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Impact of the internal emergency on the media

The internal emergency in India (1975-1977), imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi coincided with the SITE experiment, complicating some of the state’s policy objectives (Sanjay, 1991). During this ‘dark period’ for India’s media history, strict censorship was introduced, opposition newspapers were closed and journalists and political leaders detained. The government used the ‘security of the state’ and ‘promotion of disaffection’ as its defence for imposing strict control on the press. And with the airwaves already under government ownership, Indira Gandhi ‘successfully controlled the mass communication system in India’ (Singh, 1980: 40).The government also tried to restructure the newspaper industry with more friendly chairpersons on various boards and also to integrate the country’s four major news agencies into one news agency for better control and dissemination (Grimes, 1975).

After the emergency was lifted and Gandhi lost power, committees instituted by the Janata (people’s) Party coalition government held an inquiry into the internal emergency period and its excesses, including the abuses of the mass media. A White Paper provided details of the systematic attempt to muzzle the press and persecution and prosecution of journalists, as well as complete control of broadcast media (Dass, 1977). The new government focused on the restoration of the preemergency status to the Indian press and autonomy to broadcast media that had lingered as a constant demand. Dismantling the authoritarian media structure in India was advocated as policy framework and it included a corporate structure for broadcasting media, advisory to newspapers to perform as public utilities and ‘not profit only enterprises’ (Verghese, 1977: 731).

Post-emergency India also saw the launch of many periodicals/magazines with multi-colour printing and better layouts, enhancing the appeal and readership base for the print media. It also was the beginning of the rise of the Indian-language press. In 1978, the circulation of the language press, notably the Hindi press, surpassed the circulation figures of the English media. The first non-Congress government did not complete its five-year term and multi-party jostling for power led to the return of Gandhi in 1980. With Indira Gandhi at the helm again, India saw the introduction of colour television to coincide with hosting of the Asian Games in 1982. The then Director General of Doordarshan summarized it as metaphor for switchover to high technology and creation of an ambition for nationwide satellite television. Gandhi’s loyalists felt that the games ‘helped her to discard the opprobrium of the Emergency’ (Mehta, 2014). This phase also coincided with the abolition of licence fees for both radio and TV sets in 1985, a revenue model that had been in place since independence (Luthra, 1986).

Liberalization of the media in the 1990s

The post-structural reforms or the liberalization of the Indian economy was an inevitable response to the dynamics of globalization and the economic reforms of the early 1990s. A far-reaching judgement by the Supreme Court of India questioned the government monopoly of broadcasting.The country’s highest court ruled that the airwaves were public property and implied that they did not belong to the government alone. This judgement, apart from opening up airwaves to the growth of broadcasting in the private sector, also brought in a wave of changes in the media landscape, with television occupying the centre stage of consumption of entertainment and news, more of the former (Govt, of India, 1995).

The resultant unregulated growth of cable TV systems across the country was the beginning of last-mile distribution of television content (Naregal, 2000). The broadcast media has grown since then at a phenomenal pace in terms of the exponential increase in terms of television sets and households, private television stations for news and entertainment and multiple forms of distribution of content. In the newspaper industry, too, phenomenal growth has been seen in Indian-language newspapers, a phenomenon attributed to improved technology, enhancement of literacy levels and purchasing power, as well as hyper-localized content (Jeffrey, 2000).

While the sustained growth of newspaper circulation and readership in India intrigues observers from North America and Europe, in reality India’s rising literacy levels (around 74 per cent), low cover prices and local content contributed to the rise in circulation of the Indian-language print media. The readership profile, too, has changed affecting the erstwhile perception of what a newspaper ought to be. The trend has continued in all sectors of Indian media, including digital spaces.The metrics for measurement has changed to readership now as opposed to circulation that was a more rigorous audit carried out by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. The readership for newspapers - in English and particularly in Indian languages - has also grown with neo-literates and new consumers in small towns and rural parts of the country.

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