Dialogues in a democracy

Ideally, democracy is a system in which all sections of society have a voice in governance. There will be differences of opinions and interests, which must be resolved through dialogues. This helps develop consensus on various issues while still allowing for differences of opinions as well as dissent. Media has an important role to play in this process.

The main pillars of democracy are legislature (elected representatives), executive (administrative structure), and judiciary (court of law). Media is regarded as the fourth pillar. It works in tandem with the other pillars while also serving as a check on them. Media is supposed to ask questions, increase awareness, expose shortcomings, celebrate achievements, enable dialogues etc. This includes print media, multimedia, radio, and new media (internet-based platforms).

What is the \role of traditional media with the advent of social media? I would argue that social media is a powerful tool that connects people and facilitates the flow of information at an unprecedented pace and scale. Its content is generated by individualised sources and is largely un-regulated though countries have started implementing regulations. In contrast, traditional media is an institution that is regulated by legal and ethical codes. In traditional media, trained professionals generate content and are expected to be objective and impartial.

Social media is akin to a virtual loudspeaker to broadcast individual views in cyberspace with real impacts on the world. In contrast, traditional media is a synergy of different interests that work together to generate potentially useful content. As mentioned earlier, media facilitates dialogues, poses questions and provides a platform to allow different interest groups to voice their views. In many cases, one has to crosscheck responses and claims to hold people to account.

There is a global trend of elected representatives using social media to voice their views. A good example of this trend is former American President, Donald Trump. He also illustrates the pitfalls of the overt reliance on social media without engaging in structured dialogues through traditional media, which remain an important part of the democratic process. There is a spectrum of political leanings in media too. However, unlike social media, media organisations have a legal obligation to be objective and impartial in their content.

Thus, while media-persons may express their opinions, it is not for media organisations to pass judgement—that is the job of the judiciary. Similarly, it is not for media organisations to develop policy though it can provide a dialogue around these processes, provide critical feedback etc.—policymaking is the job of the legislature. Lastly, media organisations can point out shortcomings in administrative processes but cannot provide those services, which is the role of the executive. Media plays the same role in civil society too, where it cannot replace other institutions but needs to work with them to facilitate constructive dialogues. The absence of such dialogues is a worrying sign for democratic systems especially when many people are choosing to communicate only through social media.

In this context, we have been trying to reach the hon’ble Member of Parliament from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal for an interview. Our intention was to check the status of his election promises and to discuss his achievements and failures in office. In November 2021 when we first reached out to him, he asked for our questions in advance to prepare his responses. He has not responded to our calls, text messages and emails since. We have been discussing this within our editorial team and concluded that many of the questions had a confrontational tone, which was unnecessary. I collated these questions and I bear responsibility for their tone. Furthermore, in an editorial earlier this year, I had touched on this issue and said that we would publish the questions if we did not hear back from the hon’ble MP. Our responsibility to ask questions does not justify this form of coercion. That said, our editorial team is divided on this matter. One view is that after numerous failed attempts to reach the person, we should now publish the questions in the public domain and hope for a response. The other view is that we have been rather pushy and should be more patient.

There is merit to both arguments. We need to find a way to perform our responsibilities to continue asking questions, including uncomfortable ones, while remaining respectful and resisting the temptation of self-righteous belligerence. We should also make an effort to reach out to others in public office for similar dialogues.

By Sunetro Ghosal

Sunetro Ghosal is a part of the editorial team at Stawa

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