Why the woes of Indian journalism affect all Indians

Liberalise the laws that restrict freedom of expression, especially the criminal aspects in the statute book that affect the journalist profession.

Updated - November 28, 2022 02:14 pm IST

Published - November 28, 2022 12:15 pm IST

Sanna Mattoo. File

Sanna Mattoo. File

The first week of November includes a day selected by the United Nations as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. It sadly passed unobserved in India.

The comparative advantages of a liberal society are transparency and equal opportunity in society and economy, which drive innovation, productivity and scientific progress. One might speculate that in ancient times, our ancestors may have enjoyed sufficient freedom to speak and criticise, because without this, there could not have been such striking advances in philosophy, grammar, law, mathematics, astronomy and medicine which characterise our civilisational legacy. 

Though the Indian Constitution is liberal, its interpretation through legislation has been anything but; harsh omnibus laws infringe and limit liberties, violate human rights and lead to degeneracy among administration and law enforcement agents. There has probably never been a more adversarial atmosphere to journalism in India than what now exists; there is disquiet not only among the media that had a creditable record of helping to enforce accountability among officeholders, but also among activists and NGOs deemed objectionable by elected authority and its partisan instruments. Some years ago, a citizen was arrested for sedition in Uttar Pradesh five years after he allegedly posted a morphed photo of the Prime Minister; a chemistry professor in West Bengal was arrested because he uploaded a caricature of the Chief Minister on a social network. Now, from Aakar Patel being refused permission to leave the country to Sanna Mattoo facing similar and repeated obstructions to receive an international award, to the closure of Amnesty and funding curbs on Oxfam in India, as Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka wrote, “Complete freedom is a luxury for South Asian writers,” and that in India a publisher could be jailed for something that offends. 

Also read: Committed to supporting press freedom, U.S. says on Kashmiri journalist Mattoo’s travel block

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, and multiple other laws can be used by governing circles and their adherents to embrace anyone in interminable coils of police FIRs, with body and soul-destroying judicial procedures, constituting a threat to free expression. As Rajeev Dhavan has written, “A central characteristic of Indian press law has been direct governmental  control.” Our political leaders crave positive coverage, and thus establishment hostility to perceived negative reporting is a fact of life in India.

Too many fetters

The media in India enjoys no immunity. Critics of the media confuse their notions of good journalism with what is legally permissible, which creates the problem. Journalists are subject to criminal and civil laws, such as defamation, contempt of court, sacrilege, contempt of Parliament and the Official Secrets Act, which places them in considerable jeopardy. There is a need to roll back such legislation and stop its perverse implementation, which is taken to absurd extremes. The answer is to liberalise the laws that restrict freedom of expression, and especially the criminal aspects in the statute book that affect the journalist profession. 

A well-known columnist in Delhi once experimented with a set of daily newspapers for their advertisement content and concluded that four of the eight he studied were totally dependent on advertisement revenue from Union or State governments or public sector, while only three had a healthy allotment of private sector advertisement. This anecdotal example reflects the media’s basic vulnerability: over-dependence on income flows from the state or state-run corporates which makes them accommodative to the paymasters’ concerns. And what is true for print is more so for electronic media where operating costs can be higher. 

The early decades after Independence were no golden age, with overt and covert inroads into press freedom, censorship, curbs on advertising space, restrictions on newsprint, attempts to regulate salaries, and the excesses of the Emergency. But there were also stinging criticisms of the government — on Bofors, anti-Sikh riots, Commonwealth Games kickbacks, 2G scam, and the Jan Lokpal movement. Leaders were not immune from criticism. There were clashes before the bench, and thanks to a plucky press and conscientious courts, freedoms that constitute the basis of liberties we now invoke were largely safeguarded, and democratic norms were consolidated. Today, by contrast, the government’s excesses and misdemeanours are defended in convoluted ways to deflect blame on the opposition or previous administrations. The judiciary frequently appears excessively compliant, giving rise to doubts about its independence as the ultimate arbiter of the laws of the land. The ideals of earlier times, whatever their defects, are now being discredited and, under the pretext of majority mandate, safeguard institutions are being dismantled. Indian diversity is being mutated into a more unitary form, and ethno-religious polarisation is hardening. The climate of insecurity and fear is having adverse effects on the democratic spirit and the quality of public debate.

