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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 38 New Delhi September 7, 2019

Freedom of the Press in the Age of Internet

Saturday 7 September 2019, by John Dayal



A major television channel owned by the country’s second biggest news conglomerate has announced it is launching a campaign to expose foreign agencies working in India, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Al Jazeera for their reporting of the situation in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley in the after-math of the reading down of Article 370 and the end of Article 35A. The foreign TV channels, the anchor said, were factually wrong, misleading, had an agenda, and were playing to the Pakistani tune.

Some would say such indeed was the case, but many panellists in that TV debate demo-lished the argument. The camera records where it is pointed. The camera can go only where it is allowed to go, or wants to go for reasons best known to the cameraperson, now called the video journalist.

And above all, as a hundred years ago, the news can travel home to the editor and then be transmitted to the viewing or reading public only if there is a carrier—used to be the telegramme and teletype, the phone, and is now the internet on the mobile phone. Switch off the internet and the landline phone and unless one is on a military satellite handset, the reporter and video journalist might as well be blinded, muted, censored either by the government or by his or her own moral and nationalistic predilections.

That is one of the issues involved here. The other is the thesis that it is impossible for a non-national news service to report situations involving sensitive national relationships, and fraught international equations.

If it were a Pakistani agency or newspaper report, it would be easily challenged by a roused government or nationalistic reporter. One could argue that the Pakistani reporter, even if trained in Colombia University or a Chevening scholar, would kill his professional commitment with the sharp dagger of religious commitment. Would he, or she? Difficult to answer, for the flip side would be that our own journalist was doing the same and we were getting news filtered through the rather polarising lens of nationalism, or religious nationalism, in some cases.

A third party with no obvious obligation to either nation or people could be thought to be neutral, different, and arguably absolutely professional, if such a thing is possible.

We believe the BBC, or Beeb, on just about anything. It was the Voice of God in the Emergency years of the 1970s as BBC Radio. Its India reporters Mark Tully and Satish Jacob became national heroes, and remain media icons. Bureau chief Mark got a Padma Shri, I think. They had covered Operation Bluestar, the military action on Bhindranwale and the assault on the Akal Takht and the Golden Temple, in 1984. And in the same year, Satish Jacob announced the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards. This was hours before even Chief Ministers knew of her death through their high speed official channels. The news was believed the world over.

Then, as now, everyone knew the BBC based in London was not exactly a United Nations unit in being a universally owned agency. Apart from many other sources of income, the BBC had a hefty investment by the UK Government. As indeed to Associated Press and Agence France Presse. Al Jazeera is presumed to be financed by the political bosses of Qatar.

In international conflagrations where the UK, the US and France were involved in the last half-a-century, the agencies struck a balance defending government military action, happily becoming embedded journalists with a “we” and “they” vocabulary. But their corres-pondents also reported the napalm bombs, the Mai La massacre in a distant Vietnamese village, and many other events that brought no glory to the US, or to the UK in the Falklands conflict.

India had led the formation of the NAM media collaboration, but it died a premature death, as eventually did the entire non-aligned movement. There never has been another effort to have a really multinational news apparatus. Perhaps it is not possible or feasible at all for reasons of finance, management, human resources.

We continue to trust the BBC on events in our neighbourhood and in China because we have so few foreign correspondents stationed in capitals in the sub-continent. Even where we have a correspondent, she or he is restrained by lack of funds, distances and work load, language and, above all, the magnanimity of the host government in allowing her or his movement and access.

Ideally there should be no need of a patriotic or nationalistic media. True service to the nation and its citizens, mostly poor, very many of them living in distant villages, is to report their situation in real life and real time so that sensitive governments can take remedial action. Even in case of internal conflicts rooted in gender, religion, caste, ethnicity, language or economic stratification, the only self-censorship that can be forgiven is in using words that do not add fuel to the fire.

The government can help in this in allowing free access even if the common public is restricted by the local administration. And by ensuring that telephonic, internet and satellite facilities are available to everyone who wishes to go to the spot and report.

Much of the stink on Kashmir is because of communication restrictions and the undeclared censorship. Remove them and people will trust the Indian media as much as they trust the BBC or Al Jazeera. And they would not need the media, foreign or local, in most situations if they could talk to their parents in Srinagar or Baramulla real time. On Facetime, or just on a simple mobile phone.

The mobile and the internet have in every citizen a reporter.

Dr John Dayal is a well-known civil rights activist who had been a member of the National Integration Council and the Secretary-General of the All India Christian Council. He is a leading voice against the looming threat from the Hindutva outfits now on the offensive.

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