The call of Congress President Sonia Gandhi calls to ban government advertisements on all media outlets for 2 years is an attack on the functioning of the fourth pillar or democracy. Mrs Gandhi’s proposal can not only put Media resources at risk of survival but also lead them to oblivion.
- NJ Thakuria
In the time of nationwide lockdown to break the chain of novel corona virus infection in India, the oldest party of the largest democracy on the globe puts the mainstream media industry in an awkward position. Indian National Congress president Sonia Gandhi sent a proposal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for completely shunning advertisements on print, television and online media outlets (only issuing Covid-19 related advisories) by the government and its undertakings units for two years.
Once Mrs Gandhi’s five suggestions amid corona disaster around the world reached the public domain, the Indian Newspaper Society reacted sharply with annoyances as it was nothing less than a bolt from the blue for the media owners across the country.
Indian Newspaper Society (INS) president Shailesh Gupta in a statement argued that ‘media personnel are risking their lives and bringing news on the pandemic situation’, and he asked Mrs Gandhi to withdraw her specific suggestion for the sake of India’s vibrant media. He also pointed out that the government spending (whatever it is for the newspaper industry) remains essential in a vibrant democracy.
“The reaction from INS establishes that the print media industry here is dependent on the government advertisements. As digital media outlets are emerging fast, the traditional print media has somehow lost its bargaining power for the said resource,” said Rupam Barua, a media activist based in northeast India.
Indian Union government spends around Rs 12,500 million (I USD = 75 Rs) annually for advertisements in newspaper, news channels and online media outlets. The provinces keep their own budgets for local or regional media groups. However major revenues for newspapers always come from the commercial advertisers. India today supports over 82,000 registered newspapers with a cumulative daily circulation of 11 crore estimated to be a Rs 32,000 crore (5 billion USD) industry. As the country is improving its literacy rate up to 75 percent, more citizens now develop the capacity to access newspapers in digital forums too.
More and more middle class Indians today use the internet for various activities. As the unprecedented lockdown continues, newspaper groups face an uphill task to maintain its devoted readership. The complete shutdown prevented the vendors to deliver morning newspapers at reader’s doorsteps as rumour spread that the paper itself could carry the deadly virus and many publishers reduced their printing figure.
As the pandemic infected over 7000 Indians with more than 200 casualties, its immediate impact was observed over the circulation of newspapers in various parts of India. Managements of Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Mid-Day etc clarified that their physical editions may not hit the stands but those would be available through internet.
India’s acclaimed news magazine Outlook, sports magazine Sportstar, Manipal’s weekly Taranga, Hindi daily Mahanagar, Assam’s popular magazines Prantik, Bismoi, Nadnini etc have already suspended their print editions. Most them vowed to continue their digital versions for the benefit of readers. India Abroad, the voice of ethnic Indians for 50 years was also closed down recently.
World Health Organization (WHO) has however asserted that newspapers remain safe to touch by anybody even though the corona virus can live on a surface for several days. The papers used in print media outlets are produced in highly automated mills and the process hardly needs human hands. Moreover, the likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes Covid-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low, it added.
Even Union information & broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar issued a statement asking everybody nobody not to believe in rumours. ‘You will not get infected by reading newspapers. There is just one rule to follow- wash your hands after doing any work’ stated Javadekar, who used to work as a professional journalist, adding that newspapers have tremendous credibility and those can play a constructive role in the time of crisis.
No doubt, an Indian newspaper is sold in the market at a much lower price than it actually costs. The deficit is managed by the commercial advertisers. They want a newspaper to reach more people so that their products get necessary visibilities. Minus circulation, the advertisers would not support the newspapers anymore. So the inability to distribute newspapers simply means the shrinkage of advertisements for print media outlets.
Moreover, regular advertisers for newspapers like automobile industry, construction, home appliances, private education, travel, hospitality, etc have also faced the shutdown equally and once the people lose the affording capacity for such items at least for the next few months, the advertisers would restrict their budgets.
Finally the newspapers may have to solely depend on government advertisements in the post-corona period. But Mrs Gandhi’s proposal can put that resources also at stack. Bad days ahead of Indian newspapers indeed!