When Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party Sonia Gandhi to give her suggestions for addressing the coronavirus crisis, it was a rare event. There has been little conviviality so far between the Modi government and its main opposition. But what could have been an uplifting, constructive moment, became just the opposite. Austerity measure No 1 in her letter to the PM asks for the imposition of a “complete ban” on media advertising by the government and public sector undertakings “for a period of two years”, making an exception only for specific “advisories” for COVID-19 or unspecified “issues relating to public health”. Forget, for a moment, the fact of its spectacularly bad timing — as reporters, across media all over the country, risk their own health, and lives, to cover a public health emergency and as the lockdown severely disrupts production and distribution of publications. Her call for a ban on advertising in the media shows a complete, and completely shocking, misunderstanding of news as a public good, the economics of its access, the fact that governments use public money to advertise and curbs on it have to follow due process. And, of course, the role of the media as a countervailing institution in a democracy.
Perhaps, the misunderstanding, and the insensitivity, need not surprise. The Congress is the party that suspended fundamental liberties during the Emergency, censored the press and put the Opposition behind bars. Yet, the nation, and to be fair, even the Congress, has moved on from that two-year period of standstill, having taken on board valuable lessons about the centrality of the press in the institutional architecture of a democracy. As the leading party of the Opposition today, and, more importantly, as a party that also runs several state governments, surely the Congress knows the indispensability of a free media to so many critical public endeavours. To keep information flows going, to speak truth to power, to check and balance and hold government to account, to create and widen the space for debate and deliberation. In the ongoing COVID crisis, it is the media that helps make visible issues like the migrants’ predicament, that otherwise may be invisibilised, even as it becomes the platform for governments to speak to the people, address their anxieties.
The revenue model for good journalism has always been unsteady and turning the advertisement tap on or off is a time-tested way to harass a free press. With the nationwide lockdown of business and industry, the economic crisis will only grow. The need for a vibrant and independent media has never been more keenly felt — as governments scramble with tools that are conventional and unconventional, restrictions that clamp rather than curb, while the people are subdued by fear and anxiety. At a time like this, the media needs public support to render its essential service, not disincentives and curbs. As for the Congress, it should think harder, focus on suggestions that may actually make a difference — like the new “Bhilwara model” of COVID containment in Rajasthan — instead of pulling out a dangerous idea from its old box.
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