The Hathras 2020 events are an example of monstrous illegitimacy. To disallow a family a last glimpse of its daughter, threaten them with consequences if they spoke up, ban media interaction and cordon off the village borders on the unimaginable. While no perpetrators have been punished, journalist Siddique Kappan spent two years in jail just for being on site and is still imprisoned to answer assorted charges despite being granted bail by the Supreme Court. 

I cannot concur with any proposition that the media should play the role of parliamentary opposition, because the media should be free to criticise both the government and the opposition — that is the basis of a free press. I also cannot agree with the proposition that hate speech can best be countered by more speech because we know the depths to which most electronic and social media have sunk. By assuming shrill activism, many sections of the media have enhanced the confrontational environment in our society. The media should not act as investigator, law court and court of appeal — but nor should agencies of the executive. 

Social media, potentially a democratising development, has given rise to steady flows of fake news and cynicism directed at the mainstream media. Social media armies, whereby anyone gets to abuse the person of their choice, often follow the blueprint of the ruling party. Much social media content is manufactured by a network of professionals whose job description is to generate hate. Troll farms use sophisticated techniques to shape public opinion and provoke people towards extremism. Unless checked and reversed, we can only conjecture what social media discourse will be like in a decade’s time.  

Importance of editorial filters

The Internet is an instrument that can expose corrupt practices. For example, take Wikileaks; but print media in the form of Le Monde and the The Guardian was nevertheless essential to disseminate the truth. Print, unlike TV, is presumed to pass past several editorial eyes before publication, and has a tradition of behaving responsibly. It can let itself down if it carries selective leaks by the government or its instruments purveying distortions, fake news or tarnishing reputations. 

The understanding implicit between journalism and society is that it receives certain freedoms in exchange for responsibility to provide the objectivity that enables us to have some understanding of our times. To self-regulate behaviour and prescribe penalties when lines are crossed is a duty that every profession owes to itself. To quote the late C.P. Scott of The Manchester Guardian, “Comment… is subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair.” In India self-regulation is ineffective in every sphere where it is supposed to exist — medical practice, drug manufacture, engineering, accountancy, architecture and sports bodies. The purpose of self-regulation is to keep external interference at bay and to address the real issues. That is not evident in any of our professions. 

Words to heed

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Mumbai recently made direct criticism of India’s record on human rights and pluralism, urging India to condemn hate speech, and stating that India’s global role would benefit “if concrete actions” are taken in support of “the rights and freedoms of journalists, human rights activists, students and academics”. In his words: “Diversity is a richness that makes your country stronger. That understanding… must be nurtured, strengthened and renewed every day… by securing and upholding the rights and dignity of all people, especially the most vulnerable; by taking concrete action for inclusion, recognising the enormous value and contributions of multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies; by condemning hate-speech unequivocally.”

In most countries such a commentary by the world’s most senior diplomat would be considered a considerable embarrassment. Outraged official ripostes have been made to most foreign criticism of human liberties in India but this time the UN Secretary-General’s statement was completely ignored. Even the U.S. is coming close to calling out its ‘indispensable partner’; its ambassador on the UN Human Rights Council recently lamented that “despite legal protections, discrimination and violence based on gender and religious affiliation persist”. She condemned the “broad application” of the UAPA and similar laws against human rights activists, journalists and religious minorities, saying, “The application of anti-terror legislation has led to prolonged detentions of human rights defenders and activists, often in a pre-trial status,” and calling for “transparency of license adjudications related to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA)”.

To conclude, the media may be compared, with no disrespect intended, to various types of dogs: lap dogs, cuddly dogs, show dogs and sleeping dogs; but also watch dogs, guide dogs, barking dogs, and biting dogs. 

The audience can take its pick.

(Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary)

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