Beyond Matters of Impression and Suppression-Free Press In India

On the occasion Of World Press Freedom Day, 2020

Abhishek Kabra

It was the night of 25th of June, 1975 when a sudden power cut fell upon Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg which was home to most of the country’s largest newspapers. In other parts of the country, newspaper presses were raided and stopped and bundles of newspapers were seized. In the early hours of the following morning, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi notified to the nation that the President has proclaimed Emergency on account of “imminent security threats” to the country. Soon after, constitutional rights of citizens were suspended and curbs placed on the freedom of the press. For the next couple of days, all major newspapers of the country could not be published. Gandhi expelled several foreign correspondents and over 200 journalists were arrested. The publications could be back two days later. Since Independence, this was the biggest attack on Press by any Government.

When most of the newspapers resumed its publication on 28th June, firstly the Indian express, followed by newspapers and magazines throughout the country shook the Prime Minister’s dictatorship by not just reporting about the attacks on people but also coming up with blank editorial pages to protest the curbing of the freedom of the press. This was one of a kind reflecting the power of Press. The State, irrespective of any political party in India has always tried to turn the watchdog of a nation to mouthpiece of their ideologies but since times immemorial, we have a rich history of refusing to the same. Let it be counter censorship fight during independence or emergency, press in India was always evolving as a tool to become a voice for the voiceless.

During emergency, Ramnath Goenka, who was known for having stood up against press censorship since the time when the British ruled over the country was the editor of Indian Express. Later, when he was asked how he managed to continue fighting the government despite the enormous pressure, he replied, “I had two options: to listen to the dictates of my heart or my purse. I chose to listen to my heart.”

May 2 is Press Freedom Day, but neither yesterday nor tomorrow, Press has actually been free or will be free. Because in the process of weakening the press, the state has not just issued sanctions or accused the media persons on defamation grounds while raising issues on corruption, but tried to go beyond professional blame games leading to personal attacks on journalists, mentally and physically. There are many forms of censorship and in India at present, there prevails the fear of most dangerous censorship that can ever happen- Murder.

Free press – the fourth pillar of democracy – sounds powerful. However, in the last few years, it has become more and more dangerous to be a journalist in India. A report called ‘Getting Away with Murder’ by journalists Geeta Seshu and Urvashi Sarkar on attacks on journalists in the last five years has some grim findings.

At least 198 serious attacks were recorded on reporters between 2014 to 2019, and of these, 36 happened in 2019 alone. Six of these are fairly recent, having happened during the protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act. In 40 of these, journalists were killed – 21 of them were confirmed to be related to their journalistic work. The researchers chose 63 cases in all to follow up on – where scribes were found to have been attacked for their investigative work – and found a near-zero conviction rate. “Of the 63 cases studied, FIRs were lodged in only 25 cases. In 18 of these, the case hasn’t progressed beyond registering of the FIR. Charge sheets were filed in three cases but the process stalled thereafter. In only four cases, a trial has commenced.”

“Journalists covering conflict or news events were specifically targeted by irate mobs, supporters of religious sects, political parties, student groups, lawyers, police and security forces,” the report said. “Perpetrators of the killings and attacks included government agencies, security forces, political party members, religious sects, student groups, criminal gangs and local mafias.”

State shall rarely accept those facts because in the present context of time, it is busy in hiding many of those.  It is said that Media also needs to be the torchbearers of a nation. But when a torch is switched on over a dark world full of hidden facts bringing out in eyes of the people, the news they deserve to know, the State is never late to pull out the batteries and make people cherish the darkness by tools darker and darker- say religion, identity politics and other modes of division.

On the other hand, in the present time, media too, is not very short of unethical journalists whose opinions on issues and people changes with the party in power. The role of media is to be sensitive and not sensational. When a news channel follows a super star cricketer’s marriage event in Italy just to be the first to show photos of their togetherness, it forgets to just do its preliminary duty to voice the separation of farmers of 1755 from their families, maybe just a few kilometres away from their news offices at different parts of the country. There are instances when in the midst of a prime-time debate, many journalists become so outspoken that they openly address the suffering homeless ten thousand of migrant workers in Mumbai as none but funded actors.

India is fighting on two front right now- the global pandemic and an escalating crisis of millions of migrant workers battling hunger and homelessness due to the lockdown. Historically, pandemics, wars and families have led to the expansion of State’s power at the cost of democratic rights of the people. The freedom once lost are not easily regained even after the pandemic is over. And when it comes to curbing of democratic rights, the right to freedom of press tends to be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Although Freedom of Press is not specifically mentioned, there is only freedom of speech and expression, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar made it clear that no special mention of freedom of press was necessary as the press and an individual or a citizen were same as far as right of expression was concerned. 

In 1897, during the outbreak of bubonic plague in India, Bal Gangadhar Tilak became the first person to be convicted of sedition by the British Colonial Government. He had been writing against poor handling of the pandemic and in order to rein him, even the court significantly broadened the definition of Sedition.  And today, about 123 years later, three Indian states have issued notifications requiring media outlets to acquire prior clearance of the State before carrying out any information to the people, about the pandemic. Three states have issued notifications requiring media outlets to acquire prior clearance by the state before carrying any information or reportage about the pandemic.

In hospitals around the country, doctors have also been warned against doing any interviews with journalists about poor health infrastructure. Dr Indranil Khan, a hospital oncologist in Kolkata, says he was questioned by the police for 16 hours last month but let go after deleting online posts that showed doctors using raincoats as protective health gear. At least 10 other doctors have been similarly threatened by the police, transferred, or forced to resign following their criticism of the government.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day aims, under the theme of “Journalism Without Fear or Favour” to stand on specific issues about the safety of journalists, their independence from political or commercial influence, and gender equality in all aspects of the media. We have all heard the statement- A pen is mightier than a sword. And its high time the press rather than taking sides and becoming divided, unites itself to fight the swords of dictatorship through pen.

At the end, being a student of Journalism, I pay my homage to all the journalists of my state, country and the world who have lost their lives struggling till their last breath to disseminate true and unbiased information to the people, a lesson we have learnt in the very first class of ‘Principles of Journalism’. They followed and lived by those principles, some journalists follow those lessons even today while a few of them resorted to their own definitions to unfollow the same and compromised with the freedom of press. But, in the words of Albert Camus, “…without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”

Abhishek Kabra, Department Of Mass Communication And Journalism, Tezpur University, Assam

Back to Home Page

May 5, 2020

Abhishek Kabra

Your Comment if any