Ipsos Custodes

‘The Media’ is the industry dealing with self-expression, the most inherently political of human behaviors. After all, what is self-expression but the conveyance of ideas, and what is politics but the clash of those ideas? Indeed, some of the great media artists of the last century, even those who stuck to the realm of fiction, can equally be labeled some of the great political activists. They can be found across the spectrum of the arts: on the screen, Vittorio De Sica and Satyajit Ray; on the stage, Václav Havel and Bertolt Brecht; on the page, George Orwell and Simone de Beauvoir. Long gone, their words and the strength of their ideas have persisted. Through their work, they attacked what they saw as the hypocrisy of the regimes they were opposed to, or exposed the poverty and despair of the land they lived in. The media has very often been wielded as a tool to hold the powerful to account – a noble and essential task that has, too often, seen these warriors pay with their lives. Since 1992, 790 journalists have been murdered for their work. This disgraceful statistic serves to highlight the fact that media and politics are a potent combination – and a critical one.

Sometimes the work of the media is latched onto by political actors, even when the works themselves appear to be innocuous. Perhaps the most contemporary – and infamous – of this phenomenon is the scandal surrounding Padmavati, now known as Padmaavat, an Indian period drama released earlier this year. The film regales the viewer with tales of the legendary Rajput queen, Padmavati of Mewar. In a land where sectarianism remains an indelible stain on the fabric of society, violating every aspect of life in an ostensibly modern and enlightened country with its regression and lust for division, the saga of a queen who likely exists only in the minds of India’s oral storytellers was bound to cause chaos. Padmaavat dominated the Indian political landscape, apparently offending everyone equally. Muslim groups claimed the film portrayed them poorly; far-right Hindu groups vandalized cinemas; a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party [AS4] offered a large cash reward to anyone who would hit the film’s director, Sanjay Bhansali, with a shoe. This tragicomic scene, playing out in the world’s largest democracy, serves to highlight the inextricable link between politics and media. This sort of farce, however, should be confined to the silver screen and not spill out onto the streets.

As the world has changed, new forces have emerged to combat and criticize the problems that have appeared. The media world has seen the rise of movements, such as ‘Me Too’, that go beyond individuals and their work and are instead carried on the back of the industry at large. It often finds itself in the midst of global turmoil and debate, for example in the case of Charlie Hebdo, a frontline defender of free speech that lost 12 staff to a terrorist attack on their Parisian headquarters in 2015. On that occasion, the Economist’s KAL captured the prevailing sentiment beautifully[AS5] : the media is art, and art is political. This is why it must be protected at all costs, guarded from the forces who, in this eternal battle between freedom of thought and hateful oppression, would seek to silence them.



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