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Land of a Thousand Voices
India's changing media landscape

In the past 25 years, with digitization, the economic boom and the increasing needs of a new urban middle class - almost unnoticed by the global public - a dramatic change has taken place on the Indian media market.

By Ramesh Menon

India has one of the most interesting media landscapes in the world. The huge growth market pulsates with activity, innovation and the joy of experimentation. But ironically, it is also full of anachronisms.
 
Where else in the world could one find such a rich and diverse media landscape as in India with almost 900 television channels, over 500 radio stations and 100,000 registered publications. There are 560 million internet users, 400 million people are on WhatsApp, 260 million are on Facebook, and 200 million used TikTok before it was banned in India. 80 million have an Instagram account, Telegram has over 30 million active users, and there are twelve million Twitter accounts, according to data from Sannam S4.


The past few years in particular have been shaped by this hectic hustle and bustle that has fundamentally changed the media landscape. Traditional print and TV media are being aggressively displaced by social media, blogs, news websites, and messenger apps. You are leading a new revolution and turning the worlds of life upside down in both Indian cities and rural areas.

For millions, the change came overnight

In India, Internet usage increased rapidly among the lower middle class when India's largest multinational conglomerate, Reliance Industries Limited, introduced the Jio broadband service with extremely affordable tariffs. Over time, it evolved into a complete digital service platform.
 
Over night, millions of Indians had access to news, YouTube videos and social media platforms. All of a sudden, information, false information, misinformation, fake news and immediate satisfaction of needs were part of the new normal! Numerous political parties, particularly the Right, immediately took advantage of this emerging power to reach out to their voters and campaigns. Within the first three months of its launch, Jio gained over 100 million subscribers. A boon to many political parties that have used both conventional and social media to spread their campaigns, crush the opposition and rewrite the political history of India.

Tweets became news

In the general election in 2014, the media played a key role in positioning the right-wing leadership as aggressive policymakers who would help the Indian economy flourish once it came to power. Social media was used extensively to disseminate the parties' programs, and Twitter was used as a platform not just for news coverage but also for important political messages.
 
Ministers and officials were advised not to use these media, but eventually they too joined the movement and began sending out tweets. And so it happened that tweets became news! In the past, journalists could get a more precise picture and an impression of the government officials. Over time, however, it became increasingly difficult to uncover stories, get inside information, or conduct research into government policies and strategies. Because all those who worked against the government were covered with libel suits. So it's no surprise that India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders' 2020 press freedom list.

A new form of media management

Journalism as a recurring thorn in the flesh of Indian politics, exposing governments, politicians and business leaders, had lost its influence. Investigative media outlets like The Wire and Caravan, which scrutinized government actions, were covered with defamation lawsuits intended as a warning.
 
Journalists critical of the government were kicked out the door by their employers. The owners of most Indian media companies pursue numerous other business interests in addition to the media business. In many cases, the media are simply used as a cover to increase political influence.
 
Fake news is ubiquitous. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of fake news items ranging from information about home remedies to vaccine developments sowed fear and horror in the population. Fortunately, given the spread of misinformation, fact-checking sites like Boom Live, AltNews or SMHoaxSlayer brought to life.

The curtain opens

In India, the regional media have unprecedented growth opportunities with ever increasing reach. Newspapers in Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi reach millions of people every day. Newspapers in Hindi like Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, Hindustan, Rajasthan Patrika or Amar Ujala have a daily circulation of more than 100,000 copies. Likewise newspapers in Malayalam like Manorama and Mathrubhumi or Sakal in Marathi.
 
However, with the monopoly and privatization of companies, the Indian media was dealt the fatal blow, as the best traditions of journalism cannot be upheld in the conflict between individual interests. This can be very dangerous for a democracy like India because millions of people can neither read nor write and are susceptible to propaganda and fake news. It cannot be ruled out that public opinion is manipulated by individual interests and that disadvantaged people are marginalized. The idea of ​​the role the media can play in this changing and polarized country based on caste, belief and religion is frightening.
 
That doesn't sound like a good story.

author

Ramesh Menon is a writer, award-winning journalist, documentary filmmaker and educator with over four decades of professional experience. He is a lecturer at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication in Pune and also lectures at the MCRC of Jamia Millia Islamia and the India Today Media Institute in Noida.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors.

Translation: Kathrin Hadeler
Copyright: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi; This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany License.

September 2020

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