A Delicate Handshake
Media Ownership - Politics of Convenience
“Free press is essential to free society”
Media is one of the potent tools to launch a robust political narrative in any society. The information that is relayed and then consumed by the audience has a direct bearing on the public opinion. This information is critical for a democracy to survive and dissent to thrive. However, in India, there has been a worrying trend in recent times, when media has, more often than not, come under scrutiny for drifting away from its purpose to relay information and refrain from catering to any specific interests.
The association of power with media goes back a long way. Control of media has been instrumental in manufacturing public consent and controlling dissent. This control of the information space can happen through a variety of channels. Direct control by imposing strict laws and legislation that limit the scope of what can be reported, influence through state funding such as for advertisement or covertly by the way of owning the media. The latter is a subtle and innocuous way of controlling the political discourse and limiting critical reportage. Additionally urging media outlets to perform self-censorship through several pressure strategies happens to be a tool for control.
Media Owners With Political Links
The Indian media landscape has changed significantly over the last decade. With the advances in technology, the media industry has been burgeoning like never before and expanded its reach, in terms of the number of outlets, whether in television, radio or newspaper. While this has set an impressive trend for market growth, the underlying consequences of this rapidly growing media landscape has thrown up a few challenges as well. The people with access to the corridors of power have been successful in influencing dissemination of information through media houses, by partially owning these outlets, and tangentially influencing the way news are presented. Clearly, ownership of the media significantly affects the perspectives presented in the reporting and bias becomes inevitable in such circumstances.
Within the sample of this study, as many as ten media owners have direct or indirect links with politics while some of them even represent a political party. There are countless others however, who have refused to declare their political affiliations, but yet own media companies. Between them, media owners with political links control a sizeable share of viewership/readership.
Since August 2016, Dr. Subhash Chandra, Zee News’ co-owner, is an independent Member of Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, though he got elected with the help of Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP lawmakers in the state of Haryana. Zee Media Corporation Limited (ZMCL) owns Zee News, which is among the top four Hindi news channels in the country and largely perceived to be sympathetic to the BJP, and its brand of politics.
Rajeev Chandrashekar is a member of BJP, the ruling Bhartiya Janata party and represents it as a member of the Rajya Sabha. He pioneered Republic TV, which commands a sizable percentage of the English news segment. Although he formally resigned from the board of the broadcaster, citing his involvement in the political party as a reason for his disengagement, the channel has never been able to shake off its perception of being a BJP-friendly television news outlet. Chandrasekhar’s Jupiter Capital Private Limited also directly owns two south Indian news channels – Asianet News in Malayalam and Suvarna News in Kannada.
Various regional news channels are also partly or wholly owned by politicians. One of the reasons that politics and media are closely intertwined in these regions could be the fact that regional political parties are playing an important role in India as they are particularly strong in reaching the mass, and national parties like the Congress and the BJP, partner with regional players during elections. These strong political outfits eventually chose to have their own mouthpieces, the media outlets. There are quite a few examples: Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, is a former member of the Biju Janata Dal, BJD, a regional party in Odisha and has been in power for five terms. Today ‘Jay’ Panda is the BJP national vice president and official spokesperson of the party and in addition is a co-owner of Odisha TV. Mahendra Mohan Gupta, owner of Dainik Jagaran – a Hindi newspaper, is a member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha. Supriya Sule, director of Sakal – a Marathi newspaper, is an Indian politician from the Nationalist Congress Party and member of the Indian Parliament in the Lok Sabha. Another politician, Himanta Biswa Sarma, a Minister in the BJP Government in the state of Assam, is the husband of Riniki Bhuyan Sarma, who owns and operates the news television channel News Live.
It is starkly evident that media is owned by those people who have direct access or are in close proximity to power. Their media channels are likely to rather focus on influencing and creating opinions than on the unbiased dissemination of information. The ownership by people with political connections could easily impact news dissemination, leading to a perception of being potential propaganda machines that serve the agenda of a certain political ideology or thought.
Dependence of Media on Government Advertising
Apart from the direct ownership, advertising can present another form of potential control over editorial content since more and more media show greater dependence on advertisement revenues. Therefore, it is probably fair to say that Indian media, these days, is rather profit than conviction driven.
This dependency becomes highly problematic, when media houses earn additional money through carrying, in particular, government advertisements precisely this contributes to the spread of their agenda. Through the media houses’ financial dependency on state advertisements to toe the line of producing a favourable coverage for the government.
