By Osama Manzar
Osama Manzar, Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation, was the moderator of a panel discussion “Freedom of the Media in the times of corporatisation – a view from India” at the RightsCon 2021. The other panelists were: Prashant Kanojia, an Independent Journalist; Navkiran Natt, cofounder of The Trolley Times; and Francesca Recchia – a researcher, writer and former director of the Institute of Afghan Arts and Architecture at Turquoise Mountain, and also the editor and creative director of the Polis Project.
If you are registered at RightsCon then you can access the complete video of the panel discussion at: https://rightscon.summit.tc/t/2021/events/freedom-of-media-in-times-of-corporatization-a-view-from-india-tfhLgqixTXpEgMQGXR6Ba5
The Video is also available at the YouTube Channel of DEF: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkZxlxAXjPU
Following is the transcription of the panel discussion:
Welcome to RightsCon. This is Osama Manzar. I am from Digital Empowerment Foundation, the founder and director. The current session is about “Freedom of Media in the times of Corporatization”. Today’s topic is ironic considering the restrictions on our travel freedom. I’d say the topic doesn’t limit itself to the times of corporatization but extends itself to the times of — Covid-19, its restrictions, and varying rules and regulations in respective nations. I am accompanied by three people, who have the experience, and knowledge of the functioning of the media including trolling. We have Prashant Kanojia from India and Donal from Accra, Ghana. I asked Prashant if he has travelled to Ghana and he said he cannot, since his passport is with the Indian government and they assume he’d attempt to seek asylum in another country. That’s already an example of media freedom. I believe he writes ‘independent journalist’ because of the freedom he gets by not being a part of the established media institutions. The next panellist is Francesca Recchia, a researcher, writer, and director of the Institute of Afghan Arts and Architecture at Turquoise Mountain. She also happens to be a creative director for the Polis Project. Furthermore, we have Navkiran Natt who is from Chandigarh and has parked herself with the farmers protest. She is the founder and initiator of Trolley Times, a fortnightly newspaper introduced a few months ago at the farmers agitation site. Another great example of work in the media.
Hi, I am based in New Delhi, India. I’ve been in journalism for almost a decade but, actively I’ve been working with an organisation for the past 6 years or so. It gave me insight into how Indian media and their corporate structures are infused. In the veins of the editorial structure where it is to be assumed it is media, I personally have learned through my experience — these are advertisement organisations where the news occupies less space to sell out advertisements. Many people say, the job of the media is to share the truth or inject the fact into public domain however, these organisations in India majorly and openly propagate themselves as advertisement businesses. There is a scenario of journalists becoming independent because there is a scenario where their voices aren’t heard by the editorial structure. Nonetheless, one has to be an activist along with a journalist since one’s fight is for their space in the street and their space in the newsroom.
I am one of the founding members and creating director of the Polis Project and the former director of Institute of Afghan Architecture and Arts. The Polis project is an independent collective working at the crossroad of research, reportage and resistance. We try to establish ourselves as a space where voices of the margins, generally set aside because of primarily political reasons, to find a space of expression that is not censored or mitigated to sound acceptable. That is one of the reasons why we set it up as Prashant mentioned earlier, there’s pressure on all of us to comply, report, and recount what is acceptable. Those are also considered as limitations to set up this space where collective intelligence and a political motivation could provide the opportunity to explicitly express the urgent issues of our times, and certainly not speak on behalf of anyone. At Polis, we don’t give words to anyone because we aren’t reproducing the power structures that we’re trying to fight but, just initiating a space for people to talk for themselves. That’s how we place ourselves in the environment that holds obstacles to free expression more than the opportunities for freedom of media.
