What is it that they say about the press being the Fourth Estate? Technically, under the Indian Constitution, the news media does not enjoy any such special recognition as the fundamental right to Freedom of Speech and Expression is the right that implicitly covers media entities. But it is an unwritten convention that in a democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of movement together help the news media report events. More often than not, a government that helps this is rated higher than one that does not in terms of media freedom.
During the Emergency years of the 1970s, we saw eminent media persons being sent to jail by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government. For four decades after that, we have had a free run for the media — although there was a failed attempt by the Rajiv Gandhi government to pass a draconian Defamation Bill to curtail media rights. I remember joining a protest march in which media barons like the late Ram Nath Goenka were joined by junior journalists in a show of solidarity. There were also customs duty evasion-related raids on Indian Express during those days when it exposed the Bofors payoff scandal. Arun Shourie, who later joined the BJP and became a Union minister, was executive editor at the newspaper at that time.
One thought the BJP, as a party that fought Emergency rule, would be different when it came to power. But it seems that is not so. Let’s look at some recent developments.
- In Uttar Pradesh, a journalist in Mirzapur, Pawan Jaiswal, faces a “criminal conspiracy” case because he reported that in a government school, salt was being served to go with rotis under the state’s midday meal scheme. In the world I used to know, bureaucrats and ministers welcomed such exposes because it aids better governance by bringing errant officials to light. Not anymore, it seems.
- In Jammu and Kashmir, following the revocation of the state’s special status, a media clampdown is real as a communications blockade is accompanied by various other restrictions, as a fact-finding team of Network of Women in Media India and the Free Speech Collective found out. The details of the report include how press conferences are short and sudden, how phone links and Internet connections are choked and how journalists are intimidated. Yet, the government’s lawyer, the Solicitor General of India, told the Supreme Court that many newspapers are being published, contesting a plea against the clampdown. He said Kashmir Times “chose not to publish” — smoothly ignoring the barriers and an atmosphere of discomfort.
- Strange as it might seem, the Press Council of India’s chairman C.K. Prasad chose to join a Supreme Case. He did this not to support media freedom but to build a case for restrictions. The Editors Guild of India was understandably upset by this –not least because the chairman, a former Supreme Court judge, did not bother to consult other council members. Understandably, a former central information commissioner believes a journalist, not a judge, should head the Press Council. This stands to reason: if a journalist can’t run a body of jurists, why should a jurist run a media regulator?.
Ruling parties or governments of the day can always blame local officials or cite legal technicalities to wriggle out of allegations, but in general, the atmosphere in which news media organisations and journalists function matters a lot. The Congress and the BJP have both frowned on the media when enjoying a strong political majority. It is only when a party is out of power that it suddenly becomes a friend of the media. Or it gently supports those who are kind, soft or even slavish by playing favourites. You know who they are.