After the completion of the first phase of the Assam Assembly election, BJP released an advertisement in all the major dailies published from Assam. The advertisement said that BJP workers and organizers were all in upbeat mood as they came to know of the BJP’s sure win in all the seats in upper Assam where elections were held.

The advertisement was so placed on the front page of the newspapers that at the first glance readers thought it to be a banner headline of a news story describing the splendid performance of the BJP and not an advertisement. But when the readers realised that it was not a news story but an advertisement, all hell broke loose.

A large section of the readers vehemently protested against this. They gave vent to their anger against the BJP and also against the newspapers for playing this trick on them. Some of them even went to the extent of boycotting the newspapers which published the controversial advertisement.

Also read: Advertisement row: Assam journalists’ body condemns BJP for trying to ‘derail democracy’

However, another section of people who are mostly journalists, criticized the outburst of the readers. Their argument was there was nothing wrong with the advertisement. The readers who were confused by the advertisement were not sufficiently discerning.  They blamed it not on the BJP and the newspapers, but on the readers. They were also trying to impart some lessons to the readers on the artful technique of advertisement.

Their argument was that the editor of a newspaper is not responsible for the advertisement published in it. There is a separate advertisement department in each newspaper house which handles all matters related to advertisement.

Also read: Assam Jatiya Parishad asks ECI to stop BJP from publishing advertisement in newspapers

Let us analyse the whole episode and see who is right and who is wrong.

What was the objective of the advertisement? The objective of the advertisement was surely to influence the voters where elections are yet to be held in some parts of Assam. For this, the high-cost advertisement was placed in the guise of news. This was the trick employed by the BJP which angered the readers and triggered the controversy. The readers also expressed their anger against the newspaper houses and accused them of complicity in the attempt. Here, the moot point was the intent. The intent was to misguide the readers.

Also read: Advertisement row: Assam Congress files FIR against BJP leaders including JP Nadda, Assam CM Sonowal, Ranjeet Dass & some newspapers

The newspapers should not misguide the readers with anything published in the newspapers be it a news story, an editorial page article or even an advertisement. It is true that there is an advertisement department headed by a manager in each newspaper house.  This department handles all issues related to advertisement. But when the manager is not able to take a decision as to the content of an advertisement they must refer the same to the editor because the editor is finally responsible for everything published in the newspaper.

In this case, readers were upset because at first glance they thought it to be a news story. That was the success and failure of the advertisement. It was a success because the advertisement could mislead the readers, though momentarily. But it was also a failure because it angered the readers.

Also read: Assam Assembly Election: Congress submits memorandum to Assam’s Chief Electoral Officer against BJP, 6 newspapers over an advertisement

In the recent history of newspapers in Assam, we have never witnessed such angry reactions of the readers.  It was the culmination of their distrust and disaffection with the media. Ever since the coming of the BJP government at the Centre, the role of most of the media has been of complicity and compromise with the government.

Why is the media toeing the government line? The media is toeing the government line because barring exception the entire media is owned up by the crony capitalists who are the main beneficiaries of this government. Therefore there is a tacit understanding between the media and the government.

So naturally, today’s media is his master’s voice. Here, the government is adopting a carrot and stick policy. On the one hand, it has been offering a lot of benefits and facilities to the obliging media houses and their journalists, on the other the journalist and the media houses carrying out some professional responsibilities are being harassed in various ways.

Actually, private media is serving as the mouthpiece of the government today. The county is passing through the worst phase of deficiency in democracy. The electronic and print media should have played a positive role in protecting democratic values by encouraging dissent. But that is not happening.

In Assam too, we have seen how the government is trying to please the journalists by offering many sops to them. We are aware of how paid news and managed news are ruling the roost. But still the role of vernacular media in Assam is much better than the national media. There is a strong current against the ruling party too in a section of the media.

There is considerable government control on social media too, which is again owned by big capital. But in the absence of any alternative people are taking to social media to express their grievances and critique the wrongdoings of the government.

The way people reacted to the advertisement is very encouraging. They accused the newspaper houses of their complicity in publishing the advertisement by sharply reacting against them. Some of the readers even threatened to boycott the newspapers for this. When democracy is facing a serious crisis in our country such reaction on the part of the citizenry is the need of the hour.

Paresh Malakar

Paresh Malakar is a commentator based in Guwahati. He can be reached at: malakarparesh@gmail.com