I am trained as a dentist professionally but I’ve been an activist for the past 15 years now and I began as a student activist while in school. I switched my profession and did my masters in film studies which also makes me an aspiring film scholar. Recently, the farmers movement turned me into a journalist and editor. We collectively started the newsletter — Trolley Times in December, 2020. The idea was based on the corporate media portraying the movement as a separatist movement, labelling farmers as separatists and maoists. It was important to counter the agenda since the time and movement we’re living through will not be satisfactory by just criticising the mainstream media. We have to counter it in all possible ways and that is why Trolley Time was introduced. Initially, the newsletter was introduced as an internal communication channel for the protestors because the protest sites are so big. For example, one of the sites is 25 k.m. long. Later we realised, we have to look beyond the internal communication to counter the propaganda of corporate media. Trolley Times may have certainly come out in the backdrop of corporate media becoming governments mouth-piece but, we are not just here to counter them or fact-check them instead, we have an objective to setup what good journalism ought to be and creation not reaction that drives us, the creation of democratic, constitutional and egalitarian eco’s.
Osama Manzar: Prashant, share from your personal perspective as a journalist becoming independent and overcoming the barriers in the process. Moreover, the India media, its state, the corporatization, effect of the Covid-19 and its current operations, and media in the digital era where print and television media are largely challenged by the digital presence of independent journalists and others with a voice.
Prashant Kanojia: Many people would agree with me while saying — in the past 6 or 7 years in India, the written stories, the fact-checking or maybe just a report which bothers the government at any level have been released on digital media platforms which aren’t recognised by the government but nonetheless, they are media. They have the structure required to be a media organisation and in popular culture, they are a part of the media however, they are not doing their duties. Therefore, the independent organisations aren’t funded by the capitalist structure or from the corporate side. Many would refer to the Indian media as private media but in reality, it is not private, it’s government media. The issue is most of the government organisations are getting into the private sector, the capitalist are infiltrating the whole space but the media has been infiltrated by the government. It is a vice versa in this structure because most of the media I would say, 99% of the mainstream media are working for the government and not for the people.
There are a few media organisations/groups that hold 87% of Indian media and the same groups are in close proximity with the government. When the corporate structures are in such a proximity to the government, the voices of the people are subdued. They have more editors than reporters in India and that is where the problem arises as there is more controlling than writing. Now the media organisations are employing to manage the — financials, advertisements, and defence. They aim to extract revenue from the organisation and they are not the editor but are managing the cluster from defence, the corporate aspect, or from the political structure.
It is the era of social media where the barrier has been lifted for the people reporting from the field and not from their offices located elsewhere. Now we are producing information that is relevant and not waiting for an established editor to cover the story. That is because of social media and with it, people are realising and accepting the fact that Indian media is compromised however, it is a source of entertainment in India. All these organisations are not news organisations, they are infotainment or entertainment. It is a shame on the freedom index considering we are talking about being the largest democracy. After looking at these numbers, the world will believe we’re propagating ourselves posing the question — who are we? Our media are completely compromised and they are moreover — demonising the protest culture. Our Prime Minister claims to be the watchman of this country and when the watchman sleeps, you rely on the dogs and that is what’s happening in India.
Osama Manzar: She has made a presentation and it would be interesting, what she can share with us from a global perspective and what she has accumulated at policy.
Francesca Recchia: I’d like to look into what Prashant said and look at corporatization of media in India at the moment. I’d start from data because the risk of working from the ground is that you’re always labelled as ideological and you’re noted from the part of it. Reporters without borders shared a report in 2019 called — Media Ownership Monitor. The interesting part is that the proliferation of laws that seem to regulate the Indian media space create a number of loopholes that are easily exploited, that there is very little actual control in the connection between the media, political parties, the government, and the corporate. To them, where the money comes from, whose ideas are propagated and whose ideas are censored is very much the result of a very intricate complicity of various strong powers such as the politicians, the space of money, and the space of production and distribution of news.
