Representational image. | Image Courtesy: worldnewsUnion.com
After the Emergency, former Bharatiya Janata Party big gun L K Advani’s famous quote on the media: “You were asked to bend but you began to crawl” made headlines. Ironically, Advani today has been totally sidelined by BJP. However, a whitepaper on the media in the last five years of his party’s rule, is indeed a must, to help give a clear picture on the use and abuse, gentle and not so gentle pressures, attacks on the media and media personnel. Add to this the contempt cases clamped on sections of the media for exposing the government-business nexus and even use of the sedition law, too. Also, the birth of a new narrative of terming any opposition to policies, such as demonetisation or even questioning as to how 80 kg of RDX went undetected in Pulwama -- a region that is one of the most militarised zones in the world -- as anti-nationalist.
Of course, there is a major difference. What we saw in 1975-77 was a declared Emergency. The order bestowed upon the then Prime Minister, late Indira Gandhi, the authority to rule by a decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed. Today, there is no formal Emergency. Yet the press, slowly but surely, in the past five years, has been facing virtually an ‘undeclared Emergency’.
Today, it can be said that there is no misuse of censorship provisions, yet it just happens. Media and media persons can today be bundled out by a combination of press barons and the government, mainly due to pressure from industrialists known to be hand-in-glove with the government. What is missing today are the Emergency records of 253 journalists arrested, including 110 under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and 60 under DISR. Incidentally, then too there were demands to look into the political motives behind the censorship of certain films, such as Kissa Kursi Ka, Aandhi, Andolan etc., just as now new films and channels deifying the present regime or demonising opponents are seeing the light of the day.
What is perhaps required today is a more expert and autonomous committee than the previous Press Commissions to look into what has happened to the media and, in particular, television in the past five years. Having the term ‘Godi Media’ attached to it, and being dubbed as ‘presstitutes’ and then a large chunk of the media turning into drumbeaters of the government, is self-explanatory. Add to this reports of more and more dismissals and even en-masse dismissal of journalists who do not toe the official line. There is no doubt that the media at the crossroads and it is time for corrective, not draconian, regulations.
The media, too, is indeed going soft on deeds of omission by the Election Commission Rules. Recall the authority then exercised by late T.N. Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner. Rules were not only implemented but were widely seen as being implemented. However, in the campaign for the 2019 general election, the autonomy of this constitutional body seems to be under a cloud. When the BJP displayed hoardings with Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s photograph on them, the EC merely asked political parties to “desist from displaying photographs of defence personnel”.
Recall what the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) in a press statement on the Bofors issue on April 21, 1990, said: “There are twin dangers to us both from various Governments and press barons”, and to highlight the later aspects and related matter “we have no option but move the press council.” What DUJ said was that what was involved were professional issues and that the organisation was perturbed by any attempt at witch-hunt of journalists like Chitra Subramaniam.
Can we think of the Press Council intervening today?
- What rights do professional journalists have against editors who arbitrarily decide not to publish a story without giving any explanation. Does editorial prerogative preclude the rights of other journalists in his organization, whatever be the circumstance?
- The practice whereby proprietors also function as editors and switch roles to kill stories that do not suit their proprietorial interests, irrespective of professional considerations. Should this be allowed?
- What is happening in the Rafale aircraft deal issue?
Again, recall when the previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, too, sought to enforce Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) on journalists. At that time, the Press Council of India, armed with a petition from DUJ, “was of unanimous view that any information which is publicly displayed on the Internet cannot be treated as confidential and the reproduction or possession of such matter may not attract provisions of the Official Secrets Act (OSA).” Today, the Press Council is truncated and toothless. In the present context, the OSA has once again become an instrument of oppression at the hands of the establishment to witch-hunt those who dare to ask uncomfortable questions.
The BJP-led NDA government is indeed in panic, if one takes a close look at the revelation that Attorney General (AG) K.K.Venugopal made in the Supreme Court on March 6. He informed the apex court that “secret” papers published by a national daily – The Hindu- on the purchase of 36 Rafale jet fighters were “stolen” from the Ministry of Defence. Recall, the AG’s earlier submission that the publication of secret defence documents had put national security at risk and had affected relations with friendly foreign powers. He said the government was thinking of taking “criminal action” under the OSA, and went on to present a dangerous picture to the apex court: “In future, foreign countries will think twice…..”
Also, recall that at one stage on March 6, the AG indicated looking into ‘criminal cction’ against those responsible for making ‘stolen document’ on the Rafale deal public. It may be noted that in 2015, the NDA government formed a high-level panel to look into the provisions of the OSA in the light of the Right to Information Act. No action has been taken on the panel’s report, which was submitted in 2017. Isn’t all this a clear attempt to kill independent and investigative journalism?
As Shakespeare aptly put it :
“He who steals my purse steals trash,
But he that filches from me my good name;
Robs me of not what not enriches him
But makes me poor indeed.”
The media needs to reflect on its role as a watchdog of the government, on being caught in allegations of paid news etc. What is required is reflection by the media, not policing by the state. Recall how and why the Press Information Bureau was nicknamed the Police Information Bureau during the Emergency. Recall, too, how in under the present regime, the Prasar Bharati, was tamed, how the Central Hall of Parliament was reduced to nothingness for mediapersons, and the fact that not a single press conference was held by the Prime Minister. During the tenure of the present government, All India Radio was reduced to ‘Mann ki Baat’. And now, as electioneering heats up, there comes Namo TV and, of course, some government drummer TVs, and some newspapers flush with ads, based on the dictum-cum-threat: ‘publish us or perish’.
The writer is a senior journalist. The views are personal.