The fact is, free media is vital to the very existence of any democracy, being its fourth pillar. However, this is not the case under the current dispensation.
Some developments in the last week have thrown up arguments within the media, especially after the report by a group of ministers of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government, which has taken a stand on media and wants to take steps to counter journalists critical of the government. Now this same government had last year claimed, “Modi government opposes those who throttle freedom of press.” The fact is, free media is vital to the very existence of any democracy, being its fourth pillar. However, this is not the case under the current dispensation, where the media and journalists have become the extension of a government or heads of the state. It is pertinent that the media, which is empowered under section 19(a) of the Constitution of India, continues to be the primary source of information for the citizens.
Since 2014, numerous developments have occurred in India and we have been seeing the way they have been handled by a large section of media in general and the government in particular. Across the country, leading educational institutions have been brought under the scanner, apart from Jawaharlal Nehru University. For example, in all IITs, they were told no international conferences could be held on the CAA, the NRC, and other such subjects. They had to take special sanction from the ministry of external affairs for international conferences. Only after much hue and cry within the faculty was this directive rolled back. There however has been no stop since. After that, we have seen many other protests, criticism of some policies, the three farm bills in particular, and the handling of the farmers’ protests. Time and again, the same pattern appears – a select section of the media that is seen to be favouring the government and a handful few who take on the role of a watchdog and ask questions.
The fact is, media IS the watchdog in a democracy and no one could have said this better than the renowned judge of Bombay High Court, Revati Mohite Dere. In 2017, nine journalists (including me), moved Bombay High Court against a sessions court judge’s order preventing the media from reporting or even putting up on social media anything on the Sohrabuddin encounter trial case. We saw it as a muzzling of free speech and a breach of our right to report (expression), a fundamental right as per the Constitution of India. Justice Revati Mohite Dere not only gave a reported judgment upholding the rights of us journalists but also encompassing the fundamental right of every citizen of this country to be informed. Justice Mohite Dere ordered, ‘‘in fact, the media not only exercises its own right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) but it also serves a larger public purpose by disseminating or being the carrier of information, which otherwise is not easily available or accessible to the public, at large. In that sense, the Press are the eyes and ears of the public, who, by reporting fulfill the public’s right to know, about the happenings in court proceedings”. She went on to state, “The Press is the most powerful watchdog of public interest, in a democracy….. It discourages misconduct and abuse of power by the prosecuting agency, prosecutors, judges, and all other participants.” Now extend this to other government servants, officials, and ministers. The citizens must know of the impact of every policy, bill or decision because it affects them. We saw during demonetisation when the public was short-changed on details. The government promised many gains but the truth is, many lost their lives. Or when the lockdown was suddenly announced a year ago and many migrant workers were left helpless and stranded far from homes, were forced to go without jobs and starved and still many died. The press was prosecuted for asking tough questions.
Citizens need to understand the value of democracy and the role that the media plays in it. It is important that it is critical if any policy is detrimental to any group of citizens. Now see how India has fallen to the 53rd position in the Democracy Index’s global ranking, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit. India’s score is now 6.61, lower than its previous one of 6.9. This index provides a snapshot of the state of democracy worldwide for 167 countries. Imagine, more than one-third of the world’s people live in countries where the media is state-controlled. It obviously means a lack of accountability, as Justice Mohite Dere had stated in her judgment.
Free press is good for development
It is not mature of people to say they do not care and that the Indian media has been given too much freedom. A lot is tied to democracy, the free press and the development of a country. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette said, “A free and independent press is the lifeblood of strong, functioning societies, and a lifeline to progress itself”. The African report states that a free press promotes democracy and economic development in their countries. “It can be a crucial instrument for socio-economic development in the same way that investment, infrastructure and education are. According to the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, an enlightened and developed society of free and independent individuals cannot be created unless all its members have their freedom of expression.” In fact in new research by Jeff Ollerton, Marsh Walsh and Ted Sullivan in 2019 has shown how freedom of the press goes hand-in-hand with a higher level of environmental protection. They have clearly stated, ‘‘Environmental protection is vital if countries are to conserve the natural capital and ecosystem services on which 21st-century societies depend, and is enshrined within the international treaties, policies, and legislation that support the United Nations’ Sustainable Developmental Goals.” No surprise that India falls low on all three counts – freedom of the press, sustainable development goals, and environmental protection. We are seeing how most infrastructure projects are being given environmental clearances unhesitatingly and any opposition is immediately labeled as being anti-development, just like the labels applied to journalists who question the government for its follies.
It is basic common sense that the more informed the citizens, the better they are at dealing with the issues on hand. Hence, instead of targeting the media that is critical, that dutifully asks the right questions, it is time Indians began asking, why is the communicator being targeted? Why is the government of India favouring certain sections of the media and what is it that they don’t want the citizens to know? In a study by Pippa Norris, a political historian, ‘The role of the free press in promoting democratization, good governance and human development,’ she notes how there is political stability with a free press. Our government has a robust majority, so why is it scared of a free press, is something people should question. Norris’s study shows, “Countries where much of the public has access to the free press usually have greater political stability, rule of law, government efficiency in the policy process, regulatory quality, and the least corruption.” The important point is that every policy, action of the government should be monitored. This is Civics 101. But what we are seeing is that the freedom of press is being threatened, as journalists are being arrested under sedition.
The new Information Technology rules passed by the government also need a judicial review. They are thwarting freedom, to say the least. In fact, in recent months, journalists have been booked when on duty and on their way to report important developments. In October 2020, a journalist and three others were booked for sedition when they were on their way to cover the Hathras rape in Uttar Pradesh. In February, Mandeep Punia was covering the farmers’ protest and was arrested for it. The arrests and number of sedition cases piling up was just the beginning.
The fact is, gagging the media is not going to help conceal facts. Like water, the truth will find a way. This is something this government and its supporters need to know.
Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.
(Views Expressed Are Personal)