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Crisis of credibility

There was an uproar on digital platforms recently when the traditional media outlets of Guwahati did not cover a particular issue related to the ruling party in Assam

Nava Thakuria | Guwahati |

As the Internet surfaced, people in Assam’s mainstream media initially thought it would be limited to youngsters only and the enthusiasm would soon end.
But that never happened. Rather, a sizable number of quality readers of newspapers, viewers of television news channels and listeners of radio outlets turned out to be avid users of social media engineered by the new-found Internet. Now, consumers are not satisfied with the mainstream media’s version of events but want something new and reasonable.

The prompt responses from readers were not usually honoured by most newspapers in Assam (television and radio outlets have little pace for the same) till a decade ago. Many times, if a response (in the “letters to the editor” section) was critical of the content of newspapers, it was a usual practice for most Assamese editors to ignore it and even ensure that it would never be published in future.

Times changed and slowly, readers, who are now social media users too, started questioning the content of alternate media. Lately, it has become a regular practice for many individuals to send a letter to the editor of a particular newspaper and simultaneously upload the same content on social media. Often, similar approaches can be observed in the case of news channels. The practice may be derogatory for editors, but newspapers have little energy to challenge such readers.

Till now, it has been common for readers to react to a piece of news published in a newspaper (or aired on a television channel), but something unusual happened in Assam recently. There was outrage on digital platforms against Guwahati-based newspapers and news channels for not covering a particular issue. The public fury against the editor-journalists was a result of not covering three press conferences of Opposition political parties that targeted chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for his family’s alleged land grab.
The public uproar on alternate media was so intense that the celebrity editor-journalists of Assam did not dare to clarify their positions. They preferred to avoid the debate by killing time. Shockingly, no media workers’ outfit, civil society group or reader and viewer came forward to defend the otherwise glamourous editor-journalists, when they faced abusive social media posts for several days.

Assam, with a population of more than 30 million people, supports more than 30 daily morning newspapers in different languages along with a large number of Assamese periodicals and magazines. Guwahati also hosts eight satellite news channels (most of them are in the free-to-air category) with hundreds of news portals. Their cumulative quality readership (and viewership) is understood to be 3.5 million, whereas the number of social media users in the state may cross 4.5 million.
The latest controversy started with a report presented by The Wire and The Crosscurrent in the first week of December 2021. Both digital media outlets alleged a land grabbing scam by the family of Assam CM Sarma. The content indicated that a real estate company, founded by the saffron leader’s wife, had illegally occupied around 18 acres of government land meant for landless farmers.

Based on that specific report in the media, three political parties, namely the Asom Jatiya Parishad, Raijor Dol and Congress Party, organised separate press conferences demanding proper investigations into the alleged land scam by the CM’s family. For reasons best known to editor-journalists of the Guwahati-based newspapers and news channels, they did not cover the programmes and simply killed the news.

The issue would have died naturally after some time. But a sudden outburst of anti-media posts on digital platforms surfaced in the morning hours of 9 December last year. For almost three days, most of the editors were named and shamed on social media for their silence over Sarma’s land grab issue. News channel’s logos and photographs of some celebrity-journalists were made viral with abusive words.
Soon, the Assam Legislative Assembly began its winter session on 20 December and as usual, the first day’s proceedings were interrupted by Opposition legislators over the issue. They wanted the Assembly to discuss it, but speaker Biswajit Daimary did not allow that. Later, Members of the Legislative Assembly from the Opposition staged a walkout in protest. But again, the development was not prominently published by most newspapers and news channels.

Assam Congress Party president Bhupen Bora dared Sarma to clarify his stand on the issue. All the Opposition leaders demanded a probe by the Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation over the alleged land grab. They claimed that Sarma, for his personal interest, had handed over 18 acres of government land worth crores of rupees to his family members without following any rule.

The oldest party of India also organised a press conference in New Delhi, where senior leaders like Gaurav Vallabh, Jitendra Singh, Ripun Bora and Gaurav Gogoi alleged that Sarma set aside all rules to offer government land to his family. This time, the issue got national coverage by most of the metro-based morning dailies. At least two news agencies covered the event, meaning that it was widespread across India. CM Sarma is yet to clarify his stand over the matter, except commenting that both the online portals are biased.

The reluctance for covering such issues by most of Guwahati’s mainstream media outlets can be guessed from their dependence on government advertisement revenue for survival. They are facing a serious financial crisis since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country. It resulted in abrupt loss of circulation for newspapers and commercial advertisement revenues. Television news channels also lost their quality viewership drastically.

Therefore, most newspaper managements today cannot go against government policy even if that becomes necessary for sustaining its credibility. Thus, they have slowly turned into unofficial organs of the ruling party and its allies. Surprisingly, they are not confident of getting adequate support from their valued readers across the state when in need. And it is still not viable for them to embrace the idea of crowdfunding.

Moreover, the personal corruption of some well-known editor-journalists also complicated the situation, as public goodwill towards the media fraternity continues to erode. A senior Assamese journalist, who has been in the profession for more than three decades, recently made a sensational social media post claiming that at least seven editors of Guwahati-based news channels possessed more wealth than what they could earn legally from their professional engagements.

Confirming his post, Dipankar Devsarmah, while recently speaking to this writer, lamented that because of a few greedy editor-media owners, the industry has lost its credibility. Talking about naming the editors in the post, Devsarmah asserted that it may be unpleasant, but true. He even made a declaration in the post that all details about those editors’ properties are with him. Many editor-journalists have already become known contractors of various government departments, asserted Devsarmah.

Motivated news is somehow synonymous with many Assam media outlets. Reporting an event, according to the whims of a particular editor or senior reporter, is quite common. One may report blatantly how a function became unsuccessful (as the reporter got allegations from participants), but probably the main reason was the editor (pretending to be a celebrity) was not invited to the dais (whereas his/her contemporary was honoured there). It may also happen when an influential reporter is ignored for a particular programme.

Now the question that arises is, why would readers believe in these media outlets and spend money, as most of them run their media enterprises for selfish interests only. They have made it a habit to create news out of nothing even though it may well be character assassinations of individuals. Moreover, when the affected parties try to clarify their positions, the editor-owners prefer to ignore their views, as if the media fraternity is in no way accountable.

Probably, the bell is tolling for media outlets in Assam to undertake urgent self-reforms. As mainstream media is no longer the primary source of information, it may be time for them to establish their credibility in a visible way. Otherwise, the invasion of alternative news outlets will soon cripple the traditional industry and there will perhaps be nobody to mourn over it.