Instead of batting for vested interests, media must be proactive to protect democracy

By Aparna Lal

The press is often referred to as the fourth pillar of democracy because of the notion that the media as a watchdog, as a guardian of the public interest, and as a conduit between the government and the governed plays a crucial role in shaping a healthy democracy. It makes us aware of various social, political and economic activities happening around the world. It is like a mirror, which reflects the bare truth and harsh realities of life.

The media is a vital player in the politics of the country. Politicians are often wary of journalists who succeed in uncovering corruption, the abuse of power and assorted malfeasance. Policies have changed, reforms initiated and corrupt politicians and officials ousted partly because of media exposes.

Media reminds the politicians of their unfulfilled promises made at the time of elections. The exhaustive coverage by TV news channels during elections help people, especially illiterates, in electing the right persons. This also compels the politicians to abide by their promises in order to remain in power. The media also exposes the loopholes in the democratic system, which ultimately helps the government to fill in the gaps and make the system more accountable, responsive and citizen-friendly.

In a democracy, there are three indispensible functions of the media: First, it must provide a rigorous accounting of people in power; second, it must provide reliable information and wide range of informed opinions on important social and political issues of the day; and third, it must be unbiased and neutral.

Media as propaganda

Unfortunately, increasing commercialisation has created stiff competition in the media and in order to outdo each other, many media houses are not focusing on responsible and serious journalism, but openly resorting to sensationalism, besides promoting paid new culture. What is more disturbing is the fact that most of the media houses in India are now under the control of a few vested business and political interests. Hence, the democratic interests of most of the citizen are being undermined by the private selfish interests of the powerful few.

In some instances, the media is even being used as proxies in the battle between rival political groups, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus. In such an atmosphere, volatile speech overpowers sober debate and social trust is replaced by suspicion.

Considering the media’s potential in building up mass opinion, selective or excessive coverage can kill an issue and create a non-issue. Repetition of the news, especially sensational ones, breeds apathy and insensitivity. It leads to loss of public confidence in the media and also in democratic institutions.      

More proactive media

The need of the hour is that the media uses its enormous power and reach to play a more proactive role in the improvement of democracy. It should never forget its watchdog status and scrutinise all the activities related to the government/ political parties, including proposed and passed bills, scheme announced and implemented and scams and corruption charges without any bias and political influence.

Media is an important tool to push for political reforms in the country despite the constraints on editorial freedom and various other challenges. Notwithstanding the pressure from the government through various agencies or tools under its command, the media will have to focus on internal functioning and funding of the political parties besides keeping an eye on the decisions taken by the government.

(Courtesy Association for Democratic Reforms)