While the number of printed book readers continues to grow in Northeast India, the readership of Assam-based newspapers continues to fall. The largest north-eastern Indian state with over 30 million population, still has nearly 25 morning daily newspapers in several languages and numerous other periodicals and magazines.
In addition, Guwahati hosts eight mostly free-to-air satellite news channels and several local cable channels and hundreds of news portals. The combined readership and viewership of the organized news media, may reach 3.5 million, but the number of social media users in Assam exceeds 4.5 million.
Reactions of outspoken readers against a news item in newspapers or news channels are frequent in the largest democracy, but outrage against the mainstream media outlets and digital platforms for not covering a particular issue is unusual. Assam has witnessed just such a public fury against some of the state’s editor-journalists for avoiding the press conferences of the opposition political parties who targeted the state’s chief minister for his family’s alleged land scam.
The public uproar in the alternate media was so intense that the editor-journalists did not dare to even clarify their positions, preferring to avoid the debate. No media association, civil society group or reader and viewers, came forward to defend the otherwise glamorous editor-journalists of the state, when they faced the barrage of outraged social media posts over several days.
The controversy started with investigative articles, by two important digital media outlets in the first week of December 2021, alleging that the Assam chief minister was indirectly involved in a land-grab. The allegations indicated that a real estate company, founded by the local saffron leader’s wife, illegally occupied around 18 acres of government land meant for landless farmers.
Guwahati media evades – social media shames editors for silence
Based on the specific media accusations, three political parties – the Asom Jatiya Parishad, Raijor Dol and the Congress organized press conferences demanding investigations of the land scam. However, for reasons best known to the editor-proprietors of the Guwahati-based newspapers and news channels, they did not cover the issue and simply tried to kill the story.
The issue may have died naturally after some time, but a sudden outburst of anti-media posts on digital platforms surfaced in the morning hours on 9 December. For almost three days, most of the
editors were named and shamed for their silence over the issue in the social media. News channel logos, photographs and strong words against the celebrity editor-journalists became viral.
Assembly speaker disallows discussion of land scam
As soon the state legislative assembly began its winter session on 20 December, the first day’s proceedings were interrupted by opposition legislators wanting to discuss the land scam. However, when the speaker did not allow discussion, the opposition legislators staged a walkout. Although these events were not prominently published by most of the newspapers and news channels, the metro-based morning dailies did allow some space and coverage.
Mainstream media further compromised
The reluctance by the majority of Assam’s mainstream media to cover issues arousing public outrage, can be attributed to their overweening dependence on government advertisement revenues. Facing a serious financial crisis since Covid-19 hit the country, the pandemic has led to plummeting circulation and commercial ad revenues for the newspapers. As the pandemic has continued, TV news channels have also suffered drastic losses of their quality viewership.
Most newspaper managements today do not speak against the government or its policies even if it undermines their credibility. Thus, they have slowly turned into unofficial organs of the government and the ruling party. They cannot easily adapt to new business models like crowd-funding as they are unsure of getting support from their readers. Meanwhile the personal corruption of some of the well-known editors adds complexity to a situation where the public’s goodwill towards the media continues to erode. Even before the most recent land-grab scam, the mainstream dailies of Assam were censured by the Election Commission for publishing ads of the BJP pretending to be headlines declaring its victory even before the votes were counted of the state assembly elections.
Recently, a senior Assamese journalist sensationally posted on social media, that at least seven editors (of city-based news channels) possessed more wealth than they could have earned legally from their jobs. Speaking to this writer, Dipankar Devsarmah, a journalist for more than three decades, said that because of some greedy editor-media owners, the media industry has lamentably lost what credibility it had.
Talking about the naming of these editors in the social media, Devsarmah asserted that although it may be unpleasant for many, the allegations of disproportionate wealth are true. He added that the details about the editors’ properties and luxury vehicles are with him, and could be made public if the need or occasion arises. Moreover, the editor Ajit Bhuyan (presently a member of the Rajya Sabha) recently resigned from his editorial position, citing constraints in covering the chief minister’s family’s land issue. “To remain true to my conscience I had to take this decision,” stated Bhuyan.