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In this article, Vardhan Shenoy discusses whether the Indian regulatory framework resolves the credibility crisis in the Indian Media.


“The Fourth Estate”, “Watchdog in a democracy”, “Voice of the People”, “Pillar of a Democracy” are some of the usual terms associated with the role of media in a working democracy. The modern times have seen a huge breakthrough in the reach of media with the rise of new forms, especially of social media. People now have access to information like never before with all news updates from across the world at their fingertips. It thus becomes all the more necessary that the media be responsible and provide credible information to its viewers while reporting. Has that been the case?

It is undisputed that media has the most potent influence on public opinion. It is thus the responsibility of the media to keep the citizens informed of the state of governance. As the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards of the News Broadcasters Association[1] also recognizes, media is meant to expose the lapses in the government and to give the public a sense of involvement in the process of governance.

Traditionally, successive governments have always sought to control the media. Such attempts are being supported by those of religious, financial and other actors who are investing substantial financial resources to advance their own interests at the expense of the larger concept of public interest. As a result, we now see a reduced quality of India’s public discourse. The rapid expansion of media has ironically led to a shrinking of the public sphere and the much-needed space for dissent. This is producing a growing crisis of credibility in the Indian media. Paid news, misuse of Government controlled broadcast units, the filing of defamation suits against journalists in the recent years amongst many others, are seen as attempts to control, manipulate and even intimidate media.

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India is on the cusp of both economic and social change and is considered to be one of the emerging Global superpowers. The time has come when some introspection by the Indian media is required to correct certain defects and thus overcome the crisis of credibility, thereby assisting India’s growth in this period of transformation.

Growth of Indian Media

Historically, media was born as an organ of the people against the feudal oppression. In Europe, the print media played an important role in transforming a feudal society into a modern one. The print media was widely used to prepare and organize the people during the French and American Revolutions. The thoughts and teachings of great thinkers from various part of the world were available to the people through media. Even during India’s struggle for the freedom, leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Jawaharlal Nehru used the media extensively to reach the masses.

Traditionally, in the rural areas, the radio broadcast medium has been very popular since it reaches the remote parts of the country and it is very simple to use. The government broadcasts, weather-related information via radio channel which is very essential for the farmers, similarly the warnings related to flood is broadcasted near the coastal areas for the fishermen. The government also uses it to popularize its schemes related to rural areas. The present Prime Minister Narendra Modi has effectively used this medium for his Mann Ki Baat’ a programme in which he addresses the people of the nation on All India Radio, Doordarshan etc.

In the urban areas, Print and Television media has had deeper penetration. However, the new kid on the block- Digital media is the one to watch out for, in the age of smartphones. The internet has indeed made it possible to disseminate information and ideas in real time across the globe. The media has undoubtedly evolved and become more active over the years. Mass media has a great influence on human life in the present century. They have provided information and entertainment to people across countries.

The present-day social media has had a democratizing effect on government and institutions. It has been used repeatedly for seeking feedback, the pronouncement of public policy, issue-based and generic discussion and brand. It has given the citizens, a new platform to express their views regarding various policies affecting public life. Social media has been extensively used by government authorities for complex evacuation processes, crisis communications etc.

Media and good governance in a democracy

To understand the role of media as the voice of people in good governance, one must first understand the concept of governance and then as to what constitutes good governance. Governance is not a new concept as it is as old as human civilization itself. Simply put “governance” means the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented).[2] Government is only one of the actors in governance. Other actors involved in governance like Multinational Corporations, Non-Governmental Organizations, Trade Unions, Media etc. may also play a direct role in the decision making or in influencing the process of decision-making by the Government. The number of actors involved in governance varies depending on the level of government- local, regional or national.

So, what then is good governance? Good governance has 8 major characteristics. It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are not sidelined and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard and taken into consideration, in the process of decision-making. If the aforementioned characteristic features of good governance are analyzed, it can be seen that media plays a pivotal role in promoting good governance.

