In the last fortnight, Indian democracy and press freedom have taken a beating. But there have also been words spoken that are like a balm to an ever-deepening wound. They may not be able to stop this wound from festering, or to heal it, but they are worth noting and remembering.
I refer to the speech of the , at the 16th Ramnath Goenka Awards function in Delhi on Wednesday.
There is much in what he said that is noteworthy. But in the context of media freedom, these words are especially important:
“A functional and healthy democracy must encourage the development of journalism as an institution that can ask difficult questions to the establishment – or as it is commonly known, ‘speak truth to power’. The vibrancy of any democracy is compromised when the press is prevented from doing exactly this. The press must remain free if a country is to remain a democracy.”
For democracy to survive, the press must remain free. Yet just a week before the Chief Justice said this, a young journalist working for a local newspaper was arrested for doing precisely what Justice Chandrachud recommended that the media should do – ask difficult questions to the establishment.
, a YouTuber who also reports for Moradabad Ujala, decided to use the occasion of UP minister Gulab Devi’s visit to Budh Nagar Khandwa village in Sambhal district, to ask some questions. He stood up with a mike in hand and listed out many unfulfilled promises as narrated to him by villagers – no toilets, unpaved road, blocked drains and more. The video of him asking the questions went viral on social media. But the price he paid for doing this, his job as a journalist, was to be arrested. Rana was released on bail because his story was noticed, and senior journalists intervened. If they had not, he would have been another name added to the growing list of incarcerated journalists.
Two days before the Chief Justice’s reflections on the importance of a free press for a democracy, , a Srinagar-based Kashmiri journalist was arrested. He was summoned to the police station, a routine to which many journalists in Kashmir have become accustomed. When he went there, he was arrested for a 2020 case and booked under UAPA. Mehraj is editor of Wande magazine but also writes for Indian and foreign publications. His arrest has elicited strong statements from several organisations, including the Editors’ Guild of India, Digipub and Press Club of India as well as Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders.
In the context of media freedom, the other noteworthy speech at the Ramnath Goenka Awards function was that of the editor-in-chief of Indian Express, .
What Jha said stands out especially in these times because just a few days earlier, another editor of a media house broke several records of sycophancy in his speech while welcoming the chief guest at that function, the Prime Minister. After the Emergency ended, LK Advani, who was the information and broadcasting minister in the Janata government, famously said of the press that when asked to bend it chose to crawl during the Emergency. In this case, even though we don’t live under a state of emergency, an editor chose not just to crawl but to literally prostrate himself before the powerful.
But not Jha of Indian Express. In the presence of former and current ministers in the Narendra Modi government, including information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur, Jha referred to the Supreme Court as the “North Star” for journalists and journalism. Note that he spoke of the Supreme Court, the institution, not the Chief Justice, an individual.
“Year and after year, that starlight has illuminated the road ahead,” he said, adding that the court “has kept pushing back at the State to expand our freedoms”.
And then, even as the camera panned the stony expressions of some of the luminaries in the audience, he said, “That’s why when the lights dim…When a reporter is arrested under a law meant for terrorists; another for asking a question; a university professor for sharing a cartoon; a college student for a speech; an actor for a comment; and when a rejoinder to a story comes in the form of a police FIR, we turn to the North Star for its guiding light.”
The lights have indeed dimmed for media freedom, and for democracy in India. Anyone saying this is not “defaming” India as the BJP insists as it continues its energetic attack on Rahul Gandhi for what he apparently said during his trip to Britain.
In fact, the media’s coverage of the controversy over Gandhi’s supposed remarks, that has led to the treasury benches disrupting the working of parliament during a crucial budget session, is another illustration of the fog that has enveloped media freedom.
Rahul Gandhi spoke on several platforms during his time in Britain. He also answered questions. But most of what we have read or seen in the Indian media is the reaction of various BJP functionaries, including several ministers and the prime minister himself, lambasting him for defaming and insulting India on foreign soil and asking foreign countries to interfere in India’s internal affairs. BJP chief went a step further and accused him of being “a permanent part of an anti-nationalist toolkit”.
If readers or viewers wanted to decide for themselves whether the Congress leader had crossed a line, and needed to apologise as is being demanded by the BJP, they would have had a hard time if they relied on mainstream media. If they searched social media or platforms, they would have found reports and video clips from his various speeches and interactions.
Take for instance, the charge that he asked foreign countries to step in. There is no evidence of such an accusation. On the contrary, in his session at , he makes a very clear statement. When asked what governments or even people in the West should do in the light of his comments about Indian democracy, Gandhi says, “First of all this is our problem. It’s an internal problem. It’s an Indian problem. And the solution is going to come from inside, not from outside.”
It is evident that the reason the BJP can confidently go ahead with its attack on Rahul Gandhi is because it knows that his actual statements have been sparingly reported. Deliberately, or otherwise, the Indian media has helped spread a lie.
Two other recent blows to freedom of expression, apart from the ones Jha noted in his speech, must be mentioned.
On March 10, Lokesh Chugh, a PhD student at Delhi University was . His crime? He organised a screening of the controversial first episode of the two-part BBC series titled India: The Modi Question.
And on March 22, even as the Chief Justice was speaking about freedom and democracy, an incredible and six people arrested for a handful of posters pasted around Delhi with the slogan, “Modi Hatao, Desh Bachao”.
The government, however, continues to insist that all is well with Indian democracy.
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