Pragoti is pleased to publish an interview with P Sainath, renowned journalist (rural affairs editor of the The Hindu) and an expert on rural affairs, development and media by V Sivadasan, All India Joint Secretary, SFI. The interview is wide ranging and delves on various issues such as democratisation of the media, media priorities, ethical journalism, alternate media, agrarian reporting - all passionately dwelt by Sainath, one of the most accomplished journalists in the country. Ed - a Malayalam translation is attached with the post.
Your interventions as a journalist has greatly influenced the development discourse in India. Could you explain to our young readership, the role and significance of media in the project of development?
The media are not the generators of development. It depends on what the media presume as their social role. Today for instance, the media see as their role as a representation of the corporate world as it believes in its ideology. In a different time, in a different period, Indian journalism was a child of the freedom struggle. It saw the improvement of mass conditions as its goal. So you have to choose between these two things. What do you identify with? So you identify with most people and do people oriented journalism or you identify with cooperate world and ruling class and do that kind of journalism?
So in fact where the media’s role was very positive on some occasions on development issues, it still can be, but increasingly its role on development issues is to simply speak as a mouth piece of the corporate world. On any of the big issues whether it is the POSCO deal, whether it is displacement from land, large scale displacement of human beings, they have always taken the side of the corporate elite in the last few years. So that has been their role increasingly switching between being journalists and being stenographers. Increasingly the media now function as stenographers to the powerful. If the media were to take interest in development from the point of view of what ordinary people would see as development, then the media can make very serious intervention, they can make very serious changes, they can make a very serious impact, if they do take interest.
Interest exists. Lot of young journalists working, most of the young journalists I know, would love to do something related to development. The news papers, magazines and channels would give very little or marginal spaces to them. So there is the capability, the ability is there, the will is there in the journalists. But it is not on the agenda of corporate media at all .To the extent they speak of development, they speak of large scale infrastructure which are to be implemented as corporate projects. They get to talk of development in terms of more cars selling in rural India.
So the vision of what you see as development, is dramatically different, these are the two choices that we have now. There was a time by the way in the 1970s or 1980s, when the media thought of development in the same way that the government thought of development. In that sense the media is consistent. The last 30-40 years, it’s been taking its lead from the establishment. So when the establishment in India spoke of socialism - whatever they meant by that- then the media also was subservient to that. Now the difference today is that when the government speaks very right wing philosophies of markets and privatization , the media don’t merely echo the government they go far ahead of the government . They will take the positions the government can’t openly take. So these are the divisions in the media’s views of development.
But the dominant sections of the media - the owners, the proprietors, the advertisers, the editors, their view of development is a very class based ruling elite view of development. Therefore there will always be a very strong tension and struggle within the media, between those who look at it differently and those who look at it from the the establishment viewpoint.
The media these days have been subjected to very serious criticism. The so called free media is hardly free from profiteering and hegemony of the ruling class ideas. How do you assess the increasing subjugation of the Indian press and television channels to vested interests?
See, The Indian media is a free media, they are free, they are politically free, but they are imprisoned by profit and commerce. No one is shooting you for saying something in India in journalism. But you’re a prisoner of profit. So even if they are politically free, they don’t make use of the political freedom because their first priority is profit. If profit entails loss of freedom they will accept it because anything but profit matters. Now every time they do some crime like “paid news” or anything else and if there is criticism of them, they respond it to by saying “you are attacking press freedom”.
The press doesn't have the freedom to loot and extort me. This is not freedom of press. This is freedom of purse. So whenever they want to make money, they say this is a business - we are on a business, etc. When they are criticized they say no...we want special rights because we are the press, we have freedom of press. When you are defending your privileges, you claim freedom of press. But then you are telling your journalist, this is a business. You go out and do what I tell you to do. The hypocrisy of freedom of the press is that freedom doesn’t apply to journalist. That is why AJ Liebling said 70 years ago in the US, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one”, those who own the press have freedom. This freedom is not for the journalist, it is not for the society, it is not for the readers or viewers of these channels. It is for the corporate interests that control them. So it is very interesting when they are defending their position, they defend it on the high moral ground of press freedom. The rest of the time they are operating not as guardians of freedom but as extortionists and profiteers. That is the hypocrisy involved and one day that will boomerang very badly on all of us , so this is the thing, .you have free press……it is free, it is not that there are any editors in prison ,there are no prisoners of conscience in the media happening yet.
