While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s lecture was a bit stern in parts, there is no need for the press to panic and call the fire brigade.
Politicians love to lecture everybody, but most of all journalists. It is probably because they get tired of being advised, criticised, praised or pilloried all the time by people who, in their view, have no accountability to anybody, for anything. My all-time favourite, of course, is Bansi Lal at the 1975 Independence Day (during the Emergency) function: “Bhaiyo, what is the value of these newspapers? After 8 am, one rupee for a kilo. And what do you then use these for? For wrapping your pakoras. But never do so. These are filled with so much poison, these will kill you.” Of course, he said this looking at the section where the few local journalists were seated.
Jawaharlal Nehru used to lecture journalists at public events, and so does Narendra Modi now. I do not believe any prime minister between them has lost that opportunity. I even heard one from H.D. Deve Gowda after he had given me the G.K. Reddy Journalism Award for 1997.
Usually, they all speak from the same standard template: need for credibility, social awareness, avoiding titillation and sensationalism, the need to separate news from comment, and truthfulness. There is also some usual quote from Mahatma Gandhi to buttress all this. Which has always confused me. Because all the great newspapers in Gandhi’s era, our teacher of history of journalism taught us long ago, weren’t even newspapers. They were “viewspapers”.
Nevertheless, politicians have to lecture, and why should they miss the chance when we invite them to our stage to do so, as the leading Tamil newspaper Dina Thanthi did earlier this week. We got the usual sermon, and also the regulation Gandhi quote, this time reminding us that freedom of the press was wonderful, but getting our facts wrong was criminal.
Now, I’m not sure the Mahatma would have quite figured the implications of using that word, particularly now when Indian media is fighting to decriminalise the law of libel. Gandhi’s was a more innocent era. Nobody would count his using these lines as intimidation or threat. But today, the Prime Minister’s merely repeating these has caused discomfort.
In my view, we journalists wallow in self-pity and love to complain. There are always threats to our freedoms. These go up and down with times. We need to be vigilant, strong, and willing to take these into our stride. We are going through times of tougher challenges now, especially when abuse on social media amplifies the threat. But to anybody who values freedom, there is plenty available, as we can see in the continuing vibrancy in our journalism. I’d say, therefore, that while the prime minister’s lecture was a bit stern in parts, there is no need to panic and call the fire brigade. Or, paint the devil on the wall.
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