Can the press speak? If it does not speak, then is it still the press? But what does it speak? To whom does it speak? These were questions debated at a webinar organised recently by Newslaundry — that audacious news portal that dares call out the most imperious editors of our times. As the editor of The Shillong Times, I have to confess that for the first time in my dozen years of service to this 75-year-old newspaper, I feel a sense of bondage; of not being able to breathe the air of freedom guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution that is destined to secure our freedoms for us.
Am I the only one who feels that I have to correct a phrase here and a sentence there lest it offends someone? There was a time when one could just shoot from the hips when it came to issues that hurt the public cause, of course, bearing in mind that well-rehearsed adage – ‘Your freedom ends where my nose begins’.
Why is the press, which is the fourth pillar of Indian democracy, not given the same status as the other three pillars – the legislature, executive and judiciary? Why are these three pillars today almost sacrosanct and beyond reproach? Why is the press being shown its place time and again by the three other pillars, especially by the executive and judiciary? What are we in the media doing wrong? Are we doing something we have not done before? Will someone point out our transgressions? And by someone, I mean a neutral third party with no vested interest in any of the four pillars.
The job of the press
Why should the press speak, and freely? The answer to this question was given long ago by US Supreme Court JusticeGeorge Sutherland who said, “For the saddest epitaph which can be carved in memory of a vanished liberty is that it was lost because its possessors failed to stretch forth a saving hand while yet there was time.” This is true of most of us today. We are appalled at the grovelling by a section of the media in India. The primetime panel discussions on TV are orchestrated to sing praises to the Narendra Modi government.
After the Emergency, when Indira Gandhi was defeated in the elections and the Janata Party government came to power, L.K. Advani—who was the information and broadcasting minister at the time—admonished certain media persons and said to them, “When you were asked to bend, you crawled”.
The irony is that it is Advani’s party, the BJP, which is now drawing the boundaries within which media should operate.
So, are we any better today? And yet we do nothing other than discussing these distasteful episodes amongst ourselves. Each one of us fears to call out these journalistic misdemeanours. So they continue happily, basking in the glory of those who hold the reins of governance today. They enjoy a privileged status because they oblige and brook no dissent against the status quo.
Then there are media houses with no revenue model other than an undue reliance on government and corporate advertisements. Well, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed some ugly facets — this model is unsustainable and not by a long shot. Hundreds of journalists have been laid off, some with not even a package that will see them through for the next six months. They lost their jobs just like that because the media barons never really delved deep into the model upon which their revenues were built. Yes, the pandemic has brought down that house of cards and publications from different cities have just winded up and staff let off. What happens to those voices from the periphery? Is India now going to be a country of a few top metros where only the lives of the metrosexual matter?
A long due correction
Why must the press speak? Is that a tough question to answer? Not if one is a disciple of the old school journalism. The press gives voice to the disempowered. At least that is what was drummed into our ears by seniors in the profession. The press should bring before the executive, legislature and judiciary the social, economic and political maladies that the ordinary citizens experience on a daily basis. It is expected that such reports would nudge the conscience of the three pillars of democracy and they would rush in to address those infirmities.
It worked for a while, that is until the Modi government stepped into the corridors of power and decided it was not going to be bothered by a vigilant, questioning, meddlesome media. Period.
So, who is now holding the legislature, executive and judiciary accountable? Well, a section of the media is still doing so, although it’s gasping for air. Conformity is the order of the day. If you don’t conform, you perish. It’s a hugely polarised world we are living in. It’s the Liberal Left versus Radical Right, and most of us are caught in the middle (minus the ideology except to continue to live our lives in some meaningful way, if that is possible). We continue to speak because we still cling to our dear lives and to Freedom of Speech and Expression or its much watered-down version.
There are so many virtues attached to our freedoms and yet, when we are now seeing up close and personal the rapid erosion of those freedoms and the complete politicisation of the law enforcing agencies investigating the Delhi riots, we are stunned into silence. Speaking up extracts a price, but it’s either that or intellectual slavery. The choice is ours.
Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin, in Federalism, Socialism and Anti-Theologian, aptly remarked that “Intellectual slavery, of whatever nature it may be, will always have as a natural result both political and social slavery”.
If at all we are to reclaim our intellectual freedom, then the press has to lead the way. We have a responsibility to correct the infirmities in the three supporting pillars even as we lend ourselves to correction. Yes, correction, not denunciation, because no single pillar of democracy should have overarching influence or control over the other.
The author is a journalist and editor of The Shillong Times. Views are personal.
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