The media can disagree, fight and judge each other. But it can survive and thrive only by closing ranks when its first principles are under attack.

Over the past 50 years, India has seen three powerful full-term prime ministers with majorities. The first was Indira Gandhi after her March 1971 sweep. The second, Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. We have the third such, under Narendra Modi, about to step into its fifth year.

Think about the one thing you can find in common between these three governments.

Let me drop some “phone-a-friend” type hints. Think of what each of these tried in the last year of its term.

Still guessing? Here is a second hint. Think like a journalist.

Fact: Each of these targeted the media in its last year. Indira Gandhi brought the censorship exactly as her fifth year began (she later extended the term of that parliament by a year to gift herself a six-year term). Her argument was, the press was spreading negativity and cynicism, was controlled by vested interests and beholden to a “foreign hand” out to destabilise India.

Shekhar Gupta, chairman and editor-in-chief of ThePrintRajiv Gandhi brought in the so-called anti-defamation bill as he entered his last year. He was beleaguered with Bofors, Zail Singh’s challenge, V.P. Singh’s rebellion and more, and blamed the press. He failed too.

Now, the Modi government made a move on mainstream media on the pretext of fighting “fake news”. It was withdrawn as dramatically as it had been announced. The government isn’t done yet. The withdrawn press release was followed, as if on cue, by the constitution of a committee to frame governance norms for digital media. The argument being that both print and broadcast have their regulators (the Press Council of India and News Broadcasting Standards Authority, respectively) but the pesky new digital media has none. It cannot be allowed to function in an autonomous vacuum.

Among the oldest principles in journalism is the “three-example rule”. If you can find three facts making the same point, it completes a straight-line thread. We can, therefore, conclude that something happens to really powerful governments in the last year of their term that makes them want to shoot the messenger. Why, is a different debate altogether, for another day. Although, they possibly just can’t handle their rising insecurity about the next term they had taken for granted.

We know by the time 1975 began, Indira was on decline with 20 per cent-plus inflation and Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement. We will be delusional to believe that voters punished her for press censorship. If she hadn’t blundered into forced sterilisation, the “discipline” of the Emergency was quite popular. But, after her defeat and the rise of the rivals she had jailed, a social contract evolved whereby public opinion acknowledged the monstrosity of censorship and built a stake in press freedom. In a country with no specific laws guaranteeing press freedoms, this was a landmark shift. A Supreme Court, contrite over its complicity with the Emergency, also gave this social contract a judicial spine over the decades. Indira Gandhi’s big play to control the press, became counter-productive.

Rajiv too tried shifting the blame on the media for his decline and like his mother’s, his move boomeranged too. Top Indian editors and even owners forgot their rivalries and turned out with placards in a protest on Rajpath, displaying a solidarity missing during the Emergency. Rajiv retreated, but in the process, India had seen—and come to admire—the media’s new solidarity, and commitment to its freedoms.

Each of these big attempts by powerful, full-majority governments to strangle the media actually ended up strengthening its freedoms instead. Will this happen again this time? Will a new three-example rule come into play, proving that an angry government will always fail to throttle the media?

The BJP government has several challenges as it enters its last year. But it is nothing yet compared to the existential threats the earlier two were facing. Indian media is enormously bigger, more powerful, popular, richer and diverse now. But there are a couple of strong negatives today. One, that the social contract we talked about is fraying, something I have fretted about in the past. The second that the media is now more divided. It always had divisions of ideologies and views—as it must in a decent democracy. Today, it is also divided on the basis of platforms. That provides the cracks in which a determined establishment can bury the hatchet. These are the cracks the government is probing by running a fine knife over them. The big blow will inevitably come, once they widen.

Read between the lines when the government says print and broadcast have their governance systems, but digital doesn’t. The idea is to salami-slice the media community. How this will work, or perhaps won’t, is worth debating. First, the legacy media houses, including the many that operate on all three platforms: print, broadcast and digital, might think it doesn’t bother them as they are fenced in by their own respective “systems”. So let the digital upstarts get their comeuppance. It will be tempting, as many in the powerful legacy media are seething at what they (somewhat with justification) see as an effort by the new digital players to lampoon them as trivial, corrupt, incompetent and compromised.

Conversely, many new-digital players believe the internet is impossible to regulate, so just tell the government where to get off. It doesn’t work like that in the real world. A government can simply issue a notification and bring in some equivalent of licensing and worse. The internet is not a sovereign republic and the global mood today, especially in the deeply liberal community, is to regulate it. When that happens, remember, you won’t be able to fight it alone. You will need the same legacy media that some so detest and undermine. And the vice versa is true as well, the entrenched institutions’ contempt for these “arrogant pretenders with no revenue models” will be self-defeating too.

