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Dr Abhijit Bora
Date of Publish: 2015-07-08

Journalism in Assam is at a critical juncture


Joymoti, the first Assamese movie released in 1935, completes eight decades this year (2015). More importantly for journalists in Assam, Arunodoi, the first newspaper published in 1846, touches 170 years.

Helmed by Christian missionaries, Arunodoi periodically disseminated religious information. Faith apart, it contributed immensely to the development of Assamese language and literature. It inspired several newspapers and a few magazines, many of them short-lived unlike The Assam Tribune that celebrated its platinum jubilee in 2014.

Magazines published before and after independence had such impact on the society that several eras of literature – such as Banhi Age, Abahan Age and Jonaki Age – came to be named after them. But the 1980s, a highly important era for the media in the state, was nameless.

English daily The Sentinel was launched during that decade followed by Amar Asom by another group. The expansion of the two media houses led to a virtual contest; the market was flooded with dailies and magazines.

Some survived the race, some faded away. Some became a habit, like the Assamese Prakash (by State Publication Board, Assam), Prantik, Jonbiri and Natun Prithibi.

Today, Assam has more than 10 dailies, a few magazines, and about five TV news channels functioning. NETV, which closed down some time ago, was the first among the TV news channels.

There have been a few trends in this chain of developments.

First, with more and more outlets for news, people are getting a wider choice and platforms for expressing their diverse views, which is a welcome development. In a democracy, multiple choices for information consumption as well as expression of opinions is a sacred right of the people.

Secondly, information dissemination – both for development and otherwise – has become far more convenient in the present scenario. This can be expected to further improve over the comings days. A considerable portion of the population in the state is illiterate and without access to formal institutions of learning. Here, media has the potential to play the role of an informal learning institution to a large extent. Thus, this expansion of media offers us a great scope for such positive purposes.

But a more prominent trend of late has been that of political party leaders – mainly from the ruling party so far – taking over newspapers and TV channels. While this is an established norm in some southern Indian states, it is a new phenomenon for Assam. Also, it is impossible for any media outlet, even those owned by non-political houses, to guarantee impartiality. Yet those owned by political leaders or parties have the potential of the people taking it for granted as being partial to the owners’ interests rather than the people’s by default.

Again, publications and TV channels enjoy more readership and viewership among Assamese, Bengali and Hindi speaking people than other languages of the state with fewer speakers. With ‘inclusive development’ assuming importance, a respectable number of publications and TV news bulletins are hoped to cater to these languages.

In spite of all positive developments, there is no denying the fact that news presentation by both TV and print is going through a phase that cannot effectively be described as ideal. Quite similar to the famous “20 minutes of fame” syndrome of the electronic media, majority of the print and TV news channels are often resorting to gimmicks. They are highlighting non-issues out of proportion and largely skirting the real grassroots level issues of the masses. A newspaper reader or TV bulletin viewer has every right to know what is going on around the society and across the globe, so the way of presentation and gate-keeping adopted by media houses has a lot of scope for improvement.

Many a times, a few media outlets almost seem to be openly supporting a particular political ideology urging people to support it, throwing the ‘ethical rule book’ out of the window. They thereby set a bad precedent for others to follow while misdirecting the unsuspecting public.

Another issue that should be kept under close observation by the people is the gradual development of ‘cross ownership’ of media. This means, the same media house or group owning more than one entity across various platforms. For example, if a newspaper house owns or acquires an FM Radio channel, TV news or entertainment channel, etc. under one roof, there may be a danger of concentration of too much media power in the hands of one particular media group which can create havoc at any time with its wide spread of influence.

This issue was addressed several decades ago by the USA so that no media group can accumulate more than a fair share of its influence of the market over a certain period of time. Though it has not attained alarming proportions in our country, it might be wise to keep an eye on this development.

In conclusion, it can be said that the media in Assam have been progressing towards maturity at its own pace, maybe not in a manner expected or in comparison to other societies of the country. Viewers and readers also have to shoulder a certain amount of responsibility in showing the media the path whenever needed, in a fruitful and mutually beneficial way. Nothing short of such a judicious cooperation can help bring an ideal situation where media leave a good taste among the masses. The people need to guide the media for striking a balance between information dissemination and freedom of expression in the days to come.

(Dr. Abhijit Bora is the Head of the Department of Mass Communication, Tezpur University )


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