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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 46, November 5, 2011

Real Threat to Press Freedom

Tuesday 8 November 2011, by Ajit Bhattacharjea

As we come to the end of this two-day celebration of Press Day, I would like to join the other speakers in paying homage to Nikhil Chakravartty. Long before death took him away, he became a father figure for the press, always ready to help and give us the benefit of his mature advice. I remember with gratitude how, some months before his death, he quietly and without fuss or undue ceremony, donated his personal library to the Press Institute of India. He must have known the end was coming.

I cannot say that I agreed with every stand taken by Nikhilda during his long career. But his sincerity and commitment were beyond question. I am aware that he did not always agree with what I wrote. But that did not diminish my respect for him. Respect for, and promotion of, different viewpoints is a basic obligation of the media. Just because a journalist, or newspaper projects a view which we may regard as harmful society does not mean it must not appear. The reader is the final arbiter, provided, of course, there is a choice. In this respect, we are well off compared to most other countries. The reader can choose between several papers and, normally, no viewpoint is blacked out, though it may get less prominence and space than rival views.

The real threat to the freedom of the press comes from owners who are ready to sacrifice the reputation and credibility of the newspapers they own for the sake of personal profit or influence with those in positions of power. But not every owner is guilty; many equate the reputation of their papers with their own. The misdeeds of a few should not injure the credibility of all. It is important, therefore, to identify, not generalise. In view of the heavy investment involved, management skills are essential to the growth of a newspaper. Editorial skills are essential to maintain credibility and pursue social objectives. The two must cooperate to be successful. But if the editor is made subservient to the desire to maximise profit, the balance is upset. There is no balance at all if the office of editor is abolished altogether. By doing this, The Time of India has set a disastrous example that must be countered. The once-respected paper has accentuated its contempt for the role of editors by redesignating the Resident Editor as Editor, Delhi Market in the imprint line.

COMING to the role of the media in crises situations, we have discussed how it has responded to specific situations. But what may be described as permanent crises are largely ignored by the media because they are always with us. Poverty, hunger, illiteracy, unemployment, social injustice have all become permanent features of Indian society. Because they are permanent, they do not make headline news unless they lead to riots or famine or crime. Yet, unless the media constantly covers these problems, the prospect of ameliorating them through democratic means is remote. Without the pressure of public opinion, administrators and legislators will do nothing.

However well the media may have done in other areas, however advanced its technology and attractive its appearance, however much money it may make, it has failed in its obligations if it does not contribute to public awareness of social crises; if the only time we realise the true condition of our country is when the global Human Development Index put together by the Untied Nations shows India at nearly the bottom of the scale. And that is soon forgotten because there is no follow-up. In any democracy, the media is given a special status because it is expected to play a role in creating public awareness of the most serious problems facing society. It is free to make the money needed to be financially viable by catering to the tastes of the creamy layer; but if this becomes its primary objective and its obligations to society are overlooked, it no longer deserves the status, the respect and facilities it is provided.

Any journalist knows how much more difficult it is to cover human development problems than politics or crime or even cricket. The reason is simple. Development is a process; crime etc. are events. And news is normally about events. Topicality is essential. The standard format is that such and such event occurred today, at least recently. That formula is not available when trying to put across the plight of the poor. It can be done but requires much greater professional skill, study and field work than covering a murder or a political development. The reward is to contribute to the process of social change.

In cooperation with NGOs working in the field, media has helped to expose and remedy serious cases of criminal exploitation of human and natural resources. Decimation of forests combined with exploitation of tribals in Bastar, industrial pollution of the Tungabhadra, deforesting in Garhwal, the link between right to information and checking corruption in rural Rajasthan. These are a few of the achievements of which media has served a greater national service than ten times the space devoted to reports on political happenings. In my own long career, I recall my field reporting on the nexus between industry and the Forest Department in Karnataka to clear entire forests and plant them with eucalyptus with more pride than covering the United Nations. The real achievement was of the local NGO which spent years documenting and arousing local opinion against a project which would hurt the poorest members of the community. After several years, the Supreme Court struck it down and those whose livelihood depended on forest produce survived.

But these field reports are infinitesimal compared to the need. And follow-ups are rare. Only they ensure that exposure or legal action does in fact make a difference. And the media seldom, if ever, draw attention of rural or urban schooling apart from those catering to the wealthy. Unless there is a riot or murder, even universities are neglected. Recent events in Jaipur disclosed the depths of the rot in Rajasthan University. The media must take part of the blame for the self-immolation for failing to draw attention to the scandalous condition that led to the tragedy before it occurred. Similar conditions are reported in other universities. The press headlined the award of the Nobel Prize to Amartya Sen; but has it shown any concern for his thesis that education is at the heart of national development?

Questions concerning the role of the press raise other issues, too. The independence of the press in relation to the government, except for the unfortunate period of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, is a matter of pride and distinguishes India from many other countries. But it must be equally free from other sources of pressure if it is to meet its social obligations. This issue underlines the rift between the Press Council of India and the Indian Newspaper Society. As I have written in The Hindu, the mandate of the Press Council includes discussion of the ownership structure of newspapers to which the Society is unduly sensitive. But the issue need not be phrased in harsh, confrontationist terms. Cooperations between the Press Council and the Newspapers Society is as essential as cooperation between the Editor and manager, without either giving up their basic functions.

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