This was a week dominated by terrible tales of injustice, as far apart as Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir and Unnao in the heart of Uttar Pradesh. The arrogance of the political establishment in both places was blocking justice. It is mainly because of the stellar work done by the media, on all platforms, that turned the tide. When the chips are down, you need them all. There is no mainstream, downstream, slipstream distinction—or apartheid.

We will disagree, fight and often judge each other. We journalists are like that only (sorry, Deve Gowda, for stealing your metaphor). When press freedoms are under assault isn’t one of those occasions. The equation is brutal. You either fight together, to protect the freedoms of all, or be salami-sliced and perish. So don’t judge the other now, however much you may detest their journalism. You can only preserve your freedoms if you fight even for those of your rivals or ideological antagonists.

I speak as one who was a journalism student during the Emergency, have been-there-done-that in the widest sense of the term, and now work simultaneously in all three dimensions. This column also appears on the morning the Editors Guild of India has its Annual General Meeting (AGM). I’ve been among the many guilty of committing inadequate time to the Guild, seeing it as a waste. I was arrogantly dismissive and wrong. We journalists need to strengthen all our institutions, the old and the new. This is a time for mutual respect amongst all of us, and solidarity to defend our first principles, irrespective of how and where we tell our story and what our drift. Because, remember, freedoms can’t be salami-sliced.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. It is apparent that the above piece has been prompted by what appears to be a somersault by the legacy media in case of the Kathua and Unnao abominations. But it might turn out to be a folly to trust that section of the legacy media which 24/7 indulges in “post truths” and “alternative facts” about the minorities and a particular neighbour to serve an ideology which antithetical to the very “idea of India” as envisaged in our Constitution. Their considerations may be mercenary or ideological but remain antidemocratic and opposed to the freedom of not only expression but many other freedoms. No this is in context of the article of Shekhar Gupta

  2. Ultimately, when they went before the people, both mother and son lost the election. The media could have either played up or sought to suppress their failures, but those were manifest. I don’t have the columnist’s deep knowledge of cricket, but a government in its fourth year – especially in India where the gap between available resources and public needs is so vast – is like a batsman who has been at the crease for too long, tiring, losing concentration, liable to misjudge the flight of a ball that can take his wicket. More than hassling the messenger, governments could pile up a decent score of runs, so there is something worthwhile to show to spectators. When anti incumbency builds up beyond a certain level, the media can prove to be little more than a blip for voters.

  3. Absolutely correct and based on historically proven record. The Biggest mistake of Congress was Emergency@75 by Indira Gandhi. Had it not be been there all these so called JP(sub parties) would not have got birth even. The Jail Bharo andolan and SaGa has been route cause.

    No doubt with Social Media Coming in NaMo has been able to encash more , but Lie can’t be holded for a long. Some day or the other. Scream and Speak Lie with High Volume and Best Pitch Voice… One can subdue the Truth but can’t burry it for ever.

    Well Drafted Article after a its a question mark.of your fraternity too in many means

  4. Can you please start by making Narendra Modi accountable and answerable for the office he holds? He needs to face the media every week. He is nothing special. He’s just a Prime Minister. There were 10 before him, and there will be 10 after him. He cant be allowed to ruin this country for five years with the media sitting mum. Or bought out by Jaitley’s money. These ppl need to understand: India is a 1000 years old, these men are only around for 70-80 of those years. They cannot litter this country and be allowed to get away with it. There are young children growing up here, who need to know that a Prime Minister gets elected for five years. He’s a servant of the people. He gets a salary, and is not doing any favour on this country. He enjoys a lot of privilege and power. And that each Indian life is his responsibility. He was not elected to give screechy speeches. Any moron can build pretty flyovers and pen slogans. He was elected to take care of India for five years – and he hasn’t. He needs to be answerable for every step he takes. This is a billion people, not his personal fiefdom. Even basic claims like he could make chai need to be checked and rechecked. This country;s becme a joke otherwise. The press doesnt matter if it cant get the man into a press conference room EVERY SINGLE WEEK. Do you understand? Have some high standards if you are chosen for this thing.

    • Yes press should be independent, but it should be honest while publishing something. Making agitation nothing will happen. We all are welcoming prompt honest free press.
      Thanks
      Balasubramanya

    • Strong words and true too. The PM is answerable to the country and he should be facing a no-holds-barred press conference at least once a year if not every week. Unless we are no longer a democracy.

