Free media, labour and citizenship rights in a democracy

Padmaja Shaw

Abstract


India is the most populous democracy in the world. In the early years after attaining independence, as a new democracy, Indian development strategy was driven by what Francine Frankel (2005) calls the “the Gandhian-socialist consensus” that was predominantly value oriented. Frankel enumerates the areas of consensus - first, there was the general agreement that economic policy should aim for the progressive removal of inequalities in Indian society, and ultimately result in the complete disappearance of class distinctions. Second, the Gandhians and the socialists concurred on the need to limit sharply the existing scope of the acquisitive instinct in Indian economic life, and to create a new set of cooperative motives.

The Nehruvian socialist state envisioned a strong industrial base under state ownership (Frankel, 2005) and wage labour was seen within the ethical context of productive employment and as a defining frame for good citizenship. This and the Constitutional guarantee of Fundamental Rights helped to give legitimacy to wage labour’s expectation of citizenship rights through provision of jobs, better working conditions, better social services and healthcare.

By the 1990s, after economic liberalization, the basic premises of this vision were discarded even in populist political rhetoric, while the state embraced neo-liberal ideology and economic policies. The changed economic agenda impacted severely on the working classes. Primarily because of the nature of growth and specifically because of the pressure from the Indian industrial houses, the policies encouraged relaxation of the already weakly implemented labour laws.

This paper examined the role media played in debating these issues. As media are event oriented and not process oriented in their coverage, coverage of labour issues is unlikely on an ordinary news day. This paper, therefore, examined the news and opinion pieces that have appeared in mainstream media when the CEO of a multinational auto component manufacturer, Graziano Transmissioni, located in Noida, India, died following an altercation with the dismissed workers of the factory.

The paper began by giving a background to the industrial dispute that provoked the event, followed by the perspectives on the role of media in a democracy. Prof Noam Chomsky and Prof Amartya Sen are two of the great contemporary philosophers who have written extensively on media’s role in society, though from different analytical perspectives. The coverage of the event itself in the media was presented and the paper discussed the coverage from the two theoretical perspectives on media expounded by professors Sen and Chomsky.

From the discussion of the news coverage, it is clear that in ‘democratic’ societies, media may be free, but not necessarily fair. In a deeply unequal society, the spaces in media for articulating the demands for equal citizenship rights are severely constricted. In the name of free debate, media seem to act as a tool for ‘kite flying’ to sense the public mood on behalf of the state-capital nexus and ‘spin’ the debates to legitimize disenfranchising policies. The debate itself can be seen as an important element of a free society, but when there is an a priori policy consensus among the ruling elite and capital, justice can be subverted institutionally by not implementing protective legislation (as is the case with labour laws).
Prof Sen’s view of the role of media in a democracy is ideally desirable. But in practice, it is evident that Prof Chomsky’s critique of media’s role is closer to reality. A study (Puette, 1992) on media portrayal of labour issues two decades ago found that the media systematically, overtly and covertly, hide/highlight issues to paint a negative image of organised labour. The democratic right to free speech has not been used by the media to protect the interests of the poor whether in India or elsewhere, when the issues are fundamentally economic or political in nature. Free and unfettered media may be necessary for a democracy, but they do not seem sufficient to ensure equal rights to all.

Keywords


media's role; labour; democracy; citizenship

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.15847/obsOBS512011408