Opposition media boycott: Does attacking hate in the media go against principles of free speech?

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On Wednesday, the Opposition INDIA coalition announced that it will not send its representatives to TV debate shows hosted by 14 news anchors perceived to be close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

For anyone with even a passing familiarity with Indian television news, this characterisation of many television personalities would hardly have come as a surprise. Large parts of the Indian electronic media have all but given up their primary job to hold power to account. Instead, they have taken to becoming mouthpieces of the BJP. Night after night, shows are dedicated to supporting the ruling party and, ironically, pillorying the Opposition, which holds no power.

In many ways, the only surprise is that this decision by INDIA came so late. For some time, it has been clear that the Opposition has been severely hamstrung by the partisan role of the media. In fact, this is a topic that I have covered several times on this newsletter. In October, for example, I wrote a ground report from Karnataka about how for Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra’s, the primary enemy was not the BJP: it was the mainstream media. The march clearly conveyed the message that in order to truly reach Indian voters, the Congress must bypass the media.

Plaint media

The partisan, pro-Union government way the media functions is not a coincidence. The Modi government’s greatest push over the past decade has been to create a pliant media ecosystem at the national level. It has done this using a well-thought out mixture of carrot and stick. Weak safeguards for free speech in the Indian Constitution and an outsized role of the Union government in India’s federal structure mean that Modi government and the BJP have a number of draconian laws at their disposal to discipline media houses that report critically on them.

Carrots work in forms such as ownership, for example. NDTV, for example, one of the last media houses that did not toe the government line, was recently bought by the Adani group, which has long been seen to be close to Prime Minister Modi.

By boycotting certain television shows, the Congress is strategically withdrawing from participating in what is a fixed match. Its decision also puts pressure on the media by highlighting its partisan role. Even if this does little to change the partisanship of the channels – since that is directed by hard factors such as ownership – it might end up deprecating them in the eyes of voters, making them somewhat less effective as an outreach tool for the BJP.

Free speech

As could be expected, the BJP as well as the anchors boycotted have hit out strongly against this boycott. They have portrayed it as contravening the right to free speech and rights of the media.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, incorrect.

First, a narrow reading of the right to free speech would see it as the right to speak without fear of state punishment. Readers might remember a strip put out by the webcomic, xkcd, which succinctly laid out this principle, referencing the first amendment of the American constitution, which protects speech.

https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/free_speech.png

Nevertheless, this narrow reading can sometimes be misleading. For one, in India, unlike in the United States, there is no absolute right to free speech: the government routinely arrests people for speech targeting identities such as faith and language. Moreover, people are regularly put in jail for criticising, say, Narendra Modi.

Second, this reading misunderstands that the power to stifle speech could work through many channels – not only through the state. One of the most famous works of media critique in the twentieth century, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent lays out how free speech can and often is stifled by private corporations.

Wrong end of the stick

However, even taking this into account, characterising the Opposition boycott as an infringement of free speech is misplaced. The Opposition neither controls the levers of the state nor the large corporations that run media houses. In effect, it has little power to control speech even if it wanted to do so. The media anchors who have been boycotted, for example, face no threat. Their jobs are secure, as are their bully pulpits. However, the situation for journalists who critique the Union government is vastly different: anchor Ravish Kumar, for example, left NDTV after Adani’s takeover.

Even more stark is the fact that all the anchors named have serious allegations of hate speech against them, using their powerful megaphones to attack India’s minorities, especially Muslims. During the Covid pandemic, for example, large parts of the media surreally tried to blame the spread of the global disease on Indian Muslims. Recently, when a policeman went on a horrific killing spree against Muslims, he credited the media for his intense hate against the community.

In this sort of situation, the strategy of these anchors to turn around and claim that criticism of hate speech or political partisananship amounts to an infringement of their freedom of expression should have little purchase among the wider Indian public.

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