On Tuesday, concurrent raids were made on the houses of activists in various parts of India, and five of them were arrested, allegedly for their Maoist connections to the Bhima-Koregaon riots if the police is to be believed. It isn’t — none of the arrested people seem to have any relation with Bhima-Koregaon (contrary to the allegations of involvement in the violence, all of them have decades-long engagement in working for the upliftment of the poor and the downtrodden; for the dalits, adivasis, farmers and other marginalised voices). Yet, the mainstream media reported them as such. The word ‘alleged’ was barely used, or used without conviction — what is this but a media trial?
What else was amiss in the manner of reportage about the topic is the fact the raids were conducted unlawfully, often in the absence of the residents and always without a producible charge against them — an exploitation of the Unlawful Activity (Prevention) Act, i.e, the anti-terror legislation — or how some of the arrested were made to sign documents written in languages that neither they nor the magistrate understood.
In these times of ‘Undeclared Emergency’, as it is increasingly being called, the mainstream media seems to be unbothered about the visible dissipation of civil liberties. This is because with their corporate and political overlords impacting their neutrality, they do not possess these freedoms themselves. In times like these, and in the hands of political parties, the media can itself become a vicious tool of spreading selective bias and propaganda: televised news is susceptible to unprecedented sensationalism, and print to the distorting forces of language.
This, of course, is what is happening today. With a major section of the mainstream media being owned by corporates and people with political leanings, selective or biased reportage and the propagandization of facts begin way before the news goes out into the world. This is a new form of censorship that we are slowly getting used to, and just as gradually raising the temperature in a boiling pot can kill one inside before they can begin to suspect it, our rights to freedom of expression and dissent are dying without us knowing.
When even the media — the very tool of shaping millions of people’s opinion — is tampered with, what does one do? To blindly trust the mainstream media at this juncture would be a blunder against the just democratic function of constitutional rights. I say this because groups have faced public persecution before solely on the basis of the media’s heavily opinionated distortion of events, and despite having done nothing wrong. We have already seen what an uninformed or biased media coverage can do to issues: think, for instance, of student protests at JNU, and the more recent ones at Ramjas College, that were appropriated by media coverage into ideological battlegrounds, into debates on Nationalism.
For those of us reading this — those with the privilege of having access to an extra slice of technology — it is a possibility to look at independent alternatives or do our own research, and to combat fake news, misreporting and propaganda using the wide powers of the internet. But how long before that power is also snatched away? Moreover, for millions of people on the margins such as the poor and the inhabitants of remote areas — and even the uninitiated, for they are on the margins of knowledge — regional print and televised news is the only source of information. For them, independent media and tools for research are inaccessible; neither are they expected to conduct research when our belief system inculcates in them them that the media is a fact-reporting machinery. And hence begins a process of brainwashing the public that ultimately ends with the crowning of fascism on all seats of power.
However, conformity cannot be manufactured for those who dare speak against it. If the media cannot express our dissent, we ourselves will have to rise for it — and rise before the foundations of our Democracy are made to shrivel and die.
On the 28th of August 2018, a wave of multi-city raids conducted by the Pune (urban) Police led to the arrests of five rights activists namely Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, P Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira. All the aforementioned have been vocal in their criticism of the government in power before. Their arrests come after a string of attacks on the country’s rationalists and other significantly alarming events, and have raised wide outcry from intellectuals and civil society.