A transparent and independent coverage of content gets compromised a great deal by ways of such ‘soft pressure’. Often, there is an invisible pressure, for a newspaper, or a television channel to articulate the point of view of the government in a contentious issue.
According to 2017 figures, the Department of Audio-Visual Publicity, the government department that allocates government advertisements to print outlets, spends as much as INR 21.34 million / USD 0.32 million for Hindi and INR 14.09 million/ USD 0.202 million for English print advertising. Government advertising therefore is the bread and butter for many but in particular for smaller Hindi newspapers allowing the government to exploit its advertisement spending and the subsequent financial dependency of media outlets as a means of control. The financial struggles of several media companies to sustain with their business model makes them more vulnerable to such dependencies and therefore control mechanisms.
Potentially, if it so desires, the government of the day can give advertising to those whom they would like to reward. And conversely, those newspapers, which have earned their ire, can easily be punished by the government by cutting down on the advertising being given to them. Room for influencing the public advertising allocations result from the process though which it is determined and which lacks accountability. It relies upon circulation data approved by the DAVP (Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity). These figures depend on a certified Chartered Accountant’s testimony, which establishes the ‘official’ number of copies printed. However, there is no scope for a physical check of the number of newspapers printed in India as the numbers of newspapers and TV channels have massively increased throughout the years. As per the latest figures, there are 380 plus TV news stations and 118,239 publications, which include 17,239 dailies.
Also in TV, as the distribution of government advertising is based on ratings, there is room for doubt because these ratings are established without any transparency or accountability by an industry-owned association. Moreover, the audience shares of the top four TV channels are extremely close to each other and critics allege that the allocation of government advertising on TV is arbitrary.
On top of ‘official’ state advertising comes the one of political parties and it is no surprise that BJP, the ruling party, is the biggest advertiser in the past five years. According to the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) the party had 22,099 insertions (number of times an ad is aired on TV) in less than one week (between November 12 to 16, 2018), which was almost twice as much as the second largest advertiser in the country – Netflix. BJP ads ranked number one across all channels in the five states that went into assembly elections at the end of 2018 — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. The BJP ranked number two for the preceding week, while the Congress party did not even feature in the top-ten list.
As an obvious result, media owners, quite aware of the political leverage through advertising, toe the official government’s and BJP’s line both in TV and print. There is clearly less coverage of the opposition.
Need to regulate political capture of the media
The increasing control of the media by the government and the ruling party is an ubiquitous phenomenon that has come in handy to have a hold on the public. Apart from stifling the discourse and limiting the freedom of opinion, it has also blinded the people from knowing their real interests. The political capture of mass media happens by governments, political parties and big corporations and creates a worsening situation for those who are at the margins of the society. It leads one to the most significant question of whether there should be a legislation banning big corporations and politician to own media. As the space for critical commentary is shrinking at a fast pace there is an urgent need to address the issue.
Because it is mainly invisible to the publics’ eye, media ownership is one of the least appreciated factors contributing to the threat of the press freedom and compromising of ethical journalism. According to the Free Press Unlimited the ownership of media by people who have vested interests has enabled the governments and corporations “to develop a centralized information strategy that amounts to a modern form of propaganda whereby all important media are speaking a similar vocabulary, demonizing the same enemies, and presenting the same arguments in support of the leadership’s actions”.
Today, there are no regulatory safeguards against political control over media in India. The Indian laws do not restrict political ownership in television or print media with the exception of radio, where political parties or members thereof are disqualified from applying for a license to operate a radio station. However, radio is barred from broadcasting independent news. There is no mandatory requirement to disclose political affiliations of the owners or of their family members.
A pre-Independence history of press freedom in India
Retrieved from The Indian Express on 28th May 2019
Media Coverage of the 1943 Bengal famine Retrieved from Revolvy on 28 May 2019
History of freedom of the press in India after independence Retrieved from Shodhganga on 28 May 2019
BJP is Leading Advertising Brand on Indian TV Retrieved from TheWire on 28 May 2019
Indian journalist say they are intimidated, ostracised if they critise Modi and the BJP Retrieved from Reuters on 28 May 2019
In Modi's India, journalists face bullying, criminal cases and worse Retrieved from The Washington Post on 28 May 2019
Indian Journalism Under Increasing Political Control Retrieved from Huffpost on 28 May 2019
What's wrong with the Indian Media? Retrieved from DW on 28 May 2019