Forget Yellow Journalism, India Is Now Fertile Ground for Saffron Journalism

Haoginlen Chongloi | 01 March 2023
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Media, which should act as a bridge between the authorities and the rest of the population, is decaying in the world's largest democracy.

Since India attained its independence in 1947, it has been known as one of the largest democracies in the world. One feature which defines democratic maturity is how free and independent the media is. India has excelled in science and arts, and in becoming an emerging player in global affairs. Unfortunately, the country’s performance on the parameter of freedom its citizens enjoy has not been encouraging for a few years now. 

According to a report released by the Freedom House, a US government-funded non-profit that assesses the level of political rights and civil liberties across the globe, India’s status remained as a “partially free” country for the second consecutive year.

The report finds India’s freedom score similar to Malawi in southeastern Africa and South American nation Bolivia. It also highlighted the government’s response towards farmers protesting against the three agriculture laws (now repealed) and opposition leaders being detained by the police while trying to visit Lakhimpur Kheri, where a minister’s son’s car had allegedly hit protesting farmers.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), another America-based media advocacy group, observes that conditions have ‘worsened’ in India in 2018. According to a UNESCO report, six journalists lost their lives in 2020 and five were reportedly killed in 2021.

The Human Right Watch (HRW) has observed that there are growing restrictions on media freedom with Indian authorities resorting to arrest of journalists on spurious terrorism and sedition charges. They have routinely targeted critics and independent news organizations, including raiding their workplaces, the report says. Journalists and online critics also risk prosecution under the Information Technology Act and IT Rules of 2021 for content critical of the authorities.

Besides, the Pegasus Project found that over 40 Indian journalists appeared on a leaked list of potential targets for surveillance. The Indian government has repeatedly stalled attempts to investigate these allegations. This perpetuates an environment of surveillance impunity that results in a chilling effect on free speech and media freedoms, the groups said.

Besides, the India Press Freedom Report 2021 prepared by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG) reported that at least six journalists were killed, 108 attacked and 13 media houses or newspapers targeted across the country that year.

The highest number of journalists or media organisations targeted was in J&K (25), followed by Uttar Pradesh (23), Madhya Pradesh (16), Tripura (15), Delhi (8), Bihar (6), Assam (5), Haryana and Maharashtra (4 each), Goa and Manipur (3 each), Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal (2 each), and Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Kerala (1 each), the report stated. 

According to the reports of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a prominent media advocacy group, India ranked 105 in 2009 and came down to 140 of the surveyed 180 countries in 2019. It has been behind its neighbours, Bhutan (80), Nepal (106), Afghanistan (120) and Myanmar (138). It had only been ahead of Pakistan (142) and China (177). However, its ranking further slid to 142 in 2020-21 and in 2022, it ranked 150.

The situation for the free-fall of its ranking can be an outcome of varying factors. It can be broadly classified into three categories: restrictive measures imposed by the government, inefficiency of journalists and media personnels to adhere to basic ethics and codes of journalistic practice, and the ignorance of consumers to identify what is sensationalism. It has been understood that the government is always there to restrict the press. Keeping that in mind, it is journalists who should uphold their professional integrity. This, however, is not the case of India, where mainstream media houses and the government appear to uphold a certain kind of social contract for each others’ survival.

‘A new kind of journalism’

In a 2018 interview given to the Gulf News, Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami claimed to have “represented a new kind of journalism”. He further stated that, “there’s always going to be a clash between the way things are”, referring to the traditional style and the new kind that he introduced. To him the idea of journalistic objectivity ceased to exist when he reportedly said, “in a choice between India and Pakistan, I will not be neutral” 

The above statements sound attractive, courageous, patriotic and professional. When interpreted in its essence, however, they are murkier. One of the core principles of journalism is neutrality. Neutrality here means the freedom with which a journalist perceives a certain situation or issue and not necessarily being neutral to issues or situations. Goswami’s statement that he will, under certain circumstances, not be neutral but support India on any issue against its neighbouring Pakistan speaks volumes on the new form of journalism.

Such a stance on neutrality, no doubt, sounds appealing to Indians as long as it is against Pakistan. However, that this is in total violation of the general ethnics and principles of journalism is also evident. 

While some Indians could find comfort when Pakistan is lambasted on televisions shows, many will understand the grave danger such a representation poses to viewers.

Under this newly introduced system of journalism, everything the Indian government decides and does is to be supported without doubt. Concerns raised by its citizens are labeled as ‘anti-national’, ‘terrorist’ ‘or’ unpatriotic’. Any form of protest or dissent is considered as an act against the state. 

In the past few years, mainstream media houses have been in the habit of supporting any policy of the government on any foreign or domestic issue. Instead of acting as a ‘check and balance’ to the government over its policies and any misuse of power, mainstream media has assumed the role of propaganda tools used in infamous wars when all forms of communication channels were censored and used to propagate government policies.

In a number of ways, media appears to be finely tuned to the establishment. This form of journalism which regards the ‘state’ as its own, rather than as an independent entity, has been described as ‘saffron journalism,’ a derivative of ‘yellow journalism’. This is most visible with television media. 

Such media houses conduct media trials, assuming the role of a propaganda tool of the government in the maintenance of what is called public order. Questions that contradict the established narratives are silenced and denied presence in the public sphere. Instead the media is engaged in sensationalising situations and events to attract the attention of viewers. In the name of factual accuracy, it engages in divisive agendas based on caste, religion and other affiliations. As it stands with authority, it is also obvious that it lends support to the majority. Therefore, being a minority at such a situation appears unattractive and risky.

Yellow journalism was a trend of journalism practiced in America in the later decades of the 19th century. But saffron as a colour signifies multiple facets in the ethos of Indian culture. It signifies courage, sacrifice, salvation and strength. It is also associated with the new political ideology which has received the mandate of the Indian masses in recent times.

One similar objective between yellow journalism of the 19th century and saffron journalism of now lies in survival and relevance. On the other hand there are basic differences as well. While the American trend was based on the unhealthy competition between papers to gain more readership, the Indian experience was more to do with gaining acceptance and reciprocal treatment from the authority.  

The more alarming and concerning aspect behind saffron journalism are the very acts of these media establishments which engage in deplatforming anyone who speak against the authority and the agreed upon narrative. Instead of helping individuals raise reasonable questions to the authority and engaging in healthy debate, the mainstream media does the role of denying such platforms to citizens. Increasingly pro-establishment in taste, such media would keep propagating what the authority does without taking into consideration the dissenting voice of the public.

An independent press is said to have an existence when it acts as a check and balance to the authority. Besides its role is to inform and create awareness to the public. It is also supposed to be a platform and facilitator between the government and the public. However, the media in India has failed to question authorities on certain policies or give a platform to the masses to engage in meaningful discussion. Any narrative which is against the views of the majority is ridiculed and censored. 

Restrictive regulatory policies of the government, media ownership in the hands of politicians and industrialists, and a sense of insecurity of journalists are believed to be few major reasons giving birth to this form of journalism. Besides, there are also pull factors that led to widespread adoption of saffron journalism.

Sections of the media will always tend to choose the side of the majority and those in power. This increases readership and viewership which ensures better income generation. Moreover, journalists find themselves safe from those elements who always pose a threat to them. The idea of being with the majority and the authority provides a fertile and favourable ground for saffron journalism to thrive.

Haoginlen Chongloi authored the book History, Identity and Polity of the Kukis published by Hornbill Press, 2020.

This article was originally published on The Wire.  
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy