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Responsibility Of Media In A Democracy
“DEMOCRACY is impossible without a free press.”
This is a precept that is thoroughly imbibed in democratic theory and
practice. As early as the 17th century many philosophers had argued that
publicity and openness provided the best protection against tyranny and the
excesses of authoritarian or totalitarian rule. The French political philosopher
Montesquieu, had strongly advocated ‘Publicity’ as the cure for the abuse of
power. He had correctly recognised the importance of the press in making the
rulers as well as the office-bearers aware of the public’s grievencences and
discontents and subjecting governments to rectifying their errors.
Since then, the press has widely been proclaimed as the “Fourth Estate
(Branch),” a congenial arm of any democracy that can provide for checks and
balance without which governments cannot be effective. Accountability is a
continuing process so Questions need to be asked consistently. Governments, it
is argued, cannot be held accountable if citizens are ill informed about the
actions of politicians/officials, about the negligent working of the democratic
institutions, or when legislatures, judiciaries and other oversight bodies are
powerless against the mighty or are themselves corruptible. Media’s role as a
stringent irrcorrigeble watchdog ensures that in such cases the malevolent or the
mischievous elements are exposed and subjected to stringent scrutiny, ridicule
and if need be to the rigours of the law of the land. This is especially true in
light of the fact that most of the recently elected governments that came to
power with promises to cater to their fellow countrymen’s interests, have hardly
ever lived up to their words. They are hence defacto governments that do not
represent the consent of the governed – in America and U.K, the government’s
apathy towards public outcry on the war on Iraq and it’s occupation, are a case
in point.
Media: forum for Discussion
“Ignorance is bliss” has been remarked by an 18th century poet but in a
democratic set up ignorance of ones own duties, rights or of the economic and
political conditions definitely leads to the crumbling of the democratic structure
and curbing of civil liberties. Politicians in power have a tendency to assume
more power .As Russell said, “Lust for power cannot be completely finished”.
It is difficult to force politicians to observe the ethics of power. Consequently
people in power try to snatch away the rights and privileges of the common
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men. If the people are not properly educated then how can they fight for their
rights and discharge their duties. People have to keep a watch over the
politicians. After all; “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. Democracy
cannot take root if the poor and powerless are kept out of the public sphere. The
argument is that effective media are the keys as they can provide the
information poor people need to take part in public life.
The media serves as a conduit between the governors and the governed
and as a mouthpiece for public debate that leads to more competent
policy/decision-making. In the words of Bill Moyers (a journalist) “provide a
culture of community conversation by activating inquiry on serious public
issues.” this is more relevant in new emerging democracies such as Afghanistan
and Iraq, where the expectation is that the media would help build a civic
culture and a tradition of in-depth discussion and passionate debate, which was
not feasible during the period of authoritarian rule.
Critics ascribe to the press the same cleansing powers that erstwhile
philosophers had envisioned. They outline the need for “transparency
guarantees” such as a free press and the free flow of information. Information
and critical public discussion, are an inescapably important requirement of good
public Administration & Governance. These guarantees have a critical
instrumental role in preventing corruption, financial irresponsibility and
underhanded dealings. In essence Media of a democracy should respond
vehemently towards exploitation in society and wrong doings in the corridors of
power.
Media and Elections
Elections are a key democratic exercise, one where the media can have
both positive and negative impacts. As societies become more modernised
candidates and parties make their appeal and propagate their messages through
the media. The cost of television and newspaper advertising is huge and now
accounts for a substantial chunk of campaign costs. Candidates often have a
better chance of being voted into office simply because they and their agendas
are more visible to the electorate. In some countries, candidates resort to bribing
the journalists and editors who endorse their candidacies in various ways. This
is poor ethics in an otherwise sincere profession. Apart from this media
coverage often provides in-depth, contextual and analytical analysis, which
stimulates the electorates to seriously think over their candidates while
simultaneously making the candidates conscience of the scrutiny. In rural areas,
media also warns the ignorant and innocent voters against the consequences of
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selling their precious votes. In countries like India it was only due to the
successful education provided via the media that a majority of illiterate voters
were able to competently adapt to the ‘Electronic voting machines’ hence even
the transition did not hamper the democratic process.
The media is sometimes used, as proxies in the battle between rival
political factions, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus, hate
speech instead of sober debate, and suspicion rather than social trust. In these
cases, the media contributes to public cynicism and democratic decay. The aim
of the healthy media should be to avoid being partisan to any side and being as
neutral as possible in it’s reporting of issues.
Reporting by Media
By constantly digging for information, by forcing government and the
private sector to release documents and by subjecting officials and other
powerful individuals to rigorous questioning, investigative journalists expand
the thresholds of what is possible to print or broadcast. At the same time, they
accustom officials to an inquisitive press. Officials eventually realize that
releasing information benefits the government. Without a free flow of official
information, journalists will tend to report lies, rumours and speculations, with
no one the better for it. It may take time, but officials must be convinced that
informed citizens make better citizens, even if in the process government takes
a beating in the press. In the long term, the constant give and take between
journalists and officials helps develop a culture and a tradition — of openess,
participation and disclosure.
The press is an important player on the political stage. Journalists are
often feared by politicians because they have succeeded in uncovering
corruption, the abuse of power and acquisition of disproportionate wealth. They
are also relentlessly wooed because a bad press can mean the end of a political
career. Policies have been changed, reforms initiated and corrupt officials even
presidents and prime-ministers (Mr. Richard Nixon and “Watergate” scandal in
US, Mr Rajiv Gandhi and the “Bofors” scandal in India) have been – ousted
partly because of media exposés.
However in the last few decades the role of media has been slightly
tarnished by mass media’s propensity for sleaze, sensationalism, scandal
mongering and superficiality. Serious reporting is difficult to sustain in
competitive media markets that puts a premium on the shallow and sensational.
The growth of media at the regional level has seen the regional journalists
‘Hype-up’ regional news just to gain the attention of the national and even the
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international audiences – the poetess Madhumita’s murder in Lucknow or the
murder of Reporter Shivani Bhatnagar in Delhi and their clandestine affairs
with high profile figures, are a valid case in point. The particular investigative
reporting and headline coverage in the above mentioned ‘murder cases’ reek of
journalistic weakness for sensational news and seriously compromises the
largeness and diversity of India. The national media, limited as it is by time
constraints should not be deviated from other news of serious import, issues and
discussions.
Many have expressed concern that parallel to the development of the
media for masses there is a contradictory process as well. A process referred to
by its critics as "the mass media without the masses''. There is an increasing
tendency in a section of the media to project trivial things in life, fashions of the
rich and the over-privileged, obsessive reporting on prominent personalities and
to aggressively advertise a consumerist lifestyle beyond the reach of the
majority. This happens to the exclusion of the attention paid to the problems of
the masses, their sufferings and aspirations. A newspaper should be a voice of
the voiceless, the hope of the hopeless. But the common man is often invisible
in the pages of glossy newspapers and magazines.
Media for ‘Empowerment’
Customs and conventions root themselves so deeply within the social
fabric that acting on them becomes second nature to people. No doubt it is
human nature to respect that mode of action that has transcended the jerks and
jolts of changing circumstances but society cannot be kept static; the process of
progress with evolution must be unhampered. Denial of basic rights to women
in many rural areas of the world and the marginalisation of women in the urban
politics is one such prevalent contrast of undemocratic ethics. The plight of the
women in most of the democracies is the same; they are considered unequal to
their male counter parts. Their empowerment would mean a revolutionary
change and is bound to be met with stiff opposition but a proactive media
reflecting on the potentials and achievements of the modern women can create a
conducive atmosphere where greater women participation is seen as a natural
progression into the 21st century.
Media: Educating and Mediative
In the era of globalization the economies of nations have become so
entwined with global forces that a crisis at one end of the globe precipitates
another in a different corner of the world .It is often necessary to know the
background of such crisis and issues in an analytical manner for example the
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war on Iraq led to the tripling of Oil prices all over the world! the terrorist
attacks on US of September 11 triggered economic downturn in nations of Asia
and Europe!
On another front, citizens of countries emerging out of socialist pattern of
governance into the democratic set-up are not able to grasp the urgency for
activities as ‘Disinvestment’ and ‘Dissolution’ of unviable state run industrial
units. Often opposition parties leave no stone upturned to portray such
happening or other economic downturns as rising unemployment, rising prices,
shortages etc as the failures of the government in power. Consequently People
rally their forces and start opposing the government. Such ill informed people
create difficulties in maintaining law and order situations. Usually such actions
instead of solving any problems create new ones. Here again the media can
propagate the crux of the problem and avoid critical hostile scenarios of
confrontation. The media can also help build peace and social consensus,
without which democracy is threatened. The media can provide dissatisfied
groups mechanisms for mediation, representation and voice so they can settle
their differences peacefully.
Conclusion
The media can play a positive role in democracy only if there is an
enabling environment that allows them to do so.There should be mechanisms to
ensure that they are held accountable to the public and that ethical and
professional standards are upheld. Media independence is guaranteed if media
organizations are financially viable, free from intervention of media owners and
the state, and operate in a competitive environment. The media should also be
accessible to as wide a segment of society as possible. Efforts to help the media
should be directed toward the protection of press rights, enhancing media
accountability and widening media access.
The onus for deepening democracy rests largely on media’s shoulders
they need to create awareness, sensitise the poor, deprived, illiterates masses of
the nation of their undeniable duty to be a proactive exponent of a vibrant
democracy, to remind the politicians that democracy is ‘ by the people, of the
people and for the people’. The media needs to expose the Indiscipline,
Unaccountability, Inefficiency, and Corruption of the nation’s
political/judicial/executive set up. This may seem as a tall order but not an
unachievable one. After all…
“Pen is mightier then the sword ”
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