Cong's media agenda against free press, warns Jaitley

Cong's media agenda against free press, warns Jaitley

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. PTI file photo

Who wants to curtail the freedom of expression is now an issue on which Congress and BJP have engaged in a slugfest.

Congress in its manifesto has promised to amend Press Council of India Act 1978, flagging "in recent times sections of the media have abused or surrendered their freedom".

Clearly, the allusion was to the tenure of Modi government when Congress talked about "recent times". 

Debunking the criticism, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Thursday drew the parallel of Emergency to buttress the point that "curtailing press freedom has been a tradition of Nehru-Gandhi family". 

He alleged that the media chapter in Congress contains suggestions that will "regulate and restrict free journalism and otherwise multiplicity of Indian media". 

Calling the suggestions "anachronic" and "not in tune with the times", Jaitley, who is also a former Information and Broadcasting Minister recalled former Prime Minister late Indira Gandhi’s "passionate dislike for free media" and allege that the Congress in 1960’s and 70’s experimented various "misadventures with press". 

Jaitley on Thursday referred to the Congress manifestos’ promises to curb monopolies and to bar cross-media holdings, to slam the opposition party for taking measures "to restrict free press".

"It must be borne in mind that Indiraji, during the Emergency, had revoked the Press Council Act and abolished the Press Council by an Ordinance. Today, the Congress viciously wishes to strengthen it by allowing a Code of Conduct on coverage of an event of national interest," Jaitley said.

Gag vs free press dilemma

BJP’s all-out attack on Congress on media issue comes in the backdrop of repeated reference by Congress leaders including Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi about how the media is being gagged in the Modi regime. 

Congress had also some time back launched a social media campaign "Daro Mat" (Don’t be scared) in 2017, which its spokespersons have frequently been referring to tell the media not to fear in "exposing" the government. 

In the manifesto, the Congress has promised to pass a law to "curb monopolies" in the media, cross-ownership of different segments of the media and control of the media by other business organisations. Currently, a number of news channels and media houses are owned by industrialists, which Congress believes, are close to the Modi dispensation. 

A 'hostile media' was one of the reasons attributed by many Congress leaders in private for its 2014 poll debacle. In the peak of Anna Hazare movement whose receiving end was Congress, the then Congress Lok Sabha MP from Mandsaur Meenakshi Natarajan, a close aide of Rahul Gandhi had proposed to  to introduce a private member’s bill "The Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012", which had stricter provisions for fine and penalty for the media organisations.

However, as the bill led to a lot of criticism, Congress was quick to distance itself from it. However, BJP had then latched on to it, seeking to paint Congress as anti-media.