India's deplorable standing

India's deplorable standing

It is an uncomfortable commentary on the Indian media which has tradition-ally prided itself as free, independent and feisty.

The 2016 World Press Freedom Index by “Reporters Without Borders” ranks India at an abysmal 133 out of 180 countries. The parameters for evaluation are pluralism, independence, environment, self-censorship, legislative environment, transparency, infrastructure and abuses.

It is an uncomfortable commentary on the Indian media which has traditionally prided itself as free and independent and feisty. A similar rating by the NGO Freedom House on the Indian media to be “partly free”, is a further indictment of the liberal spirit of the nation.

While the New York Times attacked the ruling dispensation of an “authoritarian drift”, Le Monde noted that “the horizon of Indian democracy has been oddly clouded”, in recent times. Recent incidents have triggered debates on freedom of speech and right to dissent, colouring global perceptions on the health of the proverbial Fourth Estate.
Ironically, unlike many economies of the world reeling from stagnations, investments in the Indian media infrastructure have remained robust – it is the freedom in the environment that faces a perception crisis. The freedom of speech and expression is one of the six freedoms protected by Article 19 – this very oxygen of participative democracy was temporarily gagged during the Emergency of 1975-77 when curbs, reminiscent of tin-pot dictatorships were enforced.

In a participative democracy, popular perception is reality - the seeds for controlling media was irresistible even for a prime minister like Jawaharlal Nehru who decided to amend the constitution by qualifying Article 19(2) with gag levers, whenever the ostensible “public order” or “relations with friendly states” were thought to be threatened. His real targets were publications that had attacked his persona as a statesman.

He commented in Parliament: “It has become a matter of the deepest distress to me to see the way in which the less responsible news sheets are being conducted...not injuring me or this House much, but poisoning the minds of the younger generation” – arming the subsequent regimes with levers that could be misused to avoid contrarian views.

The recent infusion of “hyper-nationalism” as the singular and definitive filter of media assessment has sacrificed the traditional values of intellectual debate, transparency and accountability as the new leitmotif of the Indian media landscape. Sadly and conveniently, the stance of “anti-government” has almost become synonymous with “anti-national.” Hence, the parody extends to mocking the previously held values like secularism (with “pseudo-secularism”) and liberalism (with“pseudo-intellectualism”).

In such a situation, law takes the back seat and ruling ideologues appropriate the right to decide the “national” versus the “anti-national” narrative. So, a cont-rarian view can be immediately slammed for its “anti-national” import and not be allowed to be placed in its factual and alternative dimension – the necessities of liberal democracy that encourages a spirit of enquiry can be caged and suffocated with new-age exploitations of “patriotism.” Suddenly, an ex-soldier, artist, historian or even a media person can be brusquely and immediately branded as an “anti-national” on questioning the views of the ruling dispensation.

Deprecatory terms
The new lingua franca has a host of dismissive “pseudo”, but the most depre-catory and uncivilised term to enter the lexicon is “presstitute” – a semantical affront to decency, civilisation and cultural sensibilities that is also inherently, misogynistic, licentious and uncouth in its etymological construct. Less creative in crassness, but equally reprehensible is “paid media” (also known by the earthy, though despicable “bazaaru”). Interestingly, the taint is usually reserved for the financially struggling opposition parties.
A thriving democracy needs all forms of alternative media – Leftist, Rightist, Centrist or any other directional permutation and combination. A media house or publication should be entitled to the direction of its editorial tilt (owing to its ownership structure or even by pure editorial choice), without the fear of any adjective affixed to its nationalistic or journalistic credentials. There is a direct correlation between the freedom of press and the progress in society.

Usually, societies/countries that seek to curb and control media under the garb of protecting “nationalism” (as seen by the ruling regimes), invariably have dictatorial instincts in the ruling political classes with no appetite for alternative thoughts. Amongst the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index are Cuba is at 171, China at 176 and Syria at 177.

Other neighbouring nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, who have had a stuttering relationship with democracy, score lower than India on the World Press Freedom Index. India has benefited from a more confident set of political leadership (irrespective of parties). The rigours of parliamentary debates, time bound elections, presidential assents and the other checks and measures, before the formal promulgations are a healthy reflection of the thriving Indian instincts of democracy.

The media plays an irreplaceable role– it aids the intellectual analysis (stripped of emotions and based on hard facts), it propounds alternatives and suggests the optimum solutions that go beyond the narrow confines of electoral considerations, which a political party may be tempted to perpetuate. Unsurprisingly, countries claiming the highest positions in the World Press Freedom Index, also have the most balanced socio-economic development – the top three countries are Finland, Netherlands and Norway.

The limits on speech are already defined in the constitution – the expansion and scope of the same should not be from the lens of “majoritarianism”. Sedition is a serious offence – however, the qualifying criteria of sedition should be a subject of an intellectual deliberation of judicial, parliamentary and constitutional debate and not subject to street vigilante emotions (under the garb of “nationalism”).

Freedom of press and speech is the oxygen that is tempting to throttle for political considerations. However, the long term impact of the absence of “choice” is to go back in time, as opposed to evolve and progress as a nation.

(Lt Gen Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Puducherry)

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