    • how are you going to check whether he made chai or sold chai , ms mahajan do you hv the time
      why dont you look yourself in the mirror & see what you can do yourself rather than rail aginst the pm or any other pm, whoever it may be. it is very easy to be a journalist & just spout an opinion or rail against the current pm because you hv a vicarious interest in putting him down —maybe you wanted him to lose the election or future ones. but do stop arm chair quarterbacking & start doing something constructive for the nation or your community. maybe there is a village nearby that yu can do social work in but stop bad mouthing this pm or others that were before him.
      dr deepak sheth civil soceity volunteer california.

  5. Media is themselves responsible for their state of affairs today. Just see how narratives are build through Fake news and half truths just to get Rajya Sabha Seats or some Semi Govt chairmanship etc. Not to forgot how journolists became Commission Agents in Fixing Ministers for crony capitalists. remember Nira Radia Tapes and how it was deliberately kept under the wraps. Before you start making accusations on others clean your own house first. Renounce all the Govt Bunglows/ quarters or any other doles given to Press, refuse to accept those plum RS seats or Chairmanship, throw those Journos out who have become commission agents for Political Parties. Than you have every right to raise your finger on others

  6. I am sorry, but I see enough anti- Modi stuff every day as much as pro-Modi. So, freedom is out there alive and kicking as much as it was five years ago. It is impossible to regulate the internet, especially content put out from outside the country, but a major disaster based on fake news is waiting to happen. So, it is high time experienced journalists come forward with some Credible Self-Regulation or some accreditation mechanism for digital, that does not impinge on their freedom (or business models).

  7. Lot of things said in this article in press/media freedom. True. Press, media by exercising it’s freedom were bombarding crying G hoarse about Hindu terror since 2008. But now there is all of a sudden the very same media-press spending time to attack the perpetrators of the foisted cases against all and sundry labelling it as Hindu terror. Why can’t those who attacked earlier against Hindu organisations can’t seek apologies before taking 360 degrees turn.
    These people are not least to do that. Even Shekar Gupta won’t do it. Least of all not even @BDUTT who after exposure of her involvement/discussions for a ministerial berth didn’t do her explanation at prime time but at an odd time to viewers. Now all these want to continue their tirade without checking the truth of the subject or by not allowing opposite view to be expressed. What type of journalism is these on media.
    None of the present day media news channels are worth watching

  8. “Sorry, Deve Gowda, for stealing your metaphor…”! What arrogance! What boorishness from a senior journalist who believes he is media’s very own Ayatollah!!!!! Can Shekhar G say something similar to SG or MMS, like “Sorry, Sonia, for stealing a few free lunch tickets…” Or “Sorry, Manmohan, you stuttered when you should actually have barked”?
    And this long lecture to the media from one who didn’t think twice while front-paging a fake news about an army coup, at the instance of the then finance minister!

  9. Just because the established ecosystem, carefully nurtured is being exposed in the last year of this govt, right from “No beef” in Dadri to Beef inserted in Junaid murder in train with “Not in my name” campaign to targeting temple rather than justice for rape victim in Kathua, most liars feel the fake news exposure will end their career.
    Most of Shekhars, Burkhas may not be on payroll of congress but certainly they are communal, because like congress never seen any appeal or article by then dousing the fire of communal flare if happens. Fake news peddling never help public except the political party that feasted on appeasement and panic of RSS demonizing.

  10. This paranoia is a bit rich coming from the media that saw it fit to damn and convict Modi for alleged crimes which even the organs of the dynasty ruled judicial agencies could not! So, unlike the examples of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi terms, Modi has faced an onslaughtbof media for not five but more like fifteen years. For all your protestations I see no amount of dumbing down in the critique of Modi, in some cases a virulent hatred, in the Indian media. Pretty much a majority of the media persons have not come to terms of a democratically elected Modi majority while they seemed content to put up with a corrupt scam ridden dynastic Govrrnment where the constitutional position of the Prine Minister had been subverted. You guys lost your credibility then and have embellished that achievement by unrelenting resentment of Modi since 2014. I do not see why is there any consistency in non regulation of internet based “print” medium while we already have that for the print and broadcast media. Stop whining and do your job with integrity and objectivity in which case you will earn back the respect of the public that you admit has been lost!

  11. Shekhar Gupta does not have the morality to push such stuff on the viewers. He should have seen his face in the mirror before attempting this great hogwash stuff.

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