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Democracy without free press is like a blank piece of paper: Ex-President Pranab Mukherjee

Speaking at the Rajendra Mathur Memorial Lecture, organised annually by Editors Guild of India, Mukherjee said journalists, like civil servants, should never let their biases colour news.

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New Delhi: Former President Pranab Mukherjee Wednesday said all is not well in the media industry even as he emphasised that a democracy without a free press is like a “blank piece of paper”.

Mukherjee was delivering this year’s Rajendra Mathur Memorial Lecture, organised annually by the Editors Guild of India. 

In his 22-minute speech, Mukherjee said freedom of press is among the many freedoms that all democracies must strive hard to propagate, preserve and protect.

“It is incumbent upon you as a society of newspapers, periodicals and media organisations to weed out such aberrations as might have crept into the functioning of the media,” he said. 

Mukherjee also said it is “distressing” that some publications these days have resorted to paid news and other marketing strategies to boost their revenues. 

Underlining that there is a need to implement “self-correcting mechanisms” to check such irregularities, Mukherjee said the temptation to “dumb down” news should also be resisted. 

“Today, the nation faces critical challenges that go well beyond the pressure of ‘Breaking News’ and immediate headlines in a discourse alternatively dominated by social media,” he said.

“While you must continue to be effective raconteurs, you must never ever lose sight of the singular talisman of truth and nothing but the facts,” he added. “You are after all the crystal ball that millions of Indians gaze at.”

The former President further said it is the media’s responsibility to ensure that ideas are debated dispassionately and thoughts articulated without fear or favour so that opinion is always well-informed.

“Journalists must bring to public notice the array of ills and deprivations that continue to beset large numbers of our people — be it malnourishment, continuance of discriminatory practices against sections of society, or the ongoing crisis, or the burdens and tragic consequences of indebtedness,” he said, adding that they must shape and influence public opinion even as they provide objective and balanced coverage. 

Also read: Editors Guild ‘deplores’ violence against staff of Assamese news channel Prag News 

‘News should not be selective, one-sided’

Mukherjee said he would be failing in his duties as an Indian citizen, if he does not point out that all is not well in the media industry. 

“Selective, orchestrated, one-sided, out of context, or motivated reporting and display, aimed at pushing the partisan agendas of one group or the other cannot or should not ever be the nature and character of journalism,” he told the audience. 

He added that whatever one’s personal belief or ideological positioning, journalists, like civil servants, can never let their biases colour the news that is being reported.

Mukherjee said that while the essential distinction between views and news, opinions and objectivity is fast blurring, media organisations cannot “compromise in their basic role of watchdogs of our society, polity and economy, at the same time they cannot criticise just for the sake of criticising”. 

“Similarly, in the name of highlighting positive news, they cannot become the mouthpiece of the government or a corporate house,” he said.

He further emphasised that sensationalism should never become a substitute for “objective assessment” and “truthful reporting” and gossip and speculation should not replace hard facts. 

“Every effort should be made to ensure that political or commercial interests are not passed off as legitimate and independent opinion,” Mukherjee added. 

“To my mind, while the press will be failing in its duty if it does not pose questions to the powers that be, it will have to simultaneously judge the frivolous from the factual and publicity from reportage,” he said. 

“This is a tremendous challenge for the media and one that it must stand up to,” he said, adding that it “must resist the temptation to take the path of least resistance that is to allow a dominant viewpoint to prevail without questioning it or allowing others the opportunity to question it.” 

“The question that faces all of us, including the media, is whether we will choose to define ourselves as a nation enriched by the diversity of views or allow partisan views to dominate our national narrative?” 

Also read: ‘Censorship by another name’ — Editors Guild on Andhra govt allowing officials to sue media 

‘Gandhi was most prolific journalist, need to follow his path’

Mukherjee said one of the most prolific and influential journalists as well as publishers of India was Mahatma Gandhi. His thoughts on journalism are most illuminating and must guide our media, Mukherjee said. 

Mukherjee also highlighted the contribution of the late Rajendra Mathur to journalism, saying if the media believes in the freedom of expression, as Mathur did, it must “choose to reflect a plurality of opinions for that is what breathes life into our democracy and has defined us as Indians”.

Mathur, a former professor of English at Indore College, wrote for Nai Duniya. He later edited the Navbharat Times from 1982 until his death in 1991. 

“[The media] must always remember that its fundamental task is to stand up and ask questions with honesty and fairness. That’s the sacred pact it has with citizens in a democracy,” Mukherjee said.  

The former President also said the Editors Guild of India has over the years emerged as a “strong and independent voice of the media and an upholder of press freedom”.

Also read: Kashmir lockdown ‘draconian for vibrant local media’, says Editors Guild


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  1. Despite enormous constraints, the Indian media – barring the pliable segment – is trying to do its job. A fine edit on Kashmir in Asian Age.

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