As far as our Constitution is concerned, the media has no defined role in governance. It doesn’t have the power to change any decisions made by the various organs of a state–the legislature, executive, and the judiciary. Yet, the media continues to play a vital role in the functioning of any society. It provides the crucial link between the government and the citizens and makes them both accountable for their actions. It helps form opinions and also helps the weakest in the society to amplify their voice to those responsible for their governance. But does access to information guarantee a well-informed society?

If media is to have any meaningful role in democracy and governance, it is essential that it should be free and independent from the control of the government. A free and independent media provides a key platform for the exercise of freedom of speech and expression which is guaranteed by our Constitution under Article 19(1)(a) as a fundamental right. For the exercise of such a right, it is essential that the citizens have access to balanced, reliable and trustworthy information from the media. It is based on such informed that citizens are expected to make informed choices. The media are also expected to provide a forum where a broad range of voices – opposition parties, civil society actors, independent experts and ordinary citizens – can express alternative views.

The recent years have seen attempts to control, co-opt, manipulate and even intimidate media. Contrary to its role, the media has lowered the quality of India’s public discourse. Rapid expansion has ironically led to a shrinking of the public sphere and the much-needed space for dissent. This is producing a growing, and a potentially grave crisis of credibility. The degrading quality of Indian journalism is evident in a number of ways especially- Lack of reportage on the real issues of poverty, unemployment in the society, political bias, paltry coverage of international issues etc.

India is the world‘s largest democracy. A vibrant, independent and pluralistic mass media is an important pillar of democracy in the country that facilitates adherence to democratic norms. The media requires independence from governmental, political or economic control, or from the control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of media products and programmes. There needs to be the end of monopolies of any kind and thus the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, periodicals and broadcasting stations reflecting the widest possible range of opinions within a community.

Recognising the important role of media in promoting good governance as early as 2005, the Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, observed on 3rd May every year, said-

“Independent, free and pluralistic media have a crucial role to play in the good governance of democratic societies, by ensuring transparency and accountability, promoting participation and the rule of law, and contributing to the fight against poverty. The UNESCO has decided to pay tribute to this critical role played by the media in promoting democracy and good governance by choosing ‘Media and Good Governance’ as the key theme for this year’s celebration.”[3]

It is pertinent to note that media all over the world have certain dependencies chiefly: finance and the constant need for information. It is not feasible to eliminate all different kinds of media dependencies. What needs to be done is to recognize what those dependencies are, remove those that can be eliminated and mitigate the effects of those that remain.

However, the question still remains- Is it enough, for the media to be independent, that it be free from the influence of the government? What about market-driven media?

Freedom of Press

Can one seriously speak of “good” governance while there is a continuous assault on the freedom of speech and expression in India?

The Hon’ble Supreme Court observed in Union of India v/s Association for Democratic Reforms[4] “One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non-information, all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce. Freedom of speech and expression includes right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions”. In Indian Express Newspapers v/s Union of India,[5] it has been held that the press plays a very significant role in the democratic machinery. The courts have a duty to uphold the freedom of the press and invalidate all laws and administrative actions that abridge that freedom.

Freedom of the press has three essential elements. They are:

  1. Freedom of access to all sources of information,
  2. Freedom of publication,
  3. Freedom of circulation.

Freedom of the press should not be viewed solely as the freedom of journalists to report and comment. Instead, it is strongly correlated with the public’s right of access to knowledge and information. Given the media’s crucial role in disseminating knowledge and information, it is vital that media outlets and professional associations encourage accurate, professional and ethical reporting.

Government-owned media – Use or Misuse?

Allegations of misuse of Government-owned Media are nothing new. During one of the darkest periods of Independent India – The Emergency, Smt. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister reportedly told her I&B Minister, I K Gujral that she wanted to see the radio and TV scripts of all news bulletins. Thereby, all media units were made instruments of Government propaganda. The Prime Minister was reportedly upset that government-controlled media were not giving the desired spin to the news.

