Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Smarika Kumar - Media Diversity and Reliance’s takeover of Network 18

Big media has become bigger. The takeover of Network 18 by Reliance has consolidated news media in the country like nothing before. The Reliance-Network18 combination is, in fact, not exactly new. It was actually executed a couple of years ago in a very telling, roundabout fashion when Reliance lent money to Network18 through a trust called IMT, among other things, to buy all of its media properties. As a result of Network18’s debt, Reliance could then dictate to it the terms of repayment, which were agreed between the two entities in the form of debentures convertible to shares.
The resulting combination brings TV channels like CNBC-TV18, CNBC Awaaz, CNN-IBN, IBN7, IBN-Lokmat, ETV-Rajasthan, ETV-Bihar, ETV-Uttar Pradesh, ETV-Urdu, ETV-Marathi, ETV-Bangla, ETV-Gujarati, ETV-Kannada, ETV-Oriya, ETV-Telegu, ETV-2, Colors, MTV, VH1 and Nick; web content properties such as moneycontrol.com, ibnlive.com, and firstpost.com; as well as magazines like Forbes India under a single umbrella of ownership and control. (For a complete list of media properties held by Reliance currently, scroll to the end of this article.)
 What does it mean?
It means, big media has become more powerful, and therefore, more dangerous. By further undermining pluralism in media, the takeover raises serious questions for the freedom of expression and for the freedom to receive information in India. Consolidated control of media means fewer platforms to air a distinct point of view: If all media channels are held by one entity, one will hear the same kind of news and content on all of them. Differing viewpoints of the same event will not be visible or audible simply because there will not be a platform which allows their broadcasting. We will never get to hear the other side of the story. These invisible and inaudible interests will then be neglected, boycotted, portrayed only in colours in which owners of consolidated media see them.
What does all this imply for our everyday lives? Reliance is a corporate giant with its activities covering everything from defence, spectrum and telecom to gas and retail. In the run-up to the last elections, the way in which Reliance conducts its business has also been a topic of political discussion in the public sphere. The Aam Aadmi Party has raised charges of “crony capitalism” against Reliance concerning its activities regarding gas pricing. This is compounded by Reliance’s consistent history of going after anyone who raises questions about its business ethics with vigour. Case in point Paranjoy Guha Thakurta whom Reliance has sued for Rs. 100 crore on defamation charges for critically analysing Reliance’s gas business in his book Gas Wars. Reliance has also sought to remove the book from bookstands by sending legal notices to Amazon and Flipkart for selling the book. In the 1980s, Reliance sought to ban The Polyster Prince, a biography of Dhirubhai Ambani, in India. A sincerely disturbing news article reported recently how Reliance is already interfering with editorial content, IBN journalists have been directed by the now pro-Reliance management to cover news about itself and about Aam Aadmi Party: less coverage for itself, less coverage for Aam Aadmi Party. Which means we are more unlikely receive an unbiased coverage of differing social, economic and political voices across the country. We are more unlikely to have information which will enable us to make informed political choices. And we are more likely to blindly resent, oppose and treat as unreasonable enemies, people who stand different from what the big man’s media is endorsing. Loss of pluralism in media always has implications beyond the media itself. As Chimamanda Ngozi points out, there are many dangers of a single story.
What does Indian law say about media pluralism?
Recognising the importance of pluralism in media, some 18 years ago, the Supreme Court declared plurality of voices in media to be an integral part of the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression enshrined in our Constitution. In Ministry of Information and Broadcasting v. Cricket Association of Bengal and Anr., it observed:
…One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non-information all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce when medium of information is monopolised either by a partisan central authority or by private individuals or oligarchic organisations… Hence to have a representative central agency to ensure the viewers’ right to be informed adequately and truthfully is a part of the right of the viewers under Article 19(1)(a).
This logically means that any effort to erode the plurality of voices in media will be a direct violation of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution which ensures right of viewers to receive information, apart from protecting their freedom of speech and expression. In other words, pluralism in media is a Fundamental Right of Indian citizens.
The question which then arises is how can one ensure plurality of voices in media? In the above excerpt, the Supreme Court recognises the right to access content from “a representative central agency” or a public broadcaster, as an important aspect of Article 19(1)(a). But is access to public broadcasting enough to ensure media pluralism? The Supreme Court does not express an opinion on this question, and hence it remains an open one... read more: