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How Can We Even Imagine A Republic, Secular And Democratic India Without A Free Media?

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We are living in the 21st century and that too in a nation which is known as the biggest democracy. However, before we do so, we must take an insight into our internal situations and democratic systems. As my friends from a political science background may be aware, there are three pillars of democracy viz. The legislature, executive and judiciary. But since the ’60s and ’70s, with the widespread readership and viewership of newspapers and media platforms, media/press has emerged as the fourth pillar of democracy. These pillars are meant to help in strengthening the democracy and media must act as a review machine for the above mentioned three pillars.

Let’s suppose, India is a building and we have four pillars supporting the whole building and if one breaks down then what would happen? Do you think that the building is going to survive? No, because you need the support of all the four pillars. Same is the case in India as a whole democratic system. So, media plays a critical role in strengthening the system.

We are connected with media everywhere. When we wake up, we check our WhatsApp or Facebook newsfeed, at the breakfast table we often watch TV, on our way to office we listen to radio, in office we again watch news or check our WhatsApp, and this cycle goes on until you hit the sack and before sleep you again check the inbox. It is very clear that the media plays a vital role in creating a consensus among the citizens.

But what is happening today is ‘Press Censorship’ which is nothing but ‘show what the government instructs you to show and not what should be shown’. I was reading somewhere that in their 2018 country reports for India, ‘Reporters without Borders’ notes that Hindu nationalism (as they put it) promoted by the ruling party, poses a deadly threat to press freedom in India. Earlier there was no mention of mob-lynching, anti-nationalism, tukde-tukde gang, Urban Naxals but suddenly they all came under the limelight. I am not saying that mob-lynching never happened earlier, it could have taken place but it was never highlighted by the media. These are some topics which are made to distract the consensus from unimportant debates in the country. For us, employment, education, healthcare, infrastructure is more important.

If this continues then how can we even imagine a republic, secular, democratic and free India? What if the government does not even want to listen about their shortcomings or any kind of criticism? It will soon become monarchical and not democratic. To save, preserve and promote true democracy, the government must accept press freedom. Journalists are increasingly under fire for their reporting. Many journalists are killed, attacked and threatened. Journalists who venture out into the field to investigate any story, be it sand mining, stone quarrying, illegal construction, police brutality, medical negligence, corruption, are under attack.

“While India’s vibrant media remained the freest in South Asia in 2015, media workers continued to face obstacles under Narendra Modi’s government,” a report by ‘Freedom House’ stated. Journalists reported difficulty gaining access to government officials, and expressed concern over heavy-handed government censorship during the year.

I was born in 2000 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power, after him Dr. Manmohan Singh and since 2014, Narendra Modi is in power, but out of all the previous prime ministers, Modi is different because he is the first prime minister who has not addressed even a single press conference in the last five years of his tenure. Even US president Donald Trump, who has often tweeted about his abhorrence for the media, holds press conferences, though the outcome is often unpredictable.

Narendra Modi is the first prime minister who has not addressed even a single press conference in the last five years of his tenure.

Recently, Prime Minister gave ‘exclusive’ interviews to some news agencies, especially to those who are known for their inclination towards a particular ideology. There was a series of interviews, almost five to six of them and one common question that I found, ‘Modiji, aap me itni khakti aati kahan se hai? Aap thakte nahi hai kya? (Where do you get this much energy from?)’

As a media house, you have a responsibility to show something concrete but if you are asking about Modiji’s endurance then I think, the level of bhakti is very high in the media firms that are owned by big corporates and politicians, those who favor the ruling party.

Many interviewers asked him about the level of ‘fakiri’ in our Prime Minister. Someone who wears branded glasses and branded watch and Mont Blanc pen. This is not about respected Modi ji but about the creditability, accountability, trustworthiness of Indian media.

In 2017, 12 journalists were murdered. India’s troubled neighbour, Pakistan lost seven professional journalists to assailants in the year in comparison. It was not just Gauri Lankesh but also Shujaat Bukhari from Kashmir, Sudip Datta, Brajesh Kumar Singh and many others. Times are tough for journalists in India, where many reporters and editors say it is very difficult to do their jobs.  This is not the way to make a system work for the government. If the government is doing the welfare then media must not criticize the government and if they are not doing anything wrong then the government must not be afraid or feel insecure from the press.

Moreover, it is not just the government or a particular political party but also certain media firms who are responsible for such a disgrace in today’s journalism and media’s image in the nation. If a news channel shows the murder mystery of Sri Devi for more than one week and a reporter goes into the bathtub to show the possibility of her drowning does not make much sense to me or a famous news channel showing ‘Sanki Tanashah Kim Jong Un II aur uski Zindagi’ or ‘Jungle News’ or a news channel showing almost nine windows in my 32″ LCD shouting, screaming and throwing water on each other and not focusing on the issue of the debate, is this the media which will create the consensus among the citizens of this great nation?

The prime time debates have become a place to show your vocal strengths and insecurities. So, the media must also take their current situations more seriously and they must be accountable, responsible, full of facts and figures, unbiased, free and fair, unafraid and most importantly sensible. The government must not interfere in media but that seems impossible because media firms are directly or indirectly attached a particular political ideology. While I was reading on the internet about Press Freedom, the Indian constitution, while not mentioning the word ‘press’, provides for ‘the right of freedom of speech and expression’ that is Article 19(1)A. However this right is subject to restrictions under a sub-clause, whereby this freedom can be restricted for reasons of ‘sovereignty and integrity’ of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public orders, preserving the decency, preserving morality, in relation to contempt, court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Even the laws such as the Official Secrets Act and Prevention of Terrorists Activities Act (PoTA) have been used to limit press freedom in India. Though PoTA was repealed in 2006 but the Official Secrets Act 1923 continues.

Since the Independence, media control by the Government was the major constraint on press freedom. During the Emergency under Indira Gandhi, we saw the darkest period in journalism, when the editorial pages went unpublished and blank in protest when Indira Gandhi ordered the press to take her permission before publishing anything. Indira Gandhi famously stated in 1975 that All India Radio is ‘a government organ, it is going to remain a government organ..’

India ranks at 140th rank out of 180 listed countries in the Press Freedom Index 2019 released by ‘Reporters Without Borders’. The rank has constantly reduced since 2002. In 2019, India’s press freedom ranking declined two places to 140. They stated, “Violence against journalists – including police violence, attacks by Maoist fighters, and reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt politicians – is one of the most striking characteristics of the current state of press freedom in India.”

So, it is very clear with the state of press today in India we must take serious steps to tackle the very critical situations of media and its dignity. If the government will take over the media and the public consensus then how are we going to make an opinion for a better nation and a stronger democracy? The media must not always criticize the government but also suggest measures to develop the nation. All the pillars and the public should work in unison to make this country developed. We must not encourage media which supports a certain ideology but we want media which is open for each and every viewpoint in the nation and it must help in creating a mass consensus among the citizens.

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