The call for an autonomous public service broadcasting system in India was finally heeded in 1997, with the formation of Prasar Bharati, India’s largest public broadcasting agency. It is an autonomous body set up by an Act of Parliament and comprises Doordarshan Television Network and All India Radio, which were earlier media units of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. The Parliament of India passed the Prasar Bharati Act to grant this autonomy in 1990, but it was not enacted until 15 September 1997.

Despite being given autonomy, the state media machinery continues to be misused by successive governments. In 2014, Doordarshan and All India Radio made the first live telecast of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s address from Nagpur on account of Dussehra receiving condemnation from the Congress and the Left as a violation of norms. Meanwhile, the then Doordarshan Director General Archana Dutta defended the coverage by saying “speech was covered like any other news”. The Prime Minister also hailed Bhagwat’s speech and said that issues of social reform are very relevant today.

The fact of the matter is that no ruling government- Either the earlier UPA or the present NDA government would be willing to forego its controls over such a coveted instrument of public power.

Voices being silenced: The Chilling Effect

In media laws parlance, “chilling effect describes a situation where a speech or conduct is suppressed by fear of penalization in the interests of an individual or group especially by the filing of multi-crore defamation suits.

The Wire, a news website published by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, a non-profit Indian company, on 8th October 2017 published an investigative report titled ‘The Golden Touch of Jay Amit Shah’. The report highlighted a dramatic increase in returns of some of the businesses of Jay Shah, son of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah since Narendra Modi became Prime minister. The report was based on annual filings of Jay Shah’s companies with the Registrar of the Companies. Within hours the publication, the report went viral with over 1 lakh ‘shares’ in about a few hours. An excerpt from the report reads: “The turnover of a company owned by Jay Amitbhai Shah, son of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Amit Shah, increased 16,000 times over in the year following the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister and the elevation of his father to the post of party president, filings with the Registrar of Companies (RoC) show.”

Businessman Jay Shah filed a 100-crore criminal defamation suit in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, against reporter Rohini Singh and Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia and MK Venu, the editors of The Wire for an investigative report. Mr. Shah, proceeded to issue a statement which read: “Since the website has proceeded in making an absolutely false imputation in a highly slanted article thereby damaging my reputation I have decided to prosecute Author, Editor/(s) and the Owner/(s) of the aforesaid news website for criminal defamation and sue them for an amount of Rs. 100 crores… If anyone else republishes/re-broadcast the imputations made in the said article, whether directly or indirectly, such person or entity will also be guilty of the very same criminal and/or civil liability.”

The 100-crore defamation suit grabbed attention, not only of Indian journalists but also those across the world. The International Federation of Journalists, a global union federation of journalists’ trade unions—the largest in the world which aims to protect and strengthen the rights and freedoms of journalists and has over 6 lakh members in 139 countries issued a statement with regard to the same, which read:

“The IFJ is concerned over the misuse of the criminal defamation to harass journalists and media to stop them for investigating matters of public interest and publication of critical stories. While the IFJ is confident that the court will ensure justice, the trend of filing criminal defamation cases for critical news is a matter of concern as it puts the financial and psychological burden on media and journalists; and can create a chilling effect. The IFJ also calls for decriminalization of defamation by making defamation only civil offense.”

Mr. Sreenivasan Jain, Managing Editor of NDTV had authored a report about the business dealings of Jay Shah, the son of Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah and whether the loans handed out to his company were deserving or a result of cronyism. The Channel later took down the said report from its website for “legal vetting”. Mr. Jain who initially tweeted that it was merely a temporary takedown, later in a Facebook post described this action by NDTV as “deeply unfortunate” and that “situation like this presents journalists with hard choices”. Mr. Jain, however, chose to treat this as a “distressing aberration” only.

