Press under pressure

Amulya Ganguli

A curious item in the charter of demands presented by Saudi Arabia and its allies to Qatar is a call for banning the popular and highly rated television channel, Al Jazeera. One can understand the insistence on outlawing the supposedly terroristic Muslim Brotherhood and the closure of a Turkish base on Qatari soil, but shutting down Al Jazeera?
At one stroke, the Saudis have revealed their claustrophobic, medieval mindset which is at odds with the open, inquiring outlook of the modern world. Al Jazeera is an exception in the Islamic world, which is known for its veiled women and a lifestyle which appears devoid of intellectual content as bookshops and libraries are conspicuous by their absence. It is undoubtedly for this very reason why the antediluvian desert kingdom which lives in the earlier centuries wants to scupper a distinctive feature of the modern age which telecasts diverse views. Strangely, however, this regressive demand of the Saudis may not worry the Trump administration which, too, is not too enamoured of the free press despite being the putative leader of the free world.
In India, too, the media is not a favourite of the powers-that-be. For instance, neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor the leader of the 132-year-old Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, has attended a televised press conference where they can be closely questioned by newspersons. Instead, they prefer one-on-one interactions with journalists whom they can trust to steer clear of controversial topics. Being of the same mind where the media is concerned, Trump and Modi did not take questions during the latter’s recent visit to the US. Nor did Yogi Adityanath in Lucknow on the completion of the chief minister’s 100 days in office.
As if to drive home the point that the fourth estate is of no consequence, the Karnataka legislature sentenced two journalists to jail for a year and imposed a fine of Rs 10,000 each for writing defamatory articles against the Speaker and the MLAs. Not surprisingly, the decision was unanimous because both the Congress and BJP legislators supported the jail term, which was described as a gross abuse of the powers and privileges of the state legislature by the editors’ guild and is being probed by the Karnataka high court. The arrests have now been put on hold.
From Qatar to Karnataka, therefore, the press is under pressure. The authorities no longer seem to be interested in upholding its reputation as a symbol of democracy, like an independent judiciary, presumably because they have found in the vituperative utterances of their supporters in the social media a justification for a crackdown on the so-called mainstream media which includes newspapers which have published whatever is fit to print for over a century.
The onslaught on the media has led to India dropping three places on the world press freedom index compiled by the Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), which ranked the country at 136 in a “difficult situation” slot. The watchdog body found that prosecutions were being used to “gag journalists overly critical of the government”. The sedition law of the colonial era has proved handy for the government in this regard. It is worth recalling that a foreign embassy in New Delhi had to cancel a meeting on press freedom because of threats from activists associated with the ruling dispensation because they did not approve of the presence of two journalists who have been “overly critical of the government”.
The Paris-based RSF has noted that the US and Britain, too, have dropped two places to being 43rd and 40th among 179 countries because of Donald Trump’s “toxic” media bashing similar to that of the pro-Brexit campaigners in Britain. In the fitness of things, North Korea brings up the rear, but the fact that India is just 43 places above the lowest rung cannot be a matter of pride, especially when the unleashing of the “caged parrot” – the Supreme Court’s term for the CBI – on a media house was described by Arun Shourie, who was a minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s cabinet, as a case of “killing chickens to frighten the monkeys”.
Ironically, the expansion of the areas of the dissemination of information and exchange of views via the Internet has worsened the situation with the entry of ill-informed, ill-educated, biased and abusive writers who have vitiated the atmosphere of reasoned discourse. As a group of retired bureaucrats wrote to the prime minister, “we are seeing an ugly trend of trolling, threats and online intimidation of activists, journalists, writers and intellectuals who disagree with the dominant ideology”.
As the supporters of the dominant ideology, viz. Hindutva, admit, they have come to the fore with all their virulence because they believe that for the first time in Indian history, they have the opportunity to peddle their views which had been negated and ridiculed for decades by the purveyors of the previous ideology which was diametrically opposite to that of the present one. In the process, however, they have been inflicting grievous damage to the concept of the freedom of the press which enables a nation to listen to itself, so to say. (IPA)

Monday, 10 July, 2017