Panel Discussions at Jaipur Literature Festival touched burning issues

The just ended Jaipur Literature Festival had a lot to offer for the visitors. The panel discussions hosted by it touched upon several burning issues. Majid Alam describes two important discussions ~ democracy and Right to information

Panel Discussions at Jaipur Literature Festival touched burning issues

On a wintry morning at the Diggi Palace Hotel, which once used to be the palace of one the princely states that exist across Rajasthan, a huge crowd had gathered at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which hosts writers, journalists, politicians and academics from all over the globe. One of the main attractions at this year’s JLF was a group of discussion around the future of media and its challenges.

The festival invited journalists from print, television and digital news portal for an engaging discussion, which enthralled the audience. Who is accountable in a democracy? Is the government solely responsible for the development? What makes one a nationalist? These were some of the pertinent questions that were the centre of a conversation between Rajdeep Sardesai, consulting editor with the India Today Group and Madhu Trehan. Sardesai, who anchors a prime time show on India Today TV, has authored 2014: The election that changed India and has recently written Newsman.

He was in conversation with Madhu Trehan, senior journalist and writer, founding editor of India Today, and who now runs a digital platform Newslaundry. When there is a debate on the accountability of politicians and the impartiality of journalism, it requires a dialogue. In a democracy, the citizen is the pivot around which the system of the government functions. Sardesai stressed in his conversation about the need of the citizen to actively engage in the democratic processes of the country.


Democracy succeeds only if people decide to stand together and rectify the political system whenever the need arises. But at a time when the country is under the grip of communalisation and politics of hate, it is necessary that the citizen should realise whether one is being guided on the right path and question those in power. On this note Sardesai said, “India is the strongest when we are together, not when we are divided. We must have a dialogue.” Dividing the people on the basis of the religion, ideology and political affiliation shouldn’t be there to the extent of polarization, he added. Sardesai said, “We are caught up in identity politics, caste identity and community identity; and our politicians have played at it and it has become worse.”

At this crucial time, according to Sardesai, when the political parties are trying to bring out the worst in us, it’s necessary to follow the philosophy of Gandhi. Gandhi tried to bring out the best in us at a time when the Britishers were playing the politics of divide and rule. Taking some crucial points from the democracies around the world Sardesai said in countries like Israel people take up development works in their area rather than depending on the government for everything. Taking another example from Indore in Madhya Pradesh, where a group of people along with the District Magistrate decided to clean up the city, making it a successful cooperative initiative, which proves the capability of the citizen, he advocated, “This Republic is ours and we are going to fix it.”

Paying for your news Did you ever think where the money for journalism comes from? Does the fourth pillar of democracy really require money to run? Well, some of the journalists in this digital age believe so. Abhinandan Sekhri from the digital news portal Newslaundry is one of the many who thinks that the consumer should pay for its news. He said, “If the advertisers pay for your news then the advisers are served; when the public pays the public is served.”

Sekhri is one among the many journalists who advocate the ownership of the media industry needs to be changed to make it more as a public good. The discussion with Abhinandan Sekhri, co-founder, Newslaundry; Nistha Gautam, Opinion Editor, The Quint; and George Eliot, veteran journalist, was titled More Views, Less News? Eyeballs and Content and was being moderated by Rajeev Punnoli Irupattil, former investigative journalist. The conversation began with the existing media set-up in the country. The panellists agreed that the TV News channels are full of useless debates, less news and more eyewash. The revenue model of the broadcast and the print media is flawed, believes Sekhri as the news organisations mainly depend on advertisers for revenue.

It requires a reworking and making the consumer pay for the news, he noted. One might wonder why news channels show all these kinds of debates and news that are not journalistic. It’s because the debates and other prime time shows are inexpensive. “It provides the circus which the viewers want to see as entertainment but not necessarily pay for,” said Sekhri. Therefore, the audience catering to such programmes on the news channels gets the viewership, which will in return bring more advertisements.

To bring forward responsible and unbiased news, the consumers need to pay for what they see, he added. Nistha Gautam said if one does not pay then one will get such things in the name of the news. She also brought forward the reason behind such journalism today. She believes the audience is consuming such TV debates and news shows because viewers take it for entertainment and not news. The moment such content isn’t available for free, it will cease to exist. In the newspaper world, if one does not like the news one does not buy the newspaper. Therefore, panelists believe that for news to be credible and trustworthy the audience should pay it.

Many believe that digital or online media is the future of journalism. The emerging form of new media that is the Internet has transformed the news space digital space. Thus the commerce behind the news industry has changed. A news portal earns through the number of consumers visiting the webpage and, therefore, a news portal with the maximum number of page hits earns substantially, while those with probably a serious content wouldn’t receive such a good response. This results in the race of page hits and selling entertainment in the name of the news. On the other hand, John Eliot, veteran journalists stressed the fact that the public needs to know who are the owners behind the available news organisation. But sadly, in India, people are not aware of who owns their media. Eliot talked about Europe, where people know the owners of media organisations and hence know the motive of the owner behind owning the media house. Therefore, in India, people should know why Ambani has interest in owning the media channels.

The panelists agreed that media should remain a public entity. For this, the consumer should come forward and pay for what really matters them ~ a credible and unbiased truth. Journalism is a public good and it should remain in the hands of the public. Citizen’s Right to know “At a time when all kinds of violence are being stifled, when people seeking information are imprisoned and fake knowledge is being created,” said Urvashi Butalia, well-known feminist and publisher. “The Right to Information becomes relevant.” Batulia was talking to Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander on the Right to Information, a legal tool in the hands of the common citizen by which they could get information concerning any government office.

Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander, are former civil servants who resigned from their posts after the Constitutional Emergency of 1975 and 2002 Gujarat Riots respectively. Both of them are into activism and focus on grassroots issues in the country. Right to Information was a legislative Act, which was enacted in 2005. It allowed a citizen to demand government records to bring in transparency and prevent corruption in the economy. According to Aruna Roy, who was one of the first proponents of the law, the battle for the law began in Rajasthan. The demand for Right to Information began with some poor people demanded their wages from the government.

The government didn’t pay the wages and when they asked for the documents, the government employees said that it were secret documents. If you have the power as a trust for the people with a disadvantage, everything you need to do would be open, you wouldn’t need to hide it. If the government offices use the power in unjust ways, then it needs to be hidden. But today the government not only holds back the information but also transmits false information consciously. This led to a demand for the Right to Information, which in Harsh Mander’s word is the biggest reform in the government that has occurred since Independence. Right to Information began with the motive to hold government accountable to the people.

The right is unique since it strengthens democracy from below. HarshMander narrated how the law was used to obtain even the basic details like the distribution of the grains within a local panchayat. The distributor would sell the grains meant for the poor in the black market. The records and logbook weren’t accessed by the people. Thereby the corruption got reduced significantly bringing more transparency. Sardesai advocated for the people to be more responsible in a democracy. He advocated for a people-centric democracy where the role of the people increases far more than the government and where the media and the government are accountable to the people. Abhinandan Sekhri, Nistha Gautam and John Eliot argued that the media ownership and the revenue model need to be changed so that journalism becomes a public good and not a corporate good

. Harsh Mander and Aruna Roy advocated for transparency in the government but that transparency comes with the citizens taking over their rights which is how the Right to Information came to its inception. India becomes a Republic only if the people decide to actively participate in the political process.