A few main families own the majority of the space of the Indian media. In Indian regulations, there is never a direct request of disclosing the political affiliations of those who either own media or conglomerates that belong to their own media. The connection and the complication where one is speaking from is never fully disclosed. It is important to note. The last thing is, the large media conglomerates in India have both horizontal and vertical ownerships of the media cycle. This means, as Prashant mentioned earlier, what is said by whom is controlled by the same people who decide what circulates and what doesn’t. What is in the hands of the same people is the production of news, the ownership of the outlet, and control over circulation of what the media can or cannot talk about. This results in limited production of information that people actually see since there are few families who decide what people talk about. Those who don’t have political awareness to begin with, are constantly fed by a very limited selection of what is allowed to be said. That is because of the intricate complicity between politicians, those who own the money, and those who supposedly produce news.
Osama Manzar: Is this not the scenario all over the world or generally because even though we notice independence in media yet, media largely is owned by big businesses.
Francesca Recchia: I agree. The question of the mainstream is always a question of control over the main narrative. The issue in India, at this particular moment and time is intricate because of the pressure of the government about what is said about their own performances is certainly very tight and that happens to be so because, who owns the media also has the same political affiliation of the Prime Minister. The difference between India and elsewhere is, in a generic statement — when you own a media platform, you’re not requested by the law to disclose your political affiliation allowing you to maintain a pretence of neutrality since you’re not asked. It is a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. The tracking of connivance is more complicated than elsewhere.
Osama Manzar: It is more about ethical regulation before starting with the transparency of who you are, what’s your affiliation, what’s your belongingness, background, and so on and so forth. Thank you for highlighting that unless you have those systems in place, we will continue to always have the base of the problem. It depends on the moral responsibility of the person doing it rather than the necessity of it.
Navkiran, I’d request you to let us know from your experience. As the digital revolution is happening and everyone who wants freedom of speech is going digital, you started with print fortnightly. Share your experience concerning freedom of media, and the availability of traditional and digital media at the time of the democratic crisis.
Navkiran Natt: As Osama already mentioned, the Trolley Times started within the farmers protest site. This is important to talk about the movement a bit and I’d like to mention what Francesca just said, ‘it is important for any media house to be independent. It is also an issue with today’s corporate media in India’ and for the same reason, we never labelled ourselves whether we are independent or anything. We started within a movement and we have a commitment towards the movement. We also have commitment towards certain ideologies because our corporate media which was supposed to be independent, didn’t remain independent. For us, it became a necessity. This is an additional point that I noticed while listening to Francesca.
I’ll start with the movement, and follow it by Trolley Times and why it started with print. The current farmers’ movement is in continuation of protests in Punjab since September, 2020. The central government passed three farm laws and recently on 5th June, 2021, the copies of the three laws were burned by many as it was the day these laws were first introduced last year this time. These laws not only push the farming sector into the hands of corporate houses without any safety, security, and assurance; the existing system also jeopardises the food security of the people as it legalises stocking of essential items for corporates and hence, they can control prices of essential food items such as pulses, flours, etc. Not in the distant past, we have seen people dying of hunger like during the lockdown — the first wave in India specifically. Since the economic liberalisation happened in India, almost 15,000 farmers commit suicide a year on an average. The agriculture sector also is the biggest job provider in the country. The farmers are leading a mass movement for the livelihood and food security for the majority of India. It also happens to be the home to 1/6th of the world’s population.
On the other hand, if we corporate media and mainstream print media, there’s no specific column dedicated to agriculture. The only inclusion about agriculture is — press release by the agrarian ministry and thus, no information concerning the issues of farmers. This is a big tragedy which we realised recently and it was the reason why we thought to continue the newsletter — Trolley Times, dedicated to covering the issues of agriculture, even after the movement. We are hoping to continue even though it is unclear what form we will take.
