“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom” – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
These were the words of our then Prime Minister Nehru, 71 years ago. Seventy one years later I, a citizen of India questions this statement. Has India really awoken to freedom? Technically yes, we are a democracy, we have fought for our independence and attained it after a lot of bloodshed. We are free from the clutches of the colonial emperors. Theoretically, we are independent. In the books of political sciences, the Republic Of India is a free state. But the statistics of the murders of the journalists who voiced their opinions and practised their right to freedom of speech, speak a different story.
On May 3, 2018, the world celebrated World Press Day, and on this occasion, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) released the freedom ranking, and the worlds largest democracy was placed at 138th rank out of 180 countries, just above Pakistan. Some of our very own countrymen came forward and commented, “well we are at least in front of Pakistan.” Yes, we are but only by one rank. But seriously, are our standards so low that we are comparing our basic rights of democracy with a country which, at least according to me, knows very well how to hide a dictatorial regime behind the curtains of democracy.
There is no question about the fact that the freedom of the press is under a great threat. People argue that the fact that the press is operating and reporting the data and people like me get to know about what is happening in the country and around the world is proof that freedom of the press exists. But to them I would ask, have you seen the after-effects of exercising the right to freedom of the press? Have you read about the deaths of Shujaat Bukhari, Gauri Lankesh, Santanu Bhowmik and many others whose names may or may not have appeared on the headlines?
India is a diverse country, with a population of around 135 crores; it is obvious that there will be a difference of opinion. Hence, when we voice our opinions, there will be someone who will have a different point of view. I understand that your words will have consequences, but I don’t, rather I can’t, understand that these consequences will be in the form of threats or worse, in deaths.
Noted lawyer Fali Nariman told a gathering at the Press Club of India in New Delhi last June: “Freedom after the speech – that is really what freedom of speech is all about.” He emphasized that “you are allowed to speak, speak as much as you like, but there is a fellow waiting there to nab you and out you, in so you can’t speak again!” Hate for differing views is dangerous for the democracy.
I do not solely blame the current government for the decline in journalism and the state of freedom within the media. The origin of this situation goes deeper to several years earlier. No one can forget that the obstruction of a free press was one of the important highlights during the darkest period of our democracy – the emergency.
Freedom of the press is violated not only by the murders but also by the fact that there has been so much censorship that it takes away the right of audience to decide what to watch, what to read, etc. Censorship is needed in certain areas which are moral, ethically wrong (for example child porn), hence legal interference is required. But stopping an adult to exercise his/her choice is constitutionally wrong.
Another indirect way in which freedom of the press is violated is by turning the fourth pillar of democracy into an industry of competitive market forces. Well, there is nothing wrong with having a free and fair competition but it should not violate the basic purpose of free media, which is to serve as a link between the government and the people.
Fear is a critical component which obstructs freedom, and if the journalists have fear in them, the government, the industrialists, the “powerful people” will be unstoppable.
138 in 2018 or 132 in 2012 is not the matter of fact, but whether the press will get due freedom, whether the civil society will stand up and make it an important issue is the point.
Hence, as our country enters its 72nd year, let’s strive to work hard in respecting, cherishing and protecting our fourth pillar of democracy because freedom of the press is not just important to democracy it is democracy.