The CNN, STAR TV and the BBC World Service have become a part and parcel of daily viewing in all urban centres. Their programmes have found their way into the Indian living rooms and, shall we say, have come to stay for good. For the programmes have gained popularity. The operation of the foreign media in general was once conceived as a ‘threat’—a dangerous intrusion—that would present grave risks to national interests and endanger every aspect of the Indian society. It had also been suggested that it would prove a threat to India’s sovereignty and finally its independent status.
Such fears seem to have been exaggerated, and not quite valid. The power of the media is strong indeed, and no one would deny that. But can the foreign media successfully use this very power to work against the hopes and aspirations and to the detriment of the Indian people? The media, an important means of communication, is a vast source of information and entertainment to people across the country. Its ability to mould thoughts and shape opinions is such that one can say it is a governing force of sorts. The various impressions it leaves upon the human mind, the views and ideas it may end up propagating do, all in all, affect the people’s lifestyles, their way of thinking and even being. As far as the Indian society is concerned, it is one in which traditional socio- cultural standards are deeply ingrained. It was mainly feared that the coming of the foreign media would not only have commercial ramifications but that it would also disrupt India’s social, cultural and political fabric. In all these discussions, it has been forgotten that foreign sources have been involved in providing information to Indians for years now.
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The BBC World Service news broadcasts, for instance, were long preferred to those of the domestic—All India Radio—especially by those keen on credibility. Foreign newspapers and magazines have not only been available on the news stand but also zealously read. Though the more recent access to foreign TV may appear to have infused Western thoughts and standards among the people, the truth is that its effects have been very limited. Indian society, however diverse and multifaceted, is made up of people who are sensible enough. There is nothing to suggest that they lack the keen sense of discrimination necessary to reject any nonsense that the Western media may throw their way. It is insulting to the Indian sensibility if one were – to assume that the people here would swallow all the lies and hostile propaganda that the foreign media may choose to disseminate, coming to the Western cultural influences communicated through the foreign media, a common viewpoint is that ignorance is bliss: the less we are exposed to their culture, the better for us.
One cannot agree with this that knowing more about other cultures and lifestyles would add to our own knowledge. In the end, one must rely upon one’s own moral values to choose the best and leave the rest. Even if the foreign media attempt to serve their own vested interests—political, economical or of whatever kind—through news and views, it is doubtful if they would be successful at all.
There are many safeguards in law to check activities that may promote antagonism among different religious, linguistic, caste and other groups. Indeed, the presence of the foreign electronic media has done much to rejuvenate its domestic counterpart with the result that the standard and quality of our own television and radio programmes have very much improved. A number of Indian TV channels such as Aaj tak, Zee TV network, Sony and NDTV have also made their presence felt in an impressive way. So, competition has helped the consumer get a variety of choice.
Regarding the foreign media presence, there is another matter worth taking note of. How will these media groups operate and what are the checks and restrictions they will be subjected to? For one thing, the Indian Constitution, recognising the importance of receiving and imparting information as basic tenet of democracy, enshrines freedom of speech and expression under Article 19. Free speech and expression where the media is concerned, falls under the preview of the same Article. But clearly, the Article confers the right upon “all citizens” only. So, what about those who are not citizens of the country and all the foreign corporative as well? It has been said that the Constitution has made a deliberate distinction between the term ‘person’ and ‘citizen’ in order to guarantee free speech and expression to Indian citizens only. The question is whether the freedom to speak or express should be restricted on the basis of nationality. Any point of view, opinion or idea that is expressed or any simple information for that matter ought to hold weight for what it is and not for who utters it and where. It is ironical that any society democratic in character—that is, one which does away with all distinctions of caste, religion, and sex—must erect a barrier in the form of nationality when it comes to a fundamental principle of democracy itself.
Maybe it was to universally recognise this inherent and true nature of democracy that the UNESCO Declaration (1978) stressed “freedom of opinion, expression of information” as “an integral part of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Article 19(2) has expressed the same: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression, this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other of his choice.” The problem becomes acute when we consider the entry of foreign publications, i.e. the print media, into India. The foreign newspapers, for instance, will have to register their titles or names only under the Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act, 1867.
However, the Act does not admit persons who do not reside in the country to edit or publish newspapers. The national policy has also been such that in 1955 itself it was decided that foreign newspapers and periodicals would not be allowed to be published from India. A large section of the Indian print media has been hostile to the entry of foreign newspapers on a regular basis into India. The apprehension was that it would endanger national security and sovereignty.
The government has partially opened up the print media, allowing foreign direct investment under certain conditions in the various media enterprises. As of 2005, India permits foreign direct investment (FDI) up to 26 per cent in news publications and up to 74 per cent in non-news publications. This, one believes, is in keeping with our economic policy. Significantly, it is stipulated that editorial control should be with Indian citizens.
Caution is not to be laughed off; hundred per cent foreign entry into the media sector is not allowed even in the highly democratic Western countries, not even in the USA. This is because the press is seen as a vital part of a country’s political and socio-economical setup. And no outsider, however liberal, can be expected to have a country’s interests at heart to the extent a citizen of that country does. So, ownership— at least the majority of the stake—of media is best left in India’s hands. The entry of foreign media has to be governed by strict rules.
Any intention to cripple the country politically or economically or any attempt at cultural imperialism in order to make the country a slave to the designs of international powers would not be tolerated. If the foreign media is keen on making a presence on the Indian soil, respect for the country’s unity and integrity is essential. Foreign media need not be a risk to the integrity and sovereignty of the country. The Western electronic media, for instance, which has been functioning for some time, has provided healthy competition to the domestic media industry which has not only bettered its services but is also now more conscious of people’s wants. Some of our largest circulated dailies have tremendously improved their contents and quality with the entry of the foreign media in India. Now they have become world class. The Times of India, in fact, has come to occupy a place among the top five dailies of the world, and this is no mean achievement.
That foreign media’s influence, especially on the cultural scene would bring about a disintegration of the Indian society is an erroneous belief. As long as people retain their sense of integrity and have a sensible approach towards the programme aired by foreign media, there need be no fear of their getting brainwashed. With the change in the government’s policy, steps to facilitate the foreign media’s entry are needed. However, foreign media ought to be treated on par with the domestic media industry in every manner.