In the early days of the protest when the government and media relentlessly demonised the movement, there were very few voices to speak for the farmers. Most importantly, as the protest sites were kilometres long and consisted of old people, the messaging within the protest became a crucial need to keep everyone updated as well as keeping their spirits high. Trolley Times started as a communication channel and that’s why it is not very different from a pamphlet or such. It was decided to be printed since it could be read by the community as a whole. Our target audience initially were the protesting farmers and they are the people who still define media by the hardcopy of the newspaper. For the same reason we chose print. The applause we got on the first day from the farmers and media houses across the world was overwhelming leading to the realisation — we were able to do something that was much required. We never claimed we are the first people who came up with the idea because there were people in the past, young people, who started such initiatives from within the newspaper such as Ghadar newspaper. During recent times, we became a big or important name because of the movement we are sitting in. After the applause, we began looking outward to communicate beyond protest sites and decided to combat the propaganda spread by corporate houses. Our initiative was at a small scale and we weren’t certain we’d get the reach because it was 7 or 8 young people. We first only published 1,000 copies on 18th December, 2020. Then onwards there was a boom and we began looking outwards, countered fake narratives, talked of international and national solidarity, and shared different aspects of the movement such as the political or economic impact of agriculture.
Yes, it is the era of digital media but agriculture and rural communities are still dependent on print media. In rural communities, there is a culture of reading the newspaper in a small group and discussing the affairs of the day. Everyone has phones but, for more serious news they prefer print. It is one of our learnings. As the protest moved from their own areas to the borders of Delhi, a stretch of 15k.m. was occupied by the protestors in their tractors and trailers. In Punjabi-Hindi, the trailers are referred to as Trolleys, and that’s where the name is from. Trolley Time was brought out to replicate the culture of community reading and also shared news from various other protest sites. In the first copy, we additionally tried to combat many fake narratives of the government or the corporate media. We published the newsletter in Punjabi and Hindi as the original propaganda was limiting the protest to Punjab’s boundaries, referring to them as separatist demanding a separate state or Khalistan Movement. The two languages were decided because U.P., Rajasthan, Haryana, and Uttarakhand are all sitting on the borders. On two particular borders, Singhu and Tikri border, people are sitting collectively from different regions. For the newsletter, the content is not the literal translation of the print meaning, few are published in Punjabi, some in Hindi since both of the languages can be translated to others in the groups and enhance community bonding.
Osama Manzar: You are community media, the way it has its own universe. Tell me in one word, do you feel free as a part of the media? Second question is, did the government put pressure? And third is, do you feel that your voice, popularity and outreach is because of digital media or medium?
Navkiran Natt: Yes, particularly when we operate within the movement there is no pressure from the movement but yes, we did get pressure from the government. There have been searches without notice or warning. I saw that the crime branch went to many of my friend’s houses but not my place. They interrogated my friends for hours, pursued them to give statements against me, etc. They tried intimidation.
It is true that our outreach is larger because of the digital medium. We started with 1,000 copies, we reached 7,000 copies but, the reality is that the majority of reach is through social and digital media platforms. Collectively on all our social media handles we have a total of, 80-85k following. Digital platforms also helped us spread globally; we always publish PDFs of each edition and people sitting across the world like in Canada, U.S and New Zealand can access it. Some people published and distributed printed copies there voluntarily. We are community funded, are not taking any advertisements and everyone working for us is working voluntarily.
Osama Manzar: Prashant, in India, the digital platforms have given voice to the freedom of — India, voices, community media, alternative voices, more voices coming out while the gag is going on, corporatization is happening, commercialisation too, and the agenda is from the various government and corporate organisations motivated by election. However, in a scenario, when digital media is totally dependent on these three or four big platforms to make your voices and with intermediary law by the government, where the voice is subject to the platform, if the platform itself is gagged or watched, what do you do?
Prashant Kanojia: It’s a very important thing and the way the government is pressurising the online media or Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is problematic leading to these platforms being red zoned and eventually leading to a shutdown. Similar to what happened with Huffington Post, it had to shut down. However now, they are behind the organisations such as Wire, Scroll, NewsLaundry, DownToEarth, etc. These organisations are working what the media is supposed to be today. To recall the story of Amit Shah’s son, Jay Shah’s story, it all came on the digital platform. Not only so, it circulated across all the platforms reaching mobile phones making this government uncomfortable.
