Will a government-supported news outlet morph into an alternative voice in the international news sphere, or will it be reduced to New Delhi’s propaganda channel? Will it complement or counter Western news and information hegemony?
With the emergence of new geopolitical groupings such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) – coinciding with cracks within the neoliberal model of US-led capitalism – there are possibilities of strengthening a global news agenda not shaped by the West in which India can play a significant role.
Unlike China, Indian journalism has a long history of professionalism, operating within the infrastructure – however imperfect – of the world’s largest democracy. The digital revolution in communication currently under way in India – which has the world’s largest “open” internet – offers many opportunities to circulate Indian ideas globally. Would the presence of Indian news on the international scene provide a different perspective?
Two areas where this difference can be marked are how Indian news media could contribute to liberal pluralism.
Unlike in the West, where multiculturalism is an imposed “official” policy, and not always an acceptable social and cultural position, India is a multicultural, multi-faith, and multilingual country, despite recent attempts of Hindu right-wing groups to undermine this rich legacy. Every major religious festival is celebrated there – both officially and socially: different languages, dialects, and accents coexist. The composite culture which India embodies has given its media a degree of plurality not found in many other countries.
The other area where a global Indian news presence could make a meaningful difference is in the field of development communication: It was the first country to use television for education through its 1970s Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) programme. Today, despite the massive expansion of television, the educational aspects of the news media have been mostly ignored, although India remains home to the world’s largest number of illiterate people: on all major indices of social progress, it ranks abysmally low.
India and Indian media therefore have a moral and material imperative to be at the forefront of shaping discourse about how to deploy media and communication tools for poverty alleviation programmes at home and internationally.
Indian journalists could learn from what their giant eastern neighbour has achieved in reducing – almost eliminating – poverty. According to the World Bank’s 2017 Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals, in 1990 China had 756 million citizens living in extreme poverty (at less than $2 a day), while India had less than half that number, at 338 million; by 2013, barely 25 million Chinese lived in extreme poverty, while the corresponding figure for India was as many as 218 million.
In other words, in just over two decades, the much-maligned one-party state of China was able to raise more than 700 million people out of poverty while democratic India only managed 120 million in the same period (World Bank 2017). Yet, the coverage of China in the Indian media remains very limited, generally negative, and arguably influenced by Western perspectives.
A recent study observes: “It is also worth noting that since the European and American news media are major sources for Indian English newspapers that serve the political elites, the China-related media agenda in India is always consistent with that of the Western media, for example, the constant criticism of Chinese nationalist emotion”.
The coverage of India within Chinese media is equally problematic, where, in official discourses, Indian democracy is deemed as “dysfunctional”.
Li Xin, managing editor of Caixin, China’s leading financial magazine, has written: “Despite its size and proximity, India is a gigantic blind spot in China’s foreign policy. On the rare occasions when India comes to mind, it is usually for its association with other, apparently more pressing countries – the United States, Pakistan, or Tibet.”
Indian journalism evolved within the context of a fight for democracy in the tradition of anti-colonialism, represented by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi (the iconic leader of India’s independence movement, who edited for most of his political life the weekly newspaper Young India, later renamed Harijan). After independence, an anti-imperialist ideology – sometimes more as rhetoric than reality – continued to define mainstream media under Nehruvian socialism.
Making use of this legacy of articulating the voice of the global South, India can make a real contribution to international debates. It could be an important source of distinctive perspectives in global forums like UNESCO, the International Telecommunication Union, and the World Intellectual Property Organisation on such diverse and contested issues as multiculturalism, intellectual property rights in the digital environment, and the safeguarding of media plurality. Apart from the globalisation of Indian news media, the growing Indian presence within the international non-governmental sector, multilateral bureaucracies, and the development communication field could be harnessed to this end.
Excerpted with permission from “A Missing Voice: India in the Global News Space”, Daya Thussu, from Indian Journalism in a New Era: Changes, Challenges, and Perspectives, edited by Shakuntala Rao, Oxford University Press India.