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Ownership and threats of shrinking public sphere

India’s diversity, plurality and democracy are being undermined by the nature and structure of media ownership in the country. It is concentrated in a few companies with cross-media and non-media interests (Rangnekar, 2018). The concerns are similar, for example, to those in the US about media ownership and monopolies that limit access to information (Lancia, 2009), and around the world (Noam, 2016). It has been suggested that more media does not necessarily mean or reflect India’s plurality and diversity. In this sense, the Habermasian concept of the public sphere appears to be eroding in the world’s largest democracy as growing concentration of media power among a shrinking number of corporate and political interests can undermine political processes (TRAI, 2014). The government occasionally attempts to curb cross-media ownership with very little effect on the legislative front, as a review by the Law Commission of India demonstrated, noting the comprehensive lack of restrictions on cross-media ownership (Law Commission, 2014).

The media industry, on the other hand, looks at ownership from the point of investment. There is strong lobby for enhancing foreign direct investment (FDI) in India, with a few well-articulated responses for restrictions in the news sector. For example, in the print sector FDI is limited at 26 per cent and the digital media has opened up to 26 per cent in 2019. Between 2000 and 2019, foreign direct investment in the Indian media sector that includes entertainment, news, carriage and distribution, was $8.38 billion (IBEF, 2020). In a note to the government, the Confederation of Indian Industry had a perceptive analysis and reasoning as to why the amount of FDI allowed in the electronic news sector should be increased from 26 to 49 per cent. Even though there are a large number of 24x7 news channels, most of these exist for extraneous and collateral reasons to boost the power and influence of certain domestic groups having interests in other unrelated businesses. Also, news channels are primarily dependent on advertisement revenues in the absence of a viable subscription-based business model (СП, 2010).

The non-media interests of many media companies are also a cause for concern (Bhattachaijee and Agrawal, 2018: 56). For example, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance group owns Network 18 and its multiple television channels, reaching more than 800 million people in India. Its media footprint traverses movie production, digital content and commerce, print magazines, mobile content and allied services. Its subsidiary news network,TV 18, owns 20 channels in 15 Indian languages and claimed nearly 11 per cent of news viewership in 2019, while its digital services, Jio, with 307 million subscribers, had 34 per cent of the telecom pie. The company, India’s largest conglomerate, owns refining, petrochemicals, oil and gas, retail in addition to media and digital. The consolidated turnover of the company was nearly S82 billion with media and entertainment segment worth S674 million and digital services $619 million.Together the communication segment constituted 8.28 per cent of their turnover (Reliance, 2019). In April 2020, Facebook acquired a 10 per cent stake in Jio as part of a mutually beneficial communication strategy (Business Today, 2020). A dominant political party in southern Tamil Nadu state owns a media conglomerate under the Sun group; Bennet Coleman & Co. owns the flagship newspaper Times of India that claims the highest readership among English newspapers.

Prominent Indian politicians and corporate entities are increasingly making under-hand investments in news media affecting media’s ability to serve as an unbiased tool for information, as one observer noted ‘media outlets in India are openly owned and controlled by political and business conglomerates, which are using the media to undermine the relevance of their opponents with scant regard for overall national interest’ ([ha, 2016).

More recently, there is also a trenchant criticism of Indian media particularly television, for its near alignment with the government and the ruling party (Jain, 2020). The divisive agenda, particularly by a few television news channels, have come in for sharp criticism (Pande, 2019). The intersection of social media and mainstream media is further highlighted for the significant rise of a majoritarian agenda and perceived insecurity for India’s Muslim minority (Mirchandani, 2018).

The legacy media, referring to the print and broadcasting sectors, retain their relevance and presence. The January 2020 Indian Readership Survey indicates a slight dip in readership (estimated at 425 million) but suggests that the legacy media are holding their own (IRS, 2020), despite competition from online media. The slight dip in print readership is viewed with alarm by a few dominant groups.They feel it is time for them to re-think their strategy (Joseph, 2020). The IRS 2020 places the population usage of media as follows: television (76 per cent), newspapers (38 per cent), radio (20 per cent) and Internet (35 per cent). Convergence has allowed for changes in the business and content models of the legacy media but the adaptation is not complete.The most robust growth in Indian media is in entertainment industry (IRS, 2020).

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