The retreat of democracy

On February 11, The Hindu published an editorial, ‘Media as target’, on the Enforcement Directorate’s raids in the office of NewsClick, an online video news network. The editorial was unambiguous when it said: “The present regime’s record is quite dismal when it comes to the obvious use of central agencies such as the CBI, ED, IT and even the NIA, to rein in dissenting voices. It is unfortunate that specialised agencies are allowing themselves to be used as force multipliers in political battles against sections of the Opposition.” In response to the editorial, Purender, a reader, wrote: “It may be a part of ‘toolkit’... and what’s the problem, if they had not done anything wrong... why to fear... let them do their work.”

Mr. Purender was not alone. Some readers read this editorial along with my last column, ‘Debunking vs. prior restraint’ (February 8), and asked two questions. Why is the ombudsman, who is independent of the editorial process, taking a similar view as the newspaper on the government’s actions? News organisations and free speech advocates always raise questions about searches by the government. If there is nothing to hide, why should they fear such raids?

Diverting attention

Before answering these questions, let us remember that the raid at the residence of NewsClick’s editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, lasted for nearly 114 hours. There are multiple problems with these intimidating acts. The agencies who carry out these acts know that they may not be able to get a legal judgment against journalists and media organisations. But they know pretty well that searches, selective leaks and concocted tales divert the attention of the news organisation from its task of providing credible information and generating ‘sense-making news’. As I have been arguing over the last three decades, in the case of freedom of press, the approach of the government is to create a process that is itself the punishment for critical media players, rather than securing a judicial verdict against those media houses that actually flout journalistic rules with consummate ease. An independent ombudsman at times concurs with the newspaper and at times differs with the stand taken by the newspaper.

‘Sense-making news’ is the way to go

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, is credited for coining the term ‘sense-making news’. He has a broad and inclusive definition of ‘sense-making news’, which he thinks is central for journalism to thrive in the age of information overload. His prescription: “It is the news that helps people figure out what to believe. It helps them make order out of random facts. If information is in oversupply, knowledge becomes harder to create because it requires more sifting and sorting.” He is convinced that ‘sense-making news’ is the best way to earn public trust for quality journalism. As someone who is subjected to both information overload and credible journalism on an hourly basis, I completely endorse Mr. Rosenstiel’s views.

For any observer of the Indian information ecosystem, one issue is clear. The long arm of the government is extended to muzzle the voices of those who are engaged in ‘sense-making news’. The First Information Reports filed against some prominent journalists by the Delhi Police and the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh governments, for their tweets relating to the death of a farmer during tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day, is an attempt to prevent discussions that would contribute to ‘sense-making news’. The Supreme Court has protected them from arrest in multiple sedition FIRs registered against them. But the larger question is whether the government is justified in using a colonial law like sedition to cripple independent voices. Readers should realise how these moves can have not only a chilling effect on journalism but on the entire information ecosystem. Democracy cannot thrive in a climate of self-censorship and partial reporting.

The fear of executive overreach that is stifling some of our fundamental rights is very real. How else can one understand the arrest of a 21-year-old climate activist, Disha Ravi, on Saturday in Bengaluru for “spreading” the “toolkit” on the farmers’ protest? Can the Delhi Police explain how sharing a toolkit to canvass support for farmers is a crime under Sections 124A (sedition), 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 120B (criminal conspiracy)?

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 10:28:29 AM |

Next Story