In retort, Ms. Barkha Dutt former anchor and Senior Journalist at NDTV in a Facebook post alleged that such axing of stories was “hardly new” at her mentor Channel. While giving examples of previous stories and interviews being taken down by NDTV, she wrote that terming such action as a mere “aberration” by her ex-colleague Mr. Jain was “a knowing falsehood”. She further alleged that while her ex-colleagues chose to stay mum beg well-versed with the facts, she was punished for speaking her mind on news-censorship which ultimately led to her quitting NDTV in January 2017.

Such instances of the axing of stories or interviews or reports prepared by Journalists by the owners of media houses are not restricted to NDTV alone and are common among other Channels too.

Issues of credibility in Social Media

Social media has been revolutionizing the way we communicate for years now. It is now also shifting the flow of discourse between government bodies and the public. According to a report by WeAreSocial and HootSuite, two leading social media marketing companies, in the year 2016 alone, 55 million new users from India joined social media, second only to China[6]. Reportedly, India has overtaken the United States to become Facebook’s largest country audience. As of July 13th, Facebook is reporting a total “potential audience” of 241 million active users in India, compared to 240 million in the United States[7]. Hence, the growth of social media users in India has been unprecedented and has thus changed the way Indians communicate with each other.

Immediate and transparent, social media has provided the public with greater control, participation, and influence over governance issues and initiatives. Crisis communications, Evacuation processes, Consultation processes have become easier because of social media use by the government. For example, consultations like the recent one by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on the much-debated issue of net neutrality was immediately circulated shared across Social Media. During operation Raahat, an operation of the Indian Armed Forces to evacuate Indian citizens and other foreign nationals during the Yemeni crisis, many approached the Ministry of External Affairs on Twitter for evacuation.

However, there are some concerns about credibility here as well. The Press Information Bureau, nodal agency of the Government of India which disseminates information to the print, electronic and new media on government plans, policies, programme initiatives and achievements, recently received a lot of flak for tweeting a photo-shopped image of the Prime Minister in a helicopter , purportedly doing an aerial survey of flood-hit Chennai which was removed quickly after questions were raised in social media about its authenticity. Former minister for power and energy, Piyush Goyal recently tweeted the government’s achievement of illuminating 50,000 km of Indian roads with LED lights. Except for one problem: the image used in the tweet was from Russia. Mr. Goyal later deleted the tweeted and thanked people and pointed that social media helped “illuminate facts”.

Most recent attempt to gag media

The Vasundhara Raje led government in Rajasthan as recently as September 6, 2017, promulgated an ordinance which prohibits investigation without prior sanction against judicial officers and public servants. The said ordinance also imposes restrictions on the media which impinges free speech and expression and can be used as a pernicious instrument to harass the media. Under the new law, the media cannot report on the accusation against such a person until the prosecution gets the go-ahead from the sanctioning authority, which may take up to six months. Such action by an elected government effectively curbs the freedom of the press, guaranteed by the Constitution of India and repeatedly reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of India.

Conclusion: The way ahead

The media in India to become an effective voice of the people in governance must be administratively and financially autonomous. What is expected of a responsible media is- to report news in-depth without opinions, to provide people with facts and facts alone, Data-driven journalism with use of statistics and verifiable data, offer plurality and diversity in voices.

The media is facing a problem of credibility, and the only way to overcome this is to ensure that they are transparent. Even then, there is a strong feeling everywhere that the media is not subject to public scrutiny; that they run stories without due consideration of the public sentiment and that they publish what their editors rather than the public want to read.

Media organizations must have editorial independence and transparent ownership. These qualities are extremely important because media independence has often been compromised by owners who do not value independent views but focus only on commercial interests. It is high time that the media in India corrected itself to regain its lost sense of credibility.


[1] Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards of the News Broadcasters Association, 2008

[2] United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific – “Characteristics of good governance”- Mr. Yap Kioe Sheng Chief, Poverty Reduction Section, UNESCAP


[4] (2002) 5 SCR 294)

[5] (1985)1SCC 641





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