I have earlier said this, capitalism is not a single element, it comes with a package. It is a package of casteism, communalism, patriarchy, etc. To look at the structure of the media organisation, the people or community part of the mainstream media, are not speaking against these laws or gag orders issued for online or independent media, because this type of capitalism fulfils their idea of communal and casteism as they belong to that idea. These media organisations are not only catering the money, but also catering to the social injustice occurring in India for centuries as they want the structures to be maintained. This might occur in the U.S. as well or even Europe where capitalism doesn’t limit to a single element but is a package of patriarchy and racism.
The way the government has designed this order is arbitrary and it goes against the ethos of the constitution. They need to understand, any law implemented cannot breach the structure of the constitution of India. If it breaches, it is the duty of the Supreme Court or the Judiciary in India to safe-guard it. Any organisation part of democracy is to cater to the people, not others. These orders are mainly the tactics of the government to terrify organisations because of what happened with Arab Springs. Social Media played an important role in the Arab Spring and if you look at the Indian structure, all the unrest, the disbelief being faced by the government now is coming from social media, coming from the people who are not part of this corporate structure and they are afraid of it. It has the capacity of influencing people and it has been doing so until now. I’d say the government is attempting a lot of things, the law is a sham, and all these things are going against the constitution so somewhere, the supreme court needs to rescue India’s constitutional structure and shut it down. The new laws are not only gagging, but terrifying the whole community and compromising one’s privacy structure.
Osama Manzar: Media is directly related to democracy for the people and the choices. More and more countries are getting authoritarian, gag-oriented, or more controlled. What do you suggest? How do we as a citizen survive in this type of scenario?
Francesca Recchia: I wish it was that easy to have ball-points as a solution. The only solution is — those of us who work from the ground with strong idealistic political orientation continue to do so in-spite of the constant intimidation. Our account on Twitter has been shut down five times in three weeks. Do you close or go home? No, you keep going. It is tough but it is the only thing that you can do; to do well with what you do, remain credible and present. The main point is to remain flexible, alert, and responsive.
Osama Manzar: Navkiran, one last question is — when the digital media was fresh and new, we talked about community digital media, lots of people started their blogs, channels, etc. But it gradually vanished. NDTV also tried community reporting and several other organisations. You have brought it the light and hope, community media is possible and sustained. Could you share how to replicate your model since it’s very localised in terms of sector, topic, other specialisations?
Navkiran Natt: The most important thing about us is that we came up from a necessity and such initiatives begin with the necessity. If I’m not wrong, many others are doing similar things on an individual basis such as Khabar Lahariya. It is community based, it talks about rural India, has a gender perspective for the rural women of India and captures their issues. We aren’t the only ones, we got the limelight because of the movement but, I am certain in the coming time many such initiatives will start looking at the situations of our mainstream media. That’s why it is not a big issue for us to worry because — yes, there is a ground for such initiatives, there is the necessity already existing, and it is a form of activism. We are all volunteer staff and we are doing it as a form of activism because we know how important it is and its ideological and political importance, that’s why we’re working on it. In the coming days, such initiatives will start and there won’t be a need to replicate.
Osama Manzar: I am seeing an opportunity to have independent media through community media, blogs, and digital media. I also see a lot of them crowdsourcing like Article14, theWire, AltNews, Scroll largely, and many more. The only challenge I see is that none of them are mass media and that is a big challenge. DEF works across the country and in rural areas, and all the entrepreneurs on the ground say, ‘we are tired of people only watching Zee News, Republic, etc. they don’t consider any other media as an alternate voice.’ As Francesca has said, there is no political awareness, no literacy of that level, it is the propaganda they consume.
We are passing through this mass media versus community, independent and digital media where we’re successfully highlighting who is supporting misinformation, fake-news, propaganda, advertisement but, somehow when we question who is doing news, our role becomes more like a researcher, or parenthesis produced in a specific format to avoid negative reaction. The point is the limitation is continuing and the biggest challenge is — how to fight corporatisation, mass media propagation, and more to bring back the value of alternative voices and community media with independence.