Protest, Truth, and Journalism: Accessing the Evolution of ‘New Media’ through a (Re)-reading of Foucault’s Parrhesia
Ayan Ghosh & Shreya Datta
In this essay, Ayan and Shreya seek to understand the various aspects of emerging forms of journalism. Focusing on the analytical framework of Foucault’s “Parrhesia” or "free speech", they looked at two crucial protest movements of contemporary India and the functions of alternative journalism around them.
The relationship between power and media works in different shades and shapes. Media in general works as that spokesperson representing the citizens of a country. With the escalation of power, there always remains chances where media can strangle in all forms. Therefore, the idea of democracy always depends on how much the media can voice their opinion freely and justly. In this paper, our primary focus is on Indian News Media and the emergence of new forms of media which evolved during the last few years. The re-reading of Foucault’s Parrhesia has given us a structure to accumulate the arguments we hereby make to look through this transformation. The streets as a space for demonstration in the contemporary situations of this country and contemporary politics is one of the most intriguing factors we are looking to understand the changing sphere of Indian Journalism.
Parrhesia: The way of speaking the ‘Truth’
Parrhesia is a Greek concept that literally translates into English as ‘free speech.’ Foucault has used and defined the concept of Parrhesia regarding the political analysis of truthfulness in his lectures. Torben Bech Dyrberg, the author of the book of Foucault on the Politics of Parrhesia, gives an apt explanation of the term. He said, "Parrhesia means speaking truthfully, freely and being up-front in the sense of being open, transparent, engaging and saying everything there is to say about a particular issue in contrast to holding something back, being secretive, covert and manipulative…it is practical as it is from the outset entwined with government, it is risky and takes timing and courage, it requires knowledge, a good sense of judgement and resolve (Dyrberg 2014)." Foucault discusses the concept of Parrhesia recurrently as it connects the dots between the political authority, that is, the Government and its citizens. It assures the smooth functioning of the dialectical relations between these two entities. Parrhesia works as an agent that enables accountability in both ends as it offers a coherent structure of the given promises and the actions taken by both the Government and the citizens. As we discuss further, we can use this idea of Parhessia as a common denominator where it may be seen as a benchmark standard of trustworthiness between the political authorities and the public. As it has already been mentioned before, the primary task of journalism is to question the power or the ‘political authority.’ Therefore, the Media becomes a ‘challenger’ at first, according to Foucault, that must not use politics from their own ‘personal interests’ and to any situation which serves their own purpose. Secondly, Media should always tell the truth to all the stakeholders, in this case, to the citizens of a democratic country.
Thus, it is pretty understandable that Foucault used the term Parrhesia to denote and explain the complex relationship between the political authority and the public. But in this context of the media and journalism, a question arises: how one can identify who is speaking the truth and who is trying to hide something and being ‘manipulative’ for the sake of their political interests. To provide a justified solution to the problem, we can receive media as what Foucault termed parrhesiastes. According to Foucault, “The parrhesiastic game presupposes that the parrhesiastes is someone who has the moral qualities which are required, first, to know the truth, and secondly, to convey such truth to others” (Foucault 1983). Therefore, we can say that the media should have moral qualities, and they know the truth and convey such truth to the public. However, from the news consumer perspective, the question of truth remained still unanswered. Therefore to understand what is the actual truth and who is speaking it, as Foucault suggested, one needs to question the speech narrative. He said, “If we raise the question of how we can know whether someone is a truth-teller, we raise two questions. First, how is it that we can know whether some particular individual is a truth-teller; and secondly, how is it that the alleged parrhesiastes can be certain that what he believes is, in fact, truth” (Foucault 1983). Hence, with this analysis, we can arrive at a point that denotes that the public, in this case, the news consumers, should ask questions to understand truthful speech properly. Till the readers/viewers question the authenticity of the consumed news and ask about the certainty of their telecasted news, the sense of Parrhesia will prevail in the business.
However, the truth shown or written by any form of news media comes as a duty or moral obligation to the reader or audience, something which is considered as Parrhesia. However, if the opposite happens, that means if any sort of ‘truth’ is told under any pressure or compulsion, then according to Foucault, it is not a ‘Parrhesiastic Utterance’. If the media becomes biased to any political authority, then the truth's value distorts its original nature and loses its purpose. In this contemporary political space with globalised formations of diplomacy, truth and freedom provided by many media houses and governments come wrapped in authoritative intentions and intimidations. Therefore, the function of media and “truth” journalism becomes more significant here to fill the gaps in the narrative and engage in speaking the unspoken. To understand the practicability of such exercise of media, one has to look at the interplay of power and authority that goes into the making of news and circulation. In the Foucauldian notion of power-play, “There is no single location where power resides. Instead of centralisation of power, there is a ‘power network. Where there is power, there is resistance” (as quoted in Hurley, 1978). It indicates that manipulation of power comes as a practice at different locations in a functional ‘power network’. This also leads us to the fact that, as there is no single locus of power, the resistance will also come from different locations. Foucault says, “Hence there is no single locus of great refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead, there is a plurality of resistances…” (as quoted in Hurley, 1978). To understand the ‘plurality of resistances’ and the ‘power network’, herewith, we are focusing on two massive protests that occurred during the last few years in the Indian political space. We probe into the functions of mediation in these protests to lays bare the construction, manipulation, and emergence of alternative media around them.
Protests on the streets of India: Two Cases in Focus
Streets have always been a popular space to demonstrate against the establishments. In the last few years of Indian political space, two significant political unrest have been encountered by the functioning Central Government of India. First, in 2019, an anti-Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) protest took place in the streets of New Delhi, particularly in Shahinbag, a Muslim dominated area within the capital. This act has been introduced to give citizenship to the religiously persecuted refugees of the neighbouring countries of India, except the Muslims. This caused a severe threat to the Indian Muslims as they feared being second-class citizens in their land. The students from a few universities in Delhi primarily stood against the alleged Muslim discrimination done by the act, which soon gained the whole nation’s attention and became a mass movement. The most significant part of the movement was the women of Shahinbag, who stood still in front of the powerful state apparatus and governmental attempts at repressing the protest. Even after encountering such repression, the entire movement did not fall out; instead, support and solidarity started to pour in across the nation in support of the cause. But unfortunately, with the advent of the Covid 19 pandemic, the movement was halted in March 2020.
Similarly, a farmers’ protest took place against the three farm bills passed in the parliament during the Covid 19 Pandemic: Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. According to the farmers, the bills allowed the private organisations to get involved in their trade, leading them to work under contracts in their agricultural lands. Hence, a considerable mass movement was initiated by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, which included several farmer unions, who stayed for months in different road borders of New Delhi and demanded the complete repealing of the three laws. An extended period of protests and agitations had occurred in many places of the National Capital, including the clash between the protesters and police during the tractor parade on the 26th of January, 2021. The government had taken many steps, including lathi-charge, tear gas, and water cannons, to stop such protests with the help of the police. Finally, on November 19th, 2021, the Centre announced to repeal all the farm bills under prolonged pressure from the protesters. Soon after this, it was passed in both the Houses of Parliament.
Protest against media houses by the farmers (Image courtesy: The Wire). Protest in Shaheen Bagh against CAA (Image courtesy: The Indian Express)
In both of these protest movements, the function of media and the power operations of the functioning government remained important. There have been numerous claims of power operations and manipulation of media houses by the state machinery. Basant Kumar Mohanty wrote in the Telegraph, “The farmers’ anger at the coverage by sections of the media of their protest is palpable. When a journalist reaches out to the farmers, many of them prefer either not to speak or to question why they are being portrayed as Khalistanis, terrorists and Maoists.” The farmers directly opposed and neglected the majority of the media and tagged them as “Godi Media'' to criticise the pliant journalism brand during such protests. This vacuum created by the resistance to mainstream media coverage necessitated new space for alternative media and narrative circulation.
Evolution of the ‘New Media’
Media in India has been a strength to the democratic identity of the country even before Indian independence. Its evolution is also very apparent from print to digital to social. Along with that, its relation with the power has gone through such evolution as well. When we look at the time before independence, we look back to those print media banned by the British government time and again for being courageous or Parrhesiastes, to use the Foucauldian term. But in the contemporary situation, this is a question of how the dynamic of relation has changed between the state power and media in the present scenario with that of the past. What functions does the current generation play in the evolution of the media? Are we in the path of transformation towards a new form of media other than the traditional, mainstream ones?
The contemporary news media is in the process of constant evolution. Traditional media also finds it hard to update itself to the new form of availability which includes the presence of YouTube, social media, and online news portals. Technological advancement is one of the most crucial causes responsible for it. With the advancement of technology, the younger generation is getting involved, and ending up being connected. The consumer and the creator of such news attract many such people from that particular age group. There is a huge hike of viewers in the news section of YouTube and other social media in India during the recent protests against the state power operations. Though many of the ‘new media’ started functioning digitally earlier also, their rapid growth occurred mostly during the massive street protests. One of the reasons behind this increased reception of alternative media, even after the ubiquitous presence of the mainstream media in India, could be the vacuum created by embedded journalism, that lacks transparency in affairs and projection of alternatives in the narratives by leaning towards political authorities. Therefore, an alternative media came into prominence to tell the ‘truth,’ not under any sort of compulsion or external force but by ‘virtue of the morality of journalism.’ Since they did not have the resources like the one mainstream media uses, they started with whatever they found useful to them. As we mentioned earlier, youths are more connected through the internet, these newly evolved media uses the digital spectrum to reach the citizens. To understand how these ‘new media’ evolved, we can categorise them as per their appearances in front of the news consumers. We can divide these media platforms into three major categories. First, the print media, which is very limited in numbers; second, social media and the third is the digital news portals.
Concentrating on the two significant protest movements, we can see Trolley Times, a four-page biweekly print newspaper in Gurmukhi and Hindi, was first launched on December 17, 2020. The newspaper's name comes after the tractor trolleys, which the farmers used for shelter during the protest on the road borders of New Delhi. Many of the protesters were not equipped with smartphones or internet services. In addition to this, the internet shutdown was also the reason behind the evolution of Trolley Times as a print media. Since farmers needed to tell the ‘truth’ to the outer world and the mainstream news platforms were not in a position to cover their stories, Trolley Times became the mouthpiece for the farmers. Surender Dalal, a protester, said in an interview with Citizen.in, “If the mainstream media had done its job, then we would not have needed a media of our own—but they did not do their job properly.” The conversation speaks of the necessity that alternative media coverage holds during such times of constant protests.
Image courtesy: Kusum Arora, The Wire
The second category of the new media is the social media platforms. This was the space that was used by the majority of the independent journalists. The reason was quite apparent. A journalist only needed a smart device with a camera and internet connectivity to reach a wider audience. Various platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, are already there to bridge the gap between these journalists and the youth. Ravish Kumar, an eminent journalist and managing editor of NDTV, delivered a speech on the occasion of winning the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award 2019, where he said, “[...] the citizens are attempting to preserve that essential part of themselves by creating videos for their WhatsApp groups. They begin to upload their videos on YouTube. Agitators begin to practise citizen journalism. By uploading their videos on YouTube, agitators have become citizen journalists.” Since the mainstream media failed to retain their position as the ‘fourth pillar of democracy,’ the citizens of the nation are using the alternative media as a form of emerging citizen journalism.
Navreet Sivia, a farmer from Punjab during the farmer protest, launched a news channel only on YouTube, named it Akhar. When the mainstream media in its prime time slots telecasted heated debates among the political representatives, Akhar showed the struggles of the farmers. In a conversation with The Citizen, He said, “We only showed the farmers on our channel and raised their voice.” Like Akhar, there were hundreds of independent YouTube channels that evolved during these two protests. One such is Duniya which was started by two very young participants, Shahildeep Singh and Mandeep Singh, in the protest. This citizen journalism is not limited to YouTube only. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram share equal space. With the use of hashtags, the unorganised social media gets connected and becomes a shared space for alternative media across the length and breadth of the country. Similarly, in the name of Krishan Ekta Morcha, the farmers union started a page on all of the social media platforms. According to them, this page was the “IT cell of the farmers” to counter the spreading of all the allegations and rumours against them. Thus, through using these social media platforms, the youth of the nation build up an alternative space for journalism.
