India is not just a democracy but the largest democracy in the world. But what is democracy? Let’s analyse first the old-school definition. The simplest characteristic of democracy is that the government is chosen by the people. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Democracy is rule of people, for the people, and by the people.” However, it is not just people but institutions that sustain democracy, for example an independent judiciary, a credible opposition, and a free press. Here I shall talk about the institution of the press or media and its role in a democracy.
The press or media holds up a mirror to society and reports, discusses, and comments on issues that are important to society. In the age of information technology and social media, there is proliferation of fake news and yellow journalism. Freedom of speech and expression is at the heart of a democracy but should this freedom be extended to those who spread wrong information? Should they be allowed to confuse or mislead the people? Should they be allowed to ridicule the faith of others? That debate should be settled by the judiciary. If some journalist, say Peerzada Ashiq or Masrat Zahra, has “misinformed” or tried to “misguide” the people, they should be summoned to court and tried according to law and judicial procedure. But to slap on them charges that are meant for terrorists, under draconian laws like Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), is not befitting a democracy. The amended (in 2019) UAPA confers powers upon the central government to designate an individual as a terrorist without benefit of trial, and such an individual can be arrested with no provision of bail. The government can easily misuse this law in the name of protecting the integrity and sovereignty of the country, just as it misused the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). Under such draconian laws, most of the journalists in Jammu and Kashmir are being intimidated and interrogated on flimsy grounds.
The fact of the matter is that there have been many cases of human right violations in Jammu and Kashmir but all those stories remain buried because of restrictions placed on journalists. In fact, manufactured facts are published through the means of “embedded journalism”. This creates more rage among the public and intensifies the conflict between the state and citizens.
Suppression of journalism is not unique to India, it has become a global phenomenon in most of the democratic states. Populist political parties the world over are trying to undermine the media by harassing journalists, censoring press, and shutting down media outlets that oppose them. Simultaneously, they are saturating the media environment with party-sponsored and sympathetic private media channels. In the age of social media and internet, populists are heavily dependent on mass media to deliver their message and mobilise people directly. Earlier, political parties used to solely rely on part membership and civil society organisations to mobilise supporters. Now, taming the media, be it print or electronic or digital, is the main objective of every government.
The question we really have to ask ourselves is: Are we on the right track of democracy or are we seeing the retreat of democracy? Observing the frequent violations of freedom of the press, I must rephrase the old-school definition as, “Democracy is now far from the people.” Surely, it is time for course correction before it is too late.
The writer is as an independent researcher based in [email protected]