But the freedom we have is very limited. It belongs to the bosses, not to the journalists, not to the readers, not to the audience. It is a very limited freedom and the freedom related on your capacity to pay for it. How much money you have and your equation with power. There is also a real freedom of press in India that also has to be said. The fact that is real freedom of press is that there is still a space for dissident voices. I can function in the press, hundreds of people like me also function in the press. So we have a space. There is some freedom even for the journalist and a particular kind of freedom exists. But that space is shrinking. I won’t say that I have no freedom. I have enjoyed lot of freedom as a journalist in India working for different publications but I am saying if I look at how was it twenty years ago and how it is now, then the space overall is shrinking. It is becoming more and more homogenized, corporatized and those who have anti corporate views will find it increasingly difficult to find employment in the media.
The phenomena of ‘paid news’ reported by you in Maharashtra has evoked varied responses from various quarters. There has been a demand for controlling such practices. What should be the proper balance between such restrictions and the freedom of expression of the journalist?
What is “paid news”? Paid news is run to pass off an advertisement, a piece of propaganda and advertisement...pass that as news, pretend that it is news, that is “paid news”. Paid news does not disclose to the reader that this information has been paid for.
Suppose you are a quack doctor you are putting out medicine which will cure asthma or tuberculosis. It may be fake. I write the story saying this man has some found cure for asthma. He has done this, he has done this, and he is a genius. You buy this; you will be liberated from asthma. I do not tell them that I have taken three lakh rupees from the advertiser - that is paid news. But during elections - paid news becomes twice as dangerous, because it is not only harming the readers' information, it is harming the readers' electoral democratic rights. It is concealing from the reader - if X is standing in an election, X is paying me as a news paper to run positive information on X...According to how much X pays I will run so much positive information on you..The reader will not even know the name of X's opposing candidate in the election unless I mention the candidate to attack him. His name will not appear. So it’s what vice president Hameed Ansari calls a double weapon. Paid news destroys the concept of a free and fair and balanced press. That the same time the paid news undermines the very basis of electoral democracy because it prejudices and interferes with the free and fair election. It allows huge use of money power without accountability. So in elections paid news becomes even more damaging but it is not only in elections that there is the phenomenon of paid news. There is paid news every day in the news paper and channels. If journalism does not wipe out paid news; paid news will wipe out journalism.
Amartya Sen researching on the Bengal famine had opined that a free press and media if present would have prevented famines from happening. How do you assess the comment with regard to the free media of Independent India? What has gone wrong?
There is some truth in what he says, but my point is that this is truer of a historic period than it is today. He is right that countries with the free press have tended not to have famines whereas other countries have famines which you don’t even know about. But this was true of a different era and a different period in our history. He is also right in that, if there is a very big famine in India, the media cannot ignore it. So that is also correct. In a totalitarian state, the media can ignore it or the media will not dare report it, if the government says so. However this is a very simple and flattering analysis of today’s media.
The thing is that we should not take this point.. beyond a point. It creates the impression that media are some alert guardians of public interests, which they are not.
Secondly in free India you had the situation pretty close to a famine like in Bihar in 1967. We simply had not declared a famine. Where Amartya Sen is right we have not had the Bengal famine kind of famine, three million lives dead.. that we did not have in independent India..that is correct. And he links it up to his other theory that the democracy will not have famine, I consider this point broadly. However I am saying its very dangerous point to take whole and sole to your heart, because you will be shocked. Firstly there have been many very nearly a famine situation or famine situations which we have not declared as such. There have not been the mass famine deaths in India, yes; but famine condition or near famine condition have been there. I can show you many districts in many parts in many states, where the Collector of the district has implemented the famine code; you know there is a famine code. When there is a famine, they will issue the red card, green card. They will implement the famine code to look after the public. Now here is a very peculiar thing. Even in the 1990s, we had collectors implementing the famine code, but they can’t declare the situation as that of a famine because declaring famines is politically explosive. So they are operating as if there is a famine but explicitly they will not declare the famine. Now these are the kind of anomalies, you will be running into. That is why I am saying this position is broadly true but it doesn’t take into account, the number of anomalies. I was in Palamu in 1993 and the then Collector, Divisional Commissioner of Palamu was implementing the famine code. When I reached there the situation was extremely bad . Why did he implement the famine code ? Because he felt it is necessary to save human lives. But he didn’t declare it. If he declares it they could transfer him from there the next day. So now, that is the politics of the declaration of the famine and drought. Today every MLA wants his constituency declared as drought affected even when there is a no drought. Because he thinks more programmes will come, more money will come every day. There are Collectors, who want to declare their districts as Naxal affected because then 20-30 crores will come for police upgradation for which you don’t even have to have proper accounting. So that is the politics of the declaration of a crisis, whether it is famine or drought whatever is it.
So I will say that Amartya Babu’s point is historically valid. It has truth in it but I would be careful not to take it too far and too literally. And secondly which is not contradicting his point but which is the problem with the media, the other problem with media which Sen recognizes in some of his writings, they are nowhere concerned with everyday hunger. They want spectacular things. So may be famine will get attention but India’s problem is not large scale famine. India’s problem is large scale hunger. Wide spread hunger in the very large section of the population. So we can be pleased that our media will not allow a famine but it will allow six hundred, seven hundred million people to go to bed hungry every day! So I don’t think that is a matter of pride.
The other problem is that the media has become less democratic .
The media serves democracy better when the media is more democratic. When the media has become more corporate, more elitist, more undemocratic and autocratic, then how will they serve democratic process? That’s going to be difficult. Their interest lies in not being democratic. So these are the various contradictions, but on the whole, yes; I say that countries with a free press are less likely to have a famine than others. That point historically is valid but don’t get too carried away by that.
The agricultural sector continues to support the vast majority of the India’s population while agrarian distress has reached levels unprecedented. Bringing this sad state of affairs into the public domain ,has been one of the most significant achievements of your journalistic interventions. How do you assess the response of the state and political leadership to this?
The state is a sophisticated animal. At one level it will talk about bringing relief to the poor and all these things. In fact the prime minister visited Vidarbha after The Hindu reported how many suicides were taking place. But now the situation is pretty much back to what it was before the prime minister’s visit. The problem with this is you can bring immediate relief in one or two measures, but you’re not willing to change the policies that are creating distress. Trying to create relief packages for this distress without addressing the anti-farmer, anti-people policies, is like trying to dry the floor with all the taps open and running. That will not work. It will bring minor relief now and then but the policy is creating the distress. So every drought distress or flood distress you can mitigate. But if you have got long term policies that are creating the distress then it is very difficult to mitigate.
What mitigation you do will be very temporary, transient and then it will slide back. When the situation there is such that the people are angry like in 2004, when there is a lot of public hanger over what is happening to farmers, then they declare the constitution of National Farmers Commission under Dr. MS Swaminathan. That National Farmers Commission gave a series of recommendations, none of which the government has adopted. The government has done almost nothing. They set up the commission, they put very eminent people. The very eminent people have given the recommendations but you won’t touch the recommendation. Sharad Pawar has never once moved to see that the National Farmers Commission Reports are placed in parliament for discussion and for adoption as policy, nothing. Sharad Pawar has not visited one house hold where a farmer has committed suicide. He is the agriculture minister. But he has been to every IPL, final, semi final, IPL 1, IPL 2 , he went to Durban to attend but he has not been in his home state of Maharashtra ,he has not visited the house hold of a farmer who was committed suicide, these are the sort of people who run our country.
You have made your journalistic pursuits in the backdrop of an increasingly commercialized media. Could you throw some light on the challenges faced by a journalist who holds on to his ideals in principled manner?
I guess I am lucky, to see 13-14 years as a freelancer. The Hindu gives me considerable freedom - a great deal of freedom. They don’t even know where I am today. They give me a lot of freedom . Before I was a free lancer, I worked ten and half years with RK Karanjia and Blitz, who gave me incredible amount of freedom so in that sense my case should not be see in as an example or as rule but as an exception. It is very difficult for a journalist in general to survive the onslaught of the commercial ethics of the media. The media place that above everything else. There are TV channels that will send a team, entire crew, to the Cannes film festival to not even cover the film festival and to cover Aishwarya Rai at the film festival. They will spend a fortune on that but they will not send a correspondent 150 kms from their office to cover the drought, to cover the farmer’s suicide, they will not send a correspondent. What will it cost? It will cost Rs2000 to go and come. But they send crews to cover Aishwarya Rai in Cannes. This is the commercial ethics. What can the journalist do in such a situation?
There are hundreds of examples I can give you like that. Their priorities are something else. Until the Dantewada massacre took place; for five days, I saw different news papers. I was in Marathwada and took a bus to Mumbai, took a flight to Kolkata, from Kolkata, took a flight to Delhi. What was on the front page of the all the news paper; everywhere there was the Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik story. Whether it was a Marathi paper, English paper or a Hindi paper, that was on the front page . Only Dantewada could take Sania and Shoaib away from the front page. After Dantewada was over, Sania and Shoaib came back to the front page. That is the commercial ethics. How does the journalist fight them? The challenge before the journalist is, how do I increase the public space in this private column? That is the challenge. How do you argue your case within the news paper or the channel to see that the issues get more space? How do you make yourself indispensable to that organization so that it has to carry what you say? These are the challenges before a good journalist or a well meaning journalist. That is an everyday struggle. Many of these battles, you lose. Some of these battles you will win but be prepared to lose quite often. You have to accept that there is no unilinear path to success. If there is a unilinear path to success, there is no need for struggle. You and I would not be having this discussion. So the truth is that it is extremely difficult but it is not impossible.
The students and youths of the country constitute the most media exposed sections among the Indian population and the influence of the media on formulating their choices about life is on the increase. How do you perceive this process?
It works at many levels. I have been teaching journalism for 25 years. I find the journalism students, people coming to the profession – the extra ordinary thing about journalism even today is that the people came in, out of a feeling of idealism. If you want money you go for advertising. Why did people come to journalism? They come to because they have ideals, they want to do something, young people want to change the world. They want to address issues in the society, they want to connect to the ordinary people. So they come to journalism. Then they go and work in the newspapers and face the utter cynicism inside the newspapers.
The journalist who wants to write about deprivation, who wants to write about displacement, who wants to write about malnutrition, immediately that young person will be branded. This person is an activist, this person is not a journalist. This journalist who may run to Madhya Pradesh to cover hunger deaths and may run to Vidarbha to cover farmers suicide, will be called an activist. In the same room, there is a fellow who has not left the office for twenty years, outside the office hours, who will sit there every day creating news from corporate and company press releases but he is a professional, because he is delivering what the corporate media wants. The person writing about the social issues is not delivering what the corporate media want. Therefore they call him an activist. Now the person who is delivering what corporate media want, we should call him a corporate activist. He has been doing this for twenty years; activism for the corporate world. Why don’t you call him an activist? We have turned the definition of normal, upside down. That which is abnormal, “stenography as journalism” that we call professional. That which should be normal, journalism about peoples’ life, that we brands as abnormal. That is the ideological hold of the corporate world over the media. Black is white, white is black. Because it says so!
