is patently a concern of business and trade.

3)  Who Controls the Indian Media?

What happens when businesses control the dissemination of information? Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s 2014 article is an investigative analysis of the circumstances resulting in Mukesh Ambani emerging as India’s largest media baron. Alluding to his proximity to the current government, the author sounds caution over the independence of the fourth estate.

“The consequence of RIL strengthening its association with Network18 is a clear loss of heterogeneity in the dissemination of information and opinions. Media plurality in a multicultural country like India will diminish. In particular, the space for providing factual information as well as expressing views that are not in favour of (or even against the interests of) India’s biggest corporate conglomerate will shrink, not just in the traditional mainstream media (print, television and radio) but in the new media (internet and mobile telephony).”

The free press is expected to uphold society’s civil and political freedom; however, the distribution of information in our country is neither free nor fair. The increasingly oligopolistic nature emerging in Indian media was studied by Anuradha Bhattacharjee and Anushi Agarwal. Their article provides a detailed analysis of the 12 major media houses in our country. They stress the importance of the media on matters of democratic choices, caution against corporate interests restricting a consumer access to unbiased information and also argue for greater transparency in the oligopolistic nature of the market.

Industrial houses have been investing in media companies and indirectly gaining control over them (Subramanian 2012). This reinforces the view that investors are investing in the media for their access and proximity to power and authority, and thereby also indulging in lobbying, rent-seeking behaviour—as brought out during the telecom and coal allocation scams—and even attempting to shape political and market information by influencing editorial content. Ninan (2011) has observed,

“For the Indian media, it is unquestionably the best of times and it is also, unfortunately, the worst of times. We have never seen such a flowering of TV channels and such a spreading footprint of newspaper titles, but the market is more consolidated than ever around the top few players. The quality of what we offer to our public has never been better but that same public can see that the ethical foundations of our actions have plummeted to new depths.”     

4) Where are the Legal Safeguards to Protect a Whistleblower?

A journalist is only as good as their source. Thus, maintaining their anonymity must be paramount. India, however, has a patchy record when it comes to protecting whistleblowers. Sohini Chatterjee’s 2018 article provides a case study of prevalent codes of conduct in national publications and analyses relevant court cases in the United States and the United Kingdom. She argues for reporters’ privileges to maintain source confidentiality to be protected by courts and the Parliament as a part of the fundamental right to freedom and expression.

“The stunted development of source protection privilege law in India has meant that newsgatherers’ interactions with confidential sources are coloured by ambiguity. Despite two sets of recommendations by the Law Commission of India, neither the government nor the judiciary has displayed an inclination to directly address the issue. Courts have adopted an impressionistic and ad hoc approach in deciding cases bearing upon source protection. The casualties of the quagmire are newsgatherers, sources, the public, and the spirit of a democratic nation.”


Read More:

  1. Contested Religion, Media, and Culture in India | Pradip Thomas, 2015.

  2. Who Does the Media Serve in Odisha? | Sudhir Pattnaik, 2014.

  3. Curbing Media Monopolies | Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, 2013.

  4. Quashing Dissent: Where National Security and Commercial Media Converge | Sukumar Muralidharan, 2013.   

  5. Media Follies and Supreme Infallibility | Sukumar Muralidharan, 2012.

  6. Manufacturing ‘News’ | Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, 2011

  7. Freedom of Press as an Institution | A G Noorani, 1991.


No Image
The Thread offers context to news through EPW Archives.
17 September 2018