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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2340

Who Wants MEDIA In India To Be Free?

By Atul Cowshish - Syndicate Features

India, like many other countries, observes May 3 as the UN-mandated World Press Freedom Day. In the eyes of the outsiders, media freedom in India doesn’t rank high among the nearly 200 countries in the world, despite claims to have a ‘free’ press. But this year there was an extra reason to wonder about freedom of the press in India as its ranking, as recorded by the World Press Freedom Index, slipped by three points to 136.

Some observers in the country seem to wonder if the media, overflowing with admirers of Narendra Modi, seriously believes in its freedom which requires allotting space for expressing contrary, not necessarily always ‘anti-establishment’, views. And no government even in democratic countries likes the media to be critical. The present dispensation in Delhi has the reputation of believing strongly that the media should not betray the ‘nation’, which actually means that it should, almost as a rule, concur with the government, its policies and programmes.

That even the so-called pioneers of press freedom in the world like the US and the UK also slipped in the freedom index rankings this year could not have provided much comfort when Pakistan, living under military shackles, ranked above India. In the US, the decline in the freedom index of the media may be partially or substantially attributed to the ascendency of Donald Trump who has branded the media as ‘fake news’ and demonstrated his unhesitating contempt for the media by staying away from the annual White House dinner for US journalists. In India, there are senior members of the ruling party who do not miss any opportunity to ascribe objectionable labels to journalists.

It will be a moot point if a Tweet by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, on May 3 ‘reiterating’ his ‘unwavering’ commitment to ‘vibrant’ and ‘free’ press really reflected his belief. To many his words would sound hollow.

Modi is the first prime minister of India who has not even tried to hide his contempt and dislike for dissent and criticism. His managers might have manipulated the media to ensure ‘positive’ and high voltage coverage of everything that he says or does. But it is no secret that he does not welcome uncomfortable questions and likes to keep the media away from him.

‘Freedom’ of press in India has been, of course, under stress for a long time. The worst days were during the Emergency in mid-1970s. There have been many instances, even after the Emergency was lifted in 1977, of journalists being harassed, tortured, sent to jail etc for writing things unpalatable to the powers that be.

It appears that the ‘freedom’ of press in the country has lately come under more severe threats than before as journalists are being rounded up on serious charges like treason and ‘anti-national’ activities and their tormentors are not only the Police but the many vigilante groups who seem to have sprung up everywhere. The threat to independent functioning of journalists, in other words, comes from the authorities as well as certain citizens who do not hesitate to take law in their hands to defend the government or to demand compliance with their own preferences.

Of course, the self-appointed defenders of the government do not concentrate on the media alone; quite often their wrath turns to fellow citizens who they think are indulging in ‘anti-national’ activities which may range from eating forbidden beef to flirting with the opposite sex, not standing up when the national anthem is played or refusing to join in the singing of patriotic songs. The list of ‘don’ts’ is actually much longer.

It has to be said that the definition of ‘freedom of press’ cannot be restricted to the media. Citizens have equal rights to express their views for or against the government or the ruling party or lead the kind of life they wish as long as it does not infringe the criminal laws. Press freedom is certainly in danger if a secret or not-so- secret code allows private armies and storm troopers of the ruling dispensation to attack people for being critical of their rulers.

From what has been seen so far, it does not appear that there is any serious attempt to rein in violence-prone elements who allegedly work to protect the nation and its values. Occasionally, the exercise of ‘admonishing’ them may be gone through, but that is more for the records rather than force them to stop acting like ruffians.

But a more disturbing realisation is also dawning that should worry those who espouse the cause of freedom of press. Before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, a large section of the media was alleged to be ‘anti-Modi’ and critical of his party. But within no time, almost the entire media has turned into ardent fans of Modi and his policies and refusing to fulfil the media obligation of acting as the watchdog.

A situation has arisen in India where both the state-controlled and the private electronic media vie with each other in eulogising the Prime Minister and the government. In the print media you may still find stuff that is critical, but on the electronic media, particularly on the privately owned, the anchors do not allow elucidation of views critical of the Prime Minister and the government.

In fact, a stage has been reached where TV anchors are prompt in calling the critics of Modi and his government ‘anti-nationals’; the more garrulous anchors delight in heaping insults on their dissenting guests as they shut their speech out.

It reflects the depth to which ‘freedom of press’ has fallen in recent days. But the more worrying aspect is that it is a case of dog-bite-dog as it is the media itself that denigrates the critics and seeks to stifle their voice.

There is nothing wrong in media or anyone turning into an ardent fan of a ruler and sing his praise, but it is different if the admiring fans belong to the world of journalism. It cannot be anybody’s case that everything that the government does or says has to be praised or condemned. Issues have to be judged on merit, even if that merit can be called subjective; there can be no blanket rule demanding that the government be viewed in positive or negative light.

- Asian Tribune –

It is no secret that Prime Minister Narendra Modi  does not welcome uncomfortable questions and likes to keep the media away from him.
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