What can the progressive sections of the society do to achieve the true democratization of the media, the media which will speak out the true popular concerns?
First of all, the answer is in your question. The drive has to be for democratization of the media. The media cannot be exempted from the rules of the democracy, from the rules of transparency. Today the media are going around doing and correctly, they are all using the right to information act (RTI) on politicians. I needed an RTI on Ashok Chavan, I got his election account and I wrote about it. But if we are going to do RTIs on politicians, there should also be transparency on what the media do, what decision they take, what money they are making and from whom they are getting money. I think public have the right to know that also. Why should there be no RTI for the media? I am saying if you have been paid six crores by a political party to do its election campaign, your readers have a right to know. I think that should come under RTI. The public must struggle, must fight against monopoly, it should demand diversity in voices in the media. Most importantly, we must support and strengthen public broadcasting. I think some of the best political discussions are appearing on Lok Sabha TV, because the questioner unlike these idiots in the other channels, is usually somebody who knows politics, somebody who understands something.
So very often here, in major channels you are getting people who are clueless. They can’t find Dantewada, if you show them a map of that region. They are asking questions without knowing any background history or anything. I find some of the best political discussions in the Lok Sabha TV. That happened partly because of Somnath Chatterjee’s influence. He opened up the space. He allowed a certain degree of freedom. For whatever be the reason, it is better because it is not there to make money. There is no driving commercial need for LokSabha TV and therefore, there is no need to put rubbish on air. So sometimes, people will put rubbish for political reasons but otherwise it has serious discussions. So democratization of media means that there should be a strong good public broadcasting. And if the Centre can have a big channel, let the states also have their channels. Let us have be a public broadcasting system where the challenges are discussed and there should be a independent public broadcasting with trust running it like you are trying to do with Prasar Bharathi.
If you do not defend your democratic rights they will not be waiting for you..they will go. So it’s not just enough that you have a democratic process but you have to constantly review, constantly fight for preserving your rights, so the public have to the fight for the democratization of society and the democratization of the media. Second I say they can demand public legislation to ensure that there is no excessive drive towards monopoly, third we need to strengthen the public broadcast, whether it’s like Lok Sabha TV or the All India Radio.
Every major nation in Western world, other than the USA has a strong public broad casting system like ABC in Australia, CBC in Canada, BBC in UK. In USA, there were very good public broad casts like National Public Radio which had been smashed by conservative pressure in the last twenty years. They had themselves become relatively conservative. We need to fight for public broadcasting, then we also need public intervention in the media, you have a right as the public to protest or to demand certain things on your media, because the media was created by the people in this country, it was created by the freedom struggle. You have the share of that legacy. Journalism is for the people, not for the share holders.
It was not created by share holders. It was created by the Indian people, was created by the freedom struggle. Therefore all people have a right to express their views, to participate in journalism in this country. It cannot become a narrow sphere reserved for the private interests.
In the context of the main stream media being under the tight grip of the neoliberal forces, How do you assess the alternative media?
India has a long tradition of an alternative media. Till 1947, the mainstream Indian media was alternative media because it was the alternative to the imperialist media of Britain.
But increasingly in the last 30-40 years, there has been a concentration of the media in the hands of a small section of ruling elites. As it happened, there have been alternatives springing up all over the country. I think that we have no luxury to participate only in one forum. We have to fight at every front. I will participate in the alternative media. I will also participate in the mainstream media. I am not going to vacate the mainstream media and leave it to the big bosses. No. Why should I make their life easy. Fight for your rights in big media and continue your support for the alternative media.
As I spoke today in the morning, those few, who complain about the media, you must subscribe to at least three alternative journals, people run alternative journals who do so with very little money. But they bring important information. So if you want to complain about the media; show me, are you subscribing to the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW)? Are you subscribing to the Frontline? There are many small journals in this country that provide very valuable information but lose money. We have to support and strengthen them. The South especially Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh - these states have a long and strong tradition of subscribing to and supporting small journals.
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