India as a democracy has seen many ups and down in her journey of seven decades. All her four pillars—the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, and the press—have also acknowledged different seasons of success and crisis. The most discussed controversial chapter among them remains the censorship of press during the 21-month long National Emergency from June 1975 to March 1977. The central government abolished the press council and imposed a ban on the publication of anything that seemed ‘objectionable’, and only pro-government news was allowed to be published. During this severe crisis also there were vocal media stalwarts such as Janardan Thakur, Nikhil Chakraborty, and Romesh Thapar, who did not bow down to extreme pressures of the central government though the gag was removed on March 21 1977 to restore civil liberties. But now, decades later, slmost the same “Unofficial Intimidation of Journalists” is happening in contemporary India.
The telecast of “Left, Right and Center” on NDTV on May 25, 2018, disturbed me as a citizen of world’s largest democracy. It was an hour discussion with the confessions of journalists Rana Ayyub and Ravish Kumar about the assault on their freedom of expression. Ayyub had expressed the unimaginable outrage of her modesty over critical views she keeps on the Modi government by online goons who are paid to abuse her. She said, “A pornographic video was circulated with my face morphed on to the body of another woman. The online mob asked me to pack my bags and leave for Pakistan, some threatened to tear my clothes and drag me out of the country.” It is impossible to even image what she and her family would have undergone by seeing such unleash of rape culture. The matter was of such intense gravity that it had attracted the attention of the Office of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. They had called on Indian authorities to protect Ayyub, who has received death threats following an online hate campaign.
Ravish Kumar, one of the most lauded journalists of this country, is known for raising most critical issues which students, youth, farmers, and the oppressed sections of this country are going through. He along with his family are facing hate, insult, and death threats. Despite this daily trauma, he has many such deeds which garnered immense attention of the common man. These include continuous 28 episodes of Prime Time on rising unemployment; many episodes on the worsening situation of government universities like Allahabad University; questioning die hard right-wing elements who malign the achievements of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and a sustained character assassination of the man.
A Subjugation Of Truth, And By Whom?
These incidents with journalists are definitely not the first of their kind. Elected government, whether it was the UPA under Congress or now the NDA under BJP, both have tried to suppress freedom of press. Since 2014, when the Modi government assumed power the method of suppressing the press has undergone a two-dimensional shift.
First to target those who are constantly protesting the anti-people policies the government, and the lag of development loaded with divisive agenda on religion and caste. The second is to target those who question the fake propaganda of BJP’s IT Cell.
For example, in 2016, journalists at the Kerala High Court were prevented from covering a case involving a government pleader by a violent mob of lawyers. Alok Singh and Kaunain Sheriff of the India Express were attacked by lawyers inside premises of Patiala Court. Ashad Ashraf, Anupam Pandey, and Vinay Pandey were arrested in Hanumangarh while investigating arms-training camps allegedly being conducted by the Bajrang Dal.
A mob lynch, or bullet will decide your tomorrow; if you speak or write against one ideology which is in power with majority support, be ready to suffer. It’s as if we elected a God-like human being, not a leader who is above criticism, questions and accountability.
The brutal murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh on September 25, 2017, is a fresh instance. She was most vocal against the Hindutva brand of politics. After her murder, social media was flooded with vocal criticism against this gruesome act. But at the same time, a man on twitter named Nikhil Dadhich, tweeted: “Now a bitch has died a dog’s death, all the puppies are mewling in one voice.” Our Prime Minister follows this man. In the same manner, union minister like Piyush Goyal and many others follow serial abusers, rumor-mongers, misogynists, and various handles brimming with communal venom. Celebration of Gauri Lankesh’s murder, character assassination of Rana Aayub, death threat to Ravish Kumar and his family are not from anonymous trolls. These individuals enjoy an established political patronage. They have been awarded with posts in different outfits such as the Bajrang Dal and the Gauraksha Samiti. The pattern of threat is noticeable, and the bedrock is religious fundamentalism and bigotry. The Prime Time show on NDTV, independent YouTubers, and journalists who are busting fake news are severely hurting the fake news machinery of the BJP IT cell. Raising questions about our nation’s top-most leader for not having a single press conference makes cut-throat supporters of the ruling party feel furious.
The Divided Indian Media
In a democracy there media people should have full liberties, without any sort of subjugation, but there’s a section of the media fraternity who seem happy to be co-opted by the government. Here is the divide in media—one who is a “Watchdog”, and the other a “Lapdog”. The former is “Anti-National”, and the target of death threats, abuse, and character assassination, for keeping critical views on government. The latter is termed to be “Nationalists” who are tight-lipped about the government, and its functioning for its people. They even love to maintain pin-drop silence on how interviews with the prime minister are conducted. Here is how it is done. Aset of questions from the interviewer is sent by mail to the PM’s or his aides. They will examine them and pick the ones which are convenient.
Instead of the Press Information Bureau (PIB), the fashion of hiring a PR enterprise (through which the Government of India spends ₹4,343.26 crore on advertisements and publicity) indicates lowering transparency. The position of India in the World Press Freedom Index 2018 is really disheartening in which we have slipped from 136 to 138, out of 180 countries. Figures also indicate shrinking space for the press under the Modi government. Targeting journalists on different spheres often by ‘troll armies’ in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s payroll is now an open secret.
Threats and attempts to subjugate journalists is not the same as India’s past experience of “National Emergency”, but it is more a socialised phenomenon which aims to normalise hate and instill fear both among journalists and viewers or readers. We the people of India need to stop this assault by expressing solidarity to democracy’s fourth pillar without delay. Journalists who are speaking and seeking the truth from an elected government deserve all support and strength from every section of society.
As in words of Malcolm X, “If you stick a knife in my back 9 in and pull it out 6 in, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made. They won’t even admit the knife is there.“