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We want to annihilate caste, but without alternative media?

By Rajiv Shah
There is an increasing view among civil society groups that the established media is “not responsive” to the needs and aspirations of civil society. I would like to be audacious: I think the complaint is totally misplaced. Working with the Times of India for nearly two decades, and looking after Gandhinagar beat for 15 years, last as political editor, I knew the constraints under which one had to work. 
There were some very specific “holy cows”, and this wasn’t just true of the Times of India, but of all media houses with presence in Gujarat: One can report whatever was true, but “business interests” of the paper should be taken care of. I always believed – it was wrong to complain: It was business interests alone that drove news. If business interests of the newspaper were hit, the news wouldn’t go through, you could be in trouble.
I remember, once I got terribly disturbed when my paper published an editorial page article, (presumably by Jug Suraiya), that news something like Colgate. But when I was in a high-level meeting in Ahmedabad with our top-most owner, I realized there was little reason to protest: This is what he told us pointblank, and I admire his frankness even today: that the newspaper was his “family business”. He wrote on the board “liberal social agenda” and crossed it out, though when queried by me, he replied “liberal political agenda is always there”.
Indeed, the established media may have good journalists, but they have to operate under heavy constraints. One can find great stories occasionally by enterprising journalists, till they wouldn’t contradict the business interests of the paper. The newspaper’s support or opposition to a particular political leader would have to depend on the business interests of the paper. I would tell my colleagues frankly: “If you think that it is difficult to operate in this framework, one had better resign and join a civil society organization.”
I remember in 1996 I was sent by my bosses in the Times of India to Vadodara to participate in a seminar on environmental issues. The time slot was just 40 minutes, and I was to speak on media and environment, but I triggered uproar when I argued: Don’t blame media for not taking your news, as media is controlled by business interests. Blame yourself for failing in your advocacy efforts. The debate continued on the issue for nearly two-and-a-half hours, indeed without end, till lunch. It was 1996. I still hold the same view, but times have changed, and fresh opportunities have arisen before the civil society than they were there at that time.     
In 2007, I was presented by a senior Gujarat bureaucrat a book by Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus, the Grameen Bank man from Bangladesh. Titled “Bankers to the Poor”, the book was first published in 1998 and republished by the Penguins in 2007. In 1998, when information and communication technology (ICT) was still not in fashion, Yunus said, ICT was going to “change the world in the immediate future far more rapidly and fundamentally than any other technology so far in human history.” In his article “Poverty Free World: How and When”, his words were prophetic: “The most attractive aspect of this spread of ICT is that it is not in anyone’s control. Neither government, nor big business, nor anyone of any authority can restrict the flow of information. The next best aspect of it is that it is becoming cheaper every day.”
Yunus further said, “ICT is raising the hope that we are approaching the world which is free from power brokers, and knowledge brokers”. He predicted that this ICT revolution was “particularly exciting for all disadvantaged groups, voiceless groups, and minority groups.” He insisted, “Any power based on exclusive access to information will disintegrate. Any common citizen will have almost as much access to information as the head of government. Leadership will have to be based on vision and integrity, rather than on manipulation of information”. I think few noticed what he said then, but the opportunities that he pointed towards to be deeply investigated. I know there is a strong view that ICT is still a middle class thing, but one should not forget what he pointed towards – that it is possible to disseminate information without the control of the powerful media groups and government, and to overlook this would mean overlooking the logic of socio-economic development.
It may not be fashionable to quote Karl Marx, as was in 1970s. But what Yunus said is only a reflection of Marx’s views enunciated way back in 1859 in “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.” Established Communists have, unfortunately, never paid heed to this truth. Yunus’ views on ICT only go to show the correctness of Marx’s views. It is time civil society heeds the voice of reason of Yunus and Marx and consider ICT as a means to change.
Indeed, it is in this context that I am stressing on the need to develop alternative media. Vested interests have begun using the ICT tool their advantage, so why wait now when we want to “annihilate caste” or take up other human rights issues? It is possible to develop it, without the support of powerful media houses. There have been extremely scattered efforts to do it; one of them is www.counterview.net, which I developed as a voluntary news portal, something I could not even dream of a decade ago. The effort is to provide information sourced on alternative sources, mainly civil society. Indeed, my 15-year interaction in government proves: to think official information is authentic is totally misplaced, the information one gets from the ground is more authentic.
Let me quote one of the latest instances: Based on just five (FIVE, imagine!) samples of Gujarat Muslim households, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) reached the conclusion that OBC Muslims’ poverty rate is down from 42 per cent in 2006-07 to 2.5 per cent in 2011-12. And economist Arvind Panagariya writes how Gujarat has done so well in reducing Muslim poverty ratio! Panagariya didn’t know the sample size, which was revealed to me by Amitabh Kundu, author of the new but unpublished report on the condition of Muslims in India. On advice from Gagan Sethi, I carried an article on this in counterview.org, a blog jointly run by Navsarjan, Centre for Social Justice and Janvikas.
Indeed, it is time one develops media based on alternative sources of information, which are more authentic, even if they may be based on limited experiences. There is lot of information on Dalit, women, other oppressed groups’ human rights issues available with civil society, which is never disseminated. In fact, I find there is more often a tendency to find a major daily of a news channel to highlight the issue, and but when this doesn’t happen, one sits back and criticizes the established media of being “biased.” I am not saying that established media shouldn’t be given a chance, but there is a need to create a new bias – for alternative media, to reflect human rights, environmental and other issues nagging people.

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