January 8, 2019

Who is real Opposition in Democracy: Media or Political Parties?

Ramanand, Mohammed Iqbal Omar

Freedom of the press is the essence of political liberty which in turn is the essence of democracy. The press has been asserted quite liberally to be the fourth estate of democracy due to its indispensable role in allowing dissent and ensuring accountability. While the Indian Constitution in itself does not include provisions for the freedom of the press, it is assured within the first fundamental right provided in the Constitution: the freedom of expression. However, the Constitution has also held that the freedom of speech and thus the freedom of the press are not absolute and contain eight exceptions on the freedom of speech and expression of citizens  

The role of the press as the fourth estate of democracy has been long upheld by the Supreme Court of India. The landmark judgement of the case of the Indian Express against the Union of India stands testimony to the court’s commitment to uphold the role and the rights of the press. The important point to note however is that the press can be upheld as the fourth estate of democracy when it is politically free and fulfils its role of informing citizens with truths promoting accountability in a democracy. The press very much like the judiciary has to function with neutrality and without political influence to ensure that the democratic institutions of the nations can be upheld.

The Supreme Court upheld the same in its judgement in the landmark case of Association for Democratic Reforms v Union of India wherein it is stated that “One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non-information all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce when medium of information is monopolised either by a partisan central authority or by private individuals or oligarchic organisations.” The decision also stated that “aware citizenship” is a requirement of democracy and that would not be possible without “well-informed citizens”.

The political influence in media has showcased in India, a situation wherein the “independent press” acts almost as a political entity of itself, playing a part in lobbying and decision making with regards to ministerial positions which is showcased in the Niira Radia case which was a case that brought shame to both the then ruling United Progressive Alliance government but also showcased a lack of journalistic ethics in the nation.

The infamous case was probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) wherein tapes of lobbyist Niira Radia were found wherein the ministerial positions that would be granted to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) for the United Progressive Alliance were discussed. Many prominent journalists of the time including Barkha Dutt who was then Group Editor for NDTV, Prabhu Chawla who was the then editor of India Today, Vir Sanghvi who was then advisory editorial director for Hindustan Times and many others were involved in this lobbying controversy. The Niira Radia Case was paramount in showcasing the extent of political influence and political involvement of media agencies and press editors in Indian Politics.

The influence of political leaders in the work of the free press and media can be seen openly with the situation of the press in South India especially in the State of Tamil Nadu wherein the major news agency, the Sun Group is owned by Kalanithi Maran, the grand nephew of the former Party President of the DMK, Karunanidhi. This can be seen with a plethora of media houses and newspapers across India as well wherein the stakeholders are either directly politicians or have personal and professional relationships with the stakeholders.

The collapse of the United Progressive Alliance and the 2014 landslide electoral victory of the National Democratic Alliance brought India to a nostalgic position of weak opposition wherein the political mammoth called the Indian National Congress could not function as a powerful opposition at least until after the 2018 State Legislative Elections which led to the press and media functioning almost as the country’s primary opposition.

The political bias is easily seen both for and against the National Democratic Alliance Government which has brought to a situation wherein the traditional press conferences conducted by the former Prime Ministers of India has been replaced with almost no press conferences and selected interviews by the current Prime Minister of India. This ensures that the free press would not be able to question the Prime Minister of India and hold him accountable for the larger diplomatic and political decisions taken by the executive branch of the Government.

The enhanced role of media in India comes with a risk however as there has been a global phenomenon of lack of trust of the free press among the public which can be seen explicitly in the United States and the United Kingdom. The trust of the public provides the free press with the powers and the role that it holds and a lack of trust of the press among the public could spell trouble for existing press outlets and the larger democratic idea of the freedom of the press.

The proper functioning of democracy requires a free press which can carry out its larger societal and public role. This requires trust which is being tarnished by the open showcasing of bias among the press. Addressing of which will allow for stability and accountability in both the legislative and executive branches of government.