The third category is the online independent news portal that started a few years back along with the other new forms of media. Online independent news reporting and independent news portals became new media representatives that the people found trustworthy. Their ground reports and field coverage was found to be more detailed and unbiased. Even the protesters chose to give interviews to these independent portals like The Wire, The Quint, Brut, Newslaundry and many such spaces. These independent forms of media reached a wider audience and got more acceptance as a viable news source to a more extensive section of the population as most of the mainstream media had no reach to many such stories.
The popularity of such alternative news media to that of the mainstream ones raises questions on the need for such independent channels. If we consider them as competition, then the facilities and resources that mainstream media enjoys are way beyond and better than that of the independent ones. So, where is the difference which is creating the buzz? To evaluate it, we can look at the different allegations against Indian mainstream news media, which resurfaced a lot of times. The criticism was out in the open about how ‘commercial and political pressures’ have engulfed such mainstream news outlets. The primary service of ‘the fourth pillar of democracy’ towards the society was under question many a time. If we look at the history of how these news outlets have been created, we will find, how all of these wanted to make a statement to create a conscious distinction to that of the mainstream ones. Siddharth Varadarajan, one of the founders of The Wire (India), termed this portal as an ‘independent platform’, while he was an editor in The Hindu and eventually resigned from the position to venture into this. The Quint was started by Raghav Bahl and Ritu Kapoor who were a part of Network18. Similarly, Naresh Fernandes, a founder member of Scroll.in was a former editor-in-chief of Times Out India and was associated with The Times of India and Wall Street Journal as a senior journalist. Such choices of creating ‘independent journalism’ strengthen the argument of all the criticisms laid down. Newslaundry, on the other hand, is a platform for media critique and satirical reportage and solely earns its revenue from the viewers' subscriptions. Such examples are also many like Scroll.in, The Print, The Quint, Catch News. Generating revenue from the viewers also makes them answerable to none except the viewers/citizens. These choices are nothing but a conscious one for making themselves independent from all the inevitable pressures in the name of profit-making and political power-play. The re-reading of Foucault’s Parrhesia creates a clear vision through which we can understand the position of power and its confrontation with the truth. The independent media is gaining a more prominent form of Parrhesia, with stronger attributes of a ‘just journalism’ beyond all political repercussions and power dynamics.
Dyrberg, Torben Bech. Foucault on the Politics of Parrhesia. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Foucault, Michel. Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia. Berkeley, 1983.
Hurley, Robert, trans. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
Ayan Ghosh is a PhD Research Scholar (JRF) in the Department of English, Pondicherry University. His research area for PhD is Children Literature in Translation. He has been teaching since September 2019 in the P.G Department of English, Narasinha Dutt College, Howrah as a Guest Lecturer. He has done his Masters and MPhil. Degree from the Dept. of Comparative Indian Language. & Literature at the University of Calcutta. He has experience working on a few projects in different institutions and universities. He worked as a Junior Research Fellow at International School for Dravidian Linguistics, Trivandrum, as a Project Fellow at the Dept. of English, Jadavpur University and Dept. of Comparative Indian Language and Literature under UGC-UPE II, as a Resource Person for the project LDCIL, CIIL Mysore. Besides Bengali, English and Hindi, he also knows Telugu as a second language. His areas of interest are Translation Studies, Children's Literature, and Digital Humanities.
Shreya Datta is an MPhil Scholar in the Centre for Comparative Literature and Translation Studies from the Central University of Gujarat. Her research area is Pandemic Literature. She is an alumnus of the University of Calcutta, where she has completed Post Graduation in Comparative Indian Language and Literature and Graduation in English Language and Literature. Her research interest lies in Dalit Literature, Translation Studies, Comparative Indian Literature and South-East Asian Studies. She has also learnt the Burmese and Oriya Language. One of her translated works has been published in the book named 'Dalit Chetana: Dalit Darshan: Kathay Kathay Sharan Kumar Limbale,' edited by Mrinmoy Pramanick.