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Silencing the media is political suicide

Those in power should realise that an enabling environment for the media is beneficial both to them and the people

There were two interesting reports in The Hindu last week that once again emphasised the need for an enabling environment for the news media to hold those in power to account. One was an in-depth investigative report in the Ground Zero section. “The Sasikala web: how a maze of shell companies link up to her, her family and friends” (May 27, 2017) looked at how late Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s close friend and aide, Sasikala, and her family amassed wealth during the AIADMK rule.

A silent move

The other was a scoop, “Confiscation of properties begins in disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa, 3 others” (May 30, 2017), that looked at how the government, in order to comply with the Supreme Court’s order that upheld the trial court’s verdict, was initiating the process in a silent manner. The ruling faction of the AIADMK is forced to do in a silent, discreet and sly manner something it is bound to do anyway. This is because its legally and morally correct action is in effect an indictment of the party and its former Chief Minister. Any transparent initiative in this matter would further undermine the rudderless party.

The first story should have happened long before Jayalalithaa’s death. A variant of this should have been the lead investigative report during her first term as Chief Minister between 1991 and 1996. There should have been a follow-up series during the subsequent terms when she was in power — 2001-2006, 2011-2016, and May 2016 to December 2016. But, the story is out only now. This posthumous revelation is a pointer to understand how the media works, what the basic requirements are for its independent functioning, and what happens if a ruling dispensation can create a chilling atmosphere that muzzles the press.

Today, the AIADMK is the third largest party in India in terms of Electoral College, which is computed on the basis of its strength in the Parliament and in the Legislative Assembly. The numbers, which once gave the party an enormous power, are not giving it any special comfort now. It is paying a huge price for its years of centralising tendencies, which did not permit a credible second-line leadership, coupled with a maze of moves to silence critics through defamation cases, physical threats and the use of legislative privileges which are not codified.

Excess by the state machinery because the numbers are stacked in favour of the ruling dispensation is not new. Indira Gandhi pursued this path in the mid-1970s, Rajiv Gandhi was no different in the mid-1980s, and one can produce a list that illustrates the brazenness of various State governments at least from the late 1970s that cast a shadow on democratic practices.

Those in power have to realise that their authority is not eternal and an enabling environment for the media to do its mandated work not only benefits the people but also helps them.

When there is no fear of the state’s draconian intervention, journalists tend to bring out the mistakes at a very early stage. It is important for political parties to realise that a well-documented investigative report offers them a protective cover to effect a course correction and to minimise damage to their own reputation.

Defamation threats

One of the questions I have faced is: why should the media succumb to the pressure from the government? It is extremely romantic to imagine every reporter to be a warrior. Journalists are as vulnerable as any other human being. Physical threats or threats to family members do send shivers down the spine of any brave reporter. The lower court usually issues a notice in the defamation cases filed by the government, without even examining its claims and contents. The onus on proving otherwise lies with the reporter and the news media organisation. The state machinery has a full-fledged legal arm, headed by a law officer, to handle these cases. However, for a journalist and a news media organisation, this process is extremely time consuming, expensive and a drain on the meagre resources.

It is important for those in power to internalise the 448th couplet of Thirukkural, which in Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s translation reads: “The King whom no one checks, no minister corrects/ Does not have to wait for foes, himself he vivisects.” Silencing the media is an act of political suicide.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 9:53:58 PM |

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