Nobel to journalists and its message for Indian media

Nobel to journalists and its message for Indian media

India is in dire need of media which has the two qualities that are currently absent within the sector - conscience and courage

Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, one of 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winners. Credit: Reuters Photo

It's been a little over four years since journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh was gunned down in front of her home in Bengaluru. Even though 18 of the accused in the case continue to remain behind bars, convictions are yet to take place. The Special Investigation Team (SIT), constituted by the then Congress government, said in court that Lankesh was targeted for opposing the ideology of Hindutva in her writings and speeches.

Journalists, not just in India, but worldwide are facing the brunt of authoritarian governments. Given the escalating attacks, this year's Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, marks a significant moment in the life of not the media community alone but citizens more generally. The award outlines rarely mentioned yet important intersections between independent media, freedom of expression, and democracy—all of which contribute to an atmosphere of tolerance in society.

The award conveys a special message for journalists at home, especially when mainstream media have abdicated their basic responsibility of speaking truth to power. As much as the Nobel Peace Prize rings in celebration for independent and brave journalism, equally, it signals embarrassment and shame for India's compromised journalistic scene. With big media capitulating to powers-that-be, it has been left to resource-starved small organisations to call the powerful out, to try and hold them to account.

The work of Ressa, co-founder and chief executive of the news site Rappler, and Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, needs little elaboration. Both journalists have taken head-on the illegalities and crimes committed by their respective governments—headed by Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin, respectively. Speaking to the Russian news agency Tass, Muratov said he could not take credit for the award, which was meant for journalists who lost their lives in defending the right to freedom of speech. Muratov went on to list the names of the paper's six journalists killed in the line of duty.

Among the names of the slain was that of Anna Politkovskaya, who had just finished writing her book, A Russian Diary, when she was assassinated in a contract killing in Moscow. Much like Gauri Lankesh, Politkovskaya was shot dead in her apartment block lift on October 7, 2006. The journalist and writer had earned a distinct reputation for staunchly opposing the Chechen conflict and Putin in her writing. In the final section of A Russian Diary, titled "Am I Afraid?" Politkovskaya wrote: "If anybody thinks they can take comfort from the 'optimistic' forecast [her reference was to the government,] let them do so. It is certainly easier that way, but it is also a death sentence for our grandchildren."

Philippine's writers, civil society, and people have a history of challenging authoritarian governments. In 1986, in what came to be known as the People Power Revolution, tens of thousands of Filipinos came out in the streets, overthrowing the corrupt and dictatorial government headed by Ferdinand Marcos. As Salil Tripathi wrote recently for "Civil society in the Philippines, which mushroomed after Marcos's fall, has steadfastly defended democracy, and the media has played a crucial role. Journalists have died defending freedoms." Following the ascendance of Rodrigo Duterte as president, thousands of extrajudicial killings have taken place in Duterte's war on drugs. Notwithstanding severe harassment at the hands of the government, Maria Ressa has continued to expose the regime's brutalities.

Strands of commonality bind the ways authoritarian leaders suppress the truth and distort public discourse to their survival in power. We have seen such mechanisms consolidate in India. Any measure of redemption from the present bleakness would depend largely on ethics and conscience in society—both as a collective and as individuals who make up that collective. As we know, conscientious objectors from within dictatorial systems have played an important role in bringing governmental excesses to light in other countries.

We may think, in this context, of several films centred on the responsibility and challenges posed to journalists as voices dissent when a government violates the rights of its citizens. Released in 2005, the film Good Night and Good Luck, for example, explored the tensions and tussle between informational integrity and groundless fears spread by groups with vested interests. Set against the 1950s anti-Communist paranoia and witchhunts in the US in the 1950s, the film tracks a gripping confrontation between Senator Joseph McCarthy (from whom we get the practice of McCarthyism) and a CBS team led by the journalist Edward Murrow and producer Fred Friendly.

A decade later, Spotlight, based on investigations by reporters at The Boston Globe, broke the secrecy of a powerful institution like the Church, revealing that scores of local priests had been sexually molesting minors. The local government helped in covering up their crimes.

It may be argued that India is in dire need of such media which has the two qualities that are currently absent within the sector - conscience and courage. Grand sweeping ideologies can be set aside in favour of basic principles of justice, empathy and non-violence. Neutrality does not augur well in times of crisis. Neither does partisanship, regardless of the colour of the flag one chooses to wave.

This year's World Press Freedom Index report published by the international body, Reporters Without Borders, showed India shares its "bad" classification tag with Brazil, Mexico, and Russia. It observed that journalists critical of the dominant ideology are subjected to police violence and attacks by political groups, stressing further that following the 2019 general elections and the victory of Narendra Modi and his party, "pressure has increased on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government's line." India, which has consistently slipped from its position of 133 in 2016, now ranks 142 on the press freedom index.

That media freedom is closely allied to freedom or the lack of it in society as a whole is evident from the increasing and widespread trend of violence in recent years. Two years before Lankesh's assassination, M M Kalburgi, a scholar, was shot dead in his living room in Dharwad. That same year, Govind Pansare, a trade union activist, was killed in neighbouring Maharashtra. Two years before these killings, the rationalist Narendra Dhabolkar was murdered in Pune. Opposed to the BJP's majoritarian politics, all three were killed in a similar manner. The suspects were subsequently identified as members of Sanatan Sanstha, a shadowy organisation headquartered in Goa.

Nine years before she was killed, in a long essay posted on the blog Churumuri, Lankesh alerted readers to a polarised, intolerant future. Foregrounding incidents like the arrests of three young Muslim men on charges of vehicle theft and attacks on the distinguished litterateur Anantha Murthy, and former chairman of the State Backward Classes Commission, C.S.Dwarakanath, Lankesh wrote: "...Karnataka, it seems, is unfortunately and irreversibly hurtling towards its new position as the Gujarat of the South." She also criticised the media for intoning the official line of stigmatising Muslims.

More than a decade later, her words indeed have a prophetic ring to them. The question that remains is how much does the rest of the country care?

(Monobina Gupta is the author of 'Left Politics in Bengal' and 'Didi: A Political Biography')

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.