Press freedom does not come free

Patricia Mukhim

There are ways and ways of doing journalism. One is the stenography type of journalism where we only report who said what. The other is when the newspaper takes a stand on issues and pays a price for it. That is cutting edge journalism. The reading public is best placed to judge us; not our rivals. On November 16, we observed National Press Day. It’s ironic that on this iconic day most discussions veered around press freedom or its curious absence from our national life. Actually May 3 is observed as Press Freedom Day but I guess the seriousness of the matter must have prompted editors and anchors to weigh in on the aspect of press freedom. Most media houses have sought to quietly acquiesce with the unspoken diktat of the state to conform or perish. To ask a media person whether he/she values freedom of speech and expression is like asking a caged bird whether it wishes to fly freely across the skies, perch wherever it wants to, eat what is available in the wilds and just live the life that it is meant for.

Journalism has its rules and we are expected to play the game by those rules.  We are guided by Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution and our freedom to express ourselves has reasonable restrictions. Alas! What is ‘reasonable’ is subject to judicial interpretation. These days it has become commonplace to book journalists on grounds of sedition and to lodge criminal defamation cases against them. These two laws are archaic colonial laws. It is intuitive to note that the British who gave us these laws have done away with them in their own country because their citizens would not accept such illiberal laws in an enlightened democracy. The British configured those laws to govern a colony called India. After Independence all these laws should have been revisited or jettisoned. Why should laws made by a colonial power be used by a country that fought for and won its independence 73 years ago?  Why is the Indian citizenry so indifferent to laws that are now sought to be used against it with greater frequency? Does this not show lack of foresight in our rulers and even the citizens of this country?

India is now at a critical juncture where the media is struggling to find its space. It has gone down several rungs on the world press freedom barometer and is now ranked at 141 which is below Myanmar, Sri Lanka and many African countries. This is very disturbing for the media but it does not matter to the Indian establishment which would rather see the media choked completely. The present BJP-led government has a disdain for media persons and picks only friendly media to give interviews to. We have never seen a Prime Minister indulging in a monologue to reach out to people with his Mann ki Baat but will not speak to the media; leave alone give an impromptu statement. There is an inherent bias against the media in this government and a propensity to see media as the disrupter in chief which never sees anything good in what government does. The problem is that media is not meant to trumpet what the government has done or achieved but to bring to its attention the lacunae in governance.

What’s ironic however is that a section of electronic media has decided to play along with the Government and help deflect the flak from it instead! For all of four months since June this year a particular high-profile electronic media went on a tirade against the Shiv-Sena-Congress-NCP Mahaaghadi government of Maharashtra and used a Bollywood actor’s death (who allegedly died of suicide) to embarrass the state government. It then brought in the drugs angle and crucified the Bollywood fraternity, who for some reason the anchor in chief did not take a liking to. The late actor’s girlfriend came in for special censure from this angry, frothing at the mouth anchor. And all these shenanigans have passed off as good journalism because it suits the Right Wing agenda. This is the challenge that the media faces and it’s ironic that it should be from within its own fraternity. To expect camaraderie for media persons and a common banner in which to work unitedly to reclaim the freedoms we have lost is well nigh impossible. We in the media are a fragmented lot. Some have chosen to become apologists of the government and to defend its wrongdoings. Hence the pulverising impact of Covid on our economy and the gross deficiencies in our health care systems; the loss of employment for thousands of youth have remained unaddressed by many in the mainstream media.

The fact that a section of media has almost become a spokesperson of the government today has made it easier for government to attack, ridicule, dumb down and strangle that section of the media that seeks to pursue the path that journalism outlines – to afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted. But those with an independent voice are increasingly having to pay the price.

Walter Lippman that distinguished journalist produced by the US is said to have taken journalism seriously, not as a trade or even a profession, but as an instrument of democracy. Normally people of Lippman’s stature that take journalism seriously and don’t just flirt with it are not known to have political ideologies unlike our own larger than life anchors and some senior editors who have joined political parties, contested elections, lost and then rejoined journalism. I think such people are a slur on the independence of the media because their old loyalties will always remain and the tilt will barely be hidden. That such people now head media organizations is a travesty and it shows which way the media in this country is headed.

Walter Lippman’s most enduring quote is, “Once you know the party and social affiliation of a newspaper, you can predict with considerable certainty the perspective in which the news will be displayed. This perspective is by no means altogether deliberate. Though the editor is ever so much more sophisticated than all but a minority of his readers, his own sense of relative importance is determined by rather standardized constellations of ideas.  He very soon comes to believe that his habitual emphasis is the only possible one.”

This sounds so true of the media situation in India today where editors are mere employees of politicians who own media houses or are major shareholders and are therefore the ones who push their agenda. The editor becomes but a tool for setting a political agenda that the owner/shareholder desires.  The truth is compromised and fake news or manufactured news such as Sushant Singh Rajput’s death being attributed to murder and the hashtag #JusticeForSushant emanating from a news studio. Noam Chomsky’s concept – ‘manufacturing consent’ plays itself again and again where the public mind seems to resonate with the loud and belligerent anchors.

In enlightened democracies, the intelligentsia which understands the role of a free press would stand to defend it. Here there is a conspiratorial silence and the media is left to defend itself. It is indeed unfortunate that this intelligentsia, parasitic on western thought, is seldom curious enough to find out what forms the pathologies that keep Meghalaya a sickly state. This state should have produced thought leaders galore considering there is a 40 year old public funded University here. But perish that thought for speaking up has a cost that no one is willing to pay. This out of form intelligentsia lives in a bubble and uses the media but will not stand by it although a free press is the lifeblood of democracy. Sigh!

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