The Indian government’s plans to spend US$32 million on a media university modelled on the state-run Communication University of China has come under fire, with critics alarmed that the world’s biggest democracy should seek inspiration on media matters from a one-party state.
The new media school – to be run by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry – is hoped to be running in three years. It will function as an umbrella organisation for all Indian universities offering media and film studies.
A ministry official said the main goal was to address the growing communication needs of the country by training skilled, world-class professionals. “The Beijing model fits in well with our scheme of things,” he added.
Sources said the idea for the media school came from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, who is known for his astute communication skills.
Modi, 64, used a recent speech to push for more professionalism among India’s journalists.
“There is some race, competition taking place in the media. The print media is competing with the electronic media and the social media. I feel it’s best in the interests of the nation if the media carries out criticism and thereby ensures refining of the country’s overall system. If media confines itself to levelling allegations, we would lose our power as a nation,” Modi said.
But the template of the Communication University of China – a school established in 1954, with most of its alumna working for state-run media – has raised the hackles of those already in the media.
“Much of the Chinese media functions as the government’s mouthpiece with little scope for conflicting opinions,” said prominent journalist Manoj Joshi. “It is intriguing that India, with its robust journalistic traditions and a vibrant and free press feels the need to follow an illiberal model.”
Others worried about whether a government-run school would foster a diverse range of viewpoints among its students.
“Conceptually, nobody can object to the government running a media university. It’s good to enhance the teaching process, syllabus and functioning standards of media schools,” said Asian Age, editorial cartoonist Sudhir Tailang.
“However, if the agenda is to mass produce media persons who can toe the government line, or peddle right-wing ideology, such a formula augurs ill for a thriving democracy.”
India’s state-run TV channel Doordarshan and the All India Radio station, which are known for pushing the government line, have had their ratings eroded over the years by privately-owned TV and radio channels.
“Why doesn’t the government launch a school to train its ministers first?” asked one prominent editor, who asked to remain anonymous. “Their policies and governance impact far more lives and in a far more direct manner.”
The furore over the media university comes amid wider fears about the state of press freedom in India.
Recently, a 19-year-old student was arrested and jailed in northern India for posting a quote on Facebook that he attributed to a local minister, who denied making the comment.
Episodes of bans on art, films, books or even eating beef, under the pretext of religion or indecency, have been widespread.
Indian authorities also came under fire for banning the domestic broadcast of the BBC documentary India’s Daughter by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin. The documentary included an interview with one of the attackers who took part in the notorious 2012 gang rape of student Jyoti Singh, who was thrown from a bus and died after her ordeal.
India was ranked 136 out of 180 nations worldwide in terms of press freedom in 2015. In the annual World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders, India’s “abuse score” – which reflects the intensity of violent harassment faced by journalists – was 59.58. That compares to Sri Lanka’s score of 40.6, Pakistan’s 64.91 and China’s 89.64.