Defending Freedom of Press in India

Indian journalists have watched with dismay and not some disgust at the ham-handed manner in which the Central Government has gone about trying to bring some of their colleagues to heel by methods that were perhaps not used even during Emergency. Those 19 months are generally considered the darkest for the country as a whole and the media in particular, because never before in the history of Independent India had there been such a sustained assault on media freedoms. A whole generation of journalists has grown up since then without any idea what it was like when there was only one news agency, when copy had to be submitted for censorship and when journalists could be and were thrown into jail.

What is happening now is more pernicious. We have a functioning democracy-or so we are told regularly, whenever we want to thumb our noses at the Pakistanis-and all the attendant freedoms that it brings. But this is the most difficult time for the media since 1977, and perhaps even earlier, because the climate of fear that has slowly been built up is unprecedented and unlike the Emergency period, journalists have not been prepared for this level of assault.

This is one reason there has been little or no organised reaction to the fury and viciousness with which the Government has gone about its task. True, there has been no dearth of articles condemning the manner in which the staff of Tehelka has been terrorised. The shabby and churlish manner in which Time magazine’s Alex Perry was treated after his ill-judged article on the Prime Minister also came in for criticism by Indian journalists. Within the media community, these matters are being debated and even some die-hard patriots are somewhat taken aback at the frivolous charges being laid against the Kashmir Times journalist Ifthekhar Geelani (he was charged with dealing in pornography, based on the spam e-mails on his laptop!)

But where is the organised resistance, the mass campaigns, the countrywide agitations of the past? Indeed, there is a dearth even of resolutions and petitions and little or no collective action to send an unambiguous message of professional solidarity to the Government, warning it to lay off. It would be too much to say we are bending while asked to crawl. But to any observer, it is clear that we are proving to be quite amenable to punishment and have displayed a high level of tolerance. It might even appear that the media, unable or unwilling to take on the Government, is running scared.

It was not always so. During the infamous postal bill proposed by the Rajiv Gandhi Government in 1985, journalists, backed by the proprietors, took to the streets and managed to get the idea killed. Emergency was fresh in everyone’s minds and, though the provisions of the bill were hardly draconian, anything that even remotely smacked of censorship was anathema to the media. On much smaller levels, journalists have stood up to the likes of Bal Thackeray whose Shiv Sainiks had assaulted their colleagues and generally asserted their independence in the face of difficult odds.

In the more recent past, however, the media has been transformed by a host of factors from a ferocious beast which snaps back into a purring and obese cat which wants to be left alone, contented and satiated. The taming of this animal cannot be blamed on this or any other government, though the NDA-or more aptly the BJP-has mastered the art of the co-option of the media, thereby defanging it.

Journalists must take most of the blame for becoming neutered and gladly embracing the consensual culture of our society, forgetting their primary role of asking questions and maintaining a healthy scepticism that is part of the professional code.

Media trade unionism was never strong in India and concentrated on wage issues rather than questions of media freedoms, but at least there was a sense of being organised on a pan-India basis. The enemies were well defined: The Government, the proprietors and capitalist fat cats were all seen as inimical to the media and therefore had to be resisted. Not to put too fine a point on it, but journalists did see themselves as outsiders, railing against the establishment. The fact that most journalists were poorly paid-the fancy salaries of today did not come into being till relatively recently-only added to their sense of being on the same side as the underdog.

That spirit vanished a long time ago. As our socialistic fig-leaf fell off and the Indian middle-class rapidly began embracing the virtues of consumerism, journalists too became well-paid and better educated. Journalism was now a real career option for those who could have easily joined the corporate sector.

Press barons were ready to offer top drawer salaries to journalists, bringing a new respectability and glamour to the profession. They laid down only one condition, that the contracted journalists would not unionise: The journalists were only too eager to oblige.

Since then, the integration of journalists into the social, economic and the political establishment has been complete. Now the rewards of cosying up to the Government are not merely a subsidised house or a trip abroad; friendly journalists can find themselves as advisors to the powers that be, sit on prestigious committees which lay down policy and even be posted as Ambassadors. Who would then want to needlessly antagonise the Government?

More dangerously, the media as a whole has glibly bought into the national interest agenda, readily keeping aside any questions it may have and wholeheartedly fanning the jingoism that finds an echo among its middle-class readers. The media’s fervour during the Kargil war is a good example, but even in less frenetic times, journalists have willingly come onside where matters of “national interest” are concerned.

To an extent, Tehelka broke that contract, but the assessment of the powers that be that it was an exception turned out to be correct. Tehelka had to be taught a lesson which would be effective and yet not get the media too worked up. The plan has succeeded brilliantly.

This has emboldened the Government and, in turn, explains why the media-till now content to take the path of least resistance-has been left stunned at the ferocity with which the velvet glove has come off. At every new breach of media freedom-much before Tehelka’s financiers were shut down, Outlook’s owner too found himself subjected to raids-journalists have not been able to come out with any cogent response.

Smug in our notions that our freedoms were guaranteed in a democracy and the unspoken compact with this most media-friendly of governments would protect us, we journalists have let our guard down. Recent incidents are seen as stray aberrations and are rationalised: After all, Tehelka’s methods are not strictly journalism, are they? And a Muslim Kashmiri journalist with a father-in-law who is a separatist leader could well be anti-national, couldn’t he? The Government has chosen its targets well.

In their hearts of hearts, journalists also know that if they did choose to fight back, they will not receive any support from anyone: Not the Opposition parties, not the proprietors who won’t want to compromise their business interests and most of all, not even from their readers, from whom journalists were distanced long ago. As for the rest of the world, it has been told for a long time that the Indian media is free, so what is the problem now?

Yet, this is perhaps the most delicate time for the Indian media and lack of any cohesive strategy to counter these threats could lay it more vulnerable in times to come. Simply expressing dismay and disgust will not be enough.

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