Elections

Can Lok Sabha 2024 Results Bring A Moment Of Reckoning For Indian Media?

The recent exit polls and Lok Sabha 2024 'ulat palat' have led to some soul-searching among media persons but free press will require a more consolidated effort.

Screengrab from original video on India Today
Axis My India head Pradeep Gupta breaks down on live TV on June 4 after exit poll predictions go wrong Photo: Screengrab from original video on India Today
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Crying pollsters, AI-generated memes, fear on Dalal Street, vloggers vs anchor battles, ad-wars, and now calls for investigations into alleged stock market scam - the end of Lok Sabha 2024 elections, the second longest election held in India since independence, has generated enough ‘content’ to fuel a Netflix mockumentary. But under the cacophony of exit polls and their subsequent ‘Ulat Palat’, billions of investor funds were lost after the stock market, which had surged in the wake of exit polls predicting a landslide victory for BJP and NDA, tanked drastically when actual results started coming out. 

In tandem with the BJP’s call for ‘400 Paar’, exit polls had predicted that the BJP would secure much over 272 seats in the 543 member parliament, while together with its alliance partners, this figure would touch 360-370. The exit polls were endorsed and broadcast by several top news channels of the country. On June 4, the BJP fell way short of the majority mark with 240 seats while NDA polled 292.  Enough to form a government but not enough to maintain absolute dominance. Interestingly, the turn of the tide seems to have not gone unnoticed by India’s media intelligentsia. On June 7, popular television news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today tendered an apology for endorsing such exit polls that many have since called misleading. "We owe an apology for projecting exit polls as ‘exact’ polls’,” he tweeted and also shared a detailed analysis of the results.

Zee News made stunning allegations against at least 4 media rivals and their owners – purportedly over losses faced by market investors due to incorrect exit polls and made insinuations about the organisations' alleged links with political parties.

Nevertheless, the day of counting was followed by a seeming ad-war between broadcasters with Zee News’ own independent exit poll based on inputs from artificial intelligence which had predicted 305 seats for the NDA and 195 seats for INDIA, flashed front page, full spread, on several leading newspapers like the Indian Express on June 5. The next day, News18 India gave full page ad on Indian Express, declaring that News18 India ‘dominates Aaj Tak’ because it had the highest viewership on counting day. 

On World Press Freedom Day on May 3, a day after the exit polls, Chairman of Essel Group Subhash Chandra was part of an event named ‘Media Meet’ press conference in which he spoke about press freedom in contemporary Indian news media. In his address, he mentioned how he often heard his colleagues complain of falling revenues because of publishing content against certain state governments or that some businesses cut funding after publication of certain news stories. “Independent media is very important for the economic and social structure of the country and the safety of vulnerable people,” he said. He also called media a "feedback mechanism" for the governments, adding that all stakeholders must stand against threats to its freedom.

It is to be noted that Zee News anchors like Sudhir Chaudhary, Amish Devgn and others have on multiple occasions been accused of spreading one-sided or polarising narratives and misinformation in favour of BJP on their shows. In March 2023, the News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority passed orders against news channels Times Now and Zee News for their reporting on protests by the Popular Front of India and the rise in the country’s population respectively. The broadcasters were accused of spreading misinformation against Muslims and adding communal colour to the report. 

In September last year, the INDIA bloc had announced that they would boycott shows of 14 television anchors on several platforms, a decision the alliance detracted from after critics, including the BJP, compared the boycott with the Emergency. Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera had at the time said that some channels have put up a 'nafrat ka bazaar' (market for hatred) for the last nine years and that the alliance would not support the “hate-filled narrative" destroying society.  

On counting day, many objective viewers praised the work done by independent news portals run by seasoned journalists like Ravish Kumar, Prannoy Roy and others who parted with NDTV after what critics called a hostile takeover by Gautam Adani. It was indeed Kumar, who was awarded the Magsaysay Award for his contributions to journalism, who coined the word ‘Godi media’ as a pointed moniker for lapdog media. 

But how did we get here? Before trying to make sense of the unfolding ‘media wars’, it becomes important to understand how the once vibrant and competitive Indian news media was turned into a polarised stooge of those in powers.

In the background of these intense media wars lies an increasing chokehold on media organisation and press freedom. In the last decade, the BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has introduced a raft of measures to regulate news and digital media spaces. In just the last year, the Modi government brought out a slew of bills and legislations to increase its control over such spaces including the Telecommunications Bill 2023, the draft of Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill 2023 and the Digital Personal Data Protection Act of 2023.

Just prior to the elections, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had issued a notification establishing a Fact Check Unit (FCU) to flag false information related to the government and its agencies. The official initiative was nevertheless put on hold by the Supreme Court, the country’s apex law body. Critics claimed that the move will allow the government to further muzzle voices of dissent. In the past few years, India has become the leader in the world when it comes to internet shutdowns. 

The last decade has also seen a weakening of independent media platforms, watchdogs, civil society and mechanisms to maintain checks and balances. Media bodies like the Delhi Union of Journalists in 2023 demanded the formation of an independent Media Council to replace the “toothless” press bodies of India following Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2023 which highlighted increasing oppression, coercion and attacks on free press and media persons in India by the government in 2022. 

Incidentally, it was the voice of independent do-gooders like vlogger and social media sensation Dhruv Rathee who has led a persistent and massively impactful campaign against the repressive policies of the BJP with regular videos busting myths and misinformation being peddled by the Hindutva ecosystem online. A day ahead of the counting, Rathee shared a video, calling it a “final message” and stating that even though he did not know who will win how many seats, he was rooting for democracy to win. 

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This rise in success of alternate and independent, often people-driven journalism reflects growing people’s consciousness about media’s roles and responsibilities in a democracy and the downsides of a completely corporatise-controlled media. 

“Since the updation of IT rules, the online media became an outlet for holding the government accountable. The growth of alternate media is also due to the increasingly partisan nature of news reporting in legacy media houses. There has been a definite loss of credibility among viewers or news consumers,” says Apar Gupta, founder of Internet Freedom Foundation. Any reflection among legacy media outlets today is not just a result of the political ‘ulat palat’ but also underscores an acknowledgment of the potential of alternate and independent media space. The views on Prannoy Roy’s YouTube channel deKoder’s counting day live have crossed 2 million. “That’s comparable to legacy media’s viewership, despite being a daily new channel with no access to television airwaves. It means people are looking outside the legacy sources to consume news,” Gupta adds.

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With the staggering gains made by INDIA alliance partners, there is hope for media. In its manifesto, the Congress promised to strengthen the system of self-regulation, protect journalistic freedoms, uphold editorial independence and guard against government interference by making amendments to the Press Council of India Act, 1978. Leaders of INDIA alliance have also spoken about press freedom in their campaign rallies. 

As of September 1, at least 320 journalists were imprisoned because of their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), making India one of the most unsafe countries for journalists in terms of political persecution. Since a free and unhindered press is the hallmark of any democracy, those who have made electoral gains in the name of saving democracy will now have to prove their commitment to these foot soldiers of the fourth estate. 

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