Recently, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) came out with its 2020 press freedom index. The assessment of press freedom was based on such aspects as pluralism, independence, safety of journalists, quality of legal framework in place for protection of press freedom, etc. Of the 180 countries listed in the World Freedom Press Index, India ranks at a lowly 142, dropping further two places from the previous year’s rank of 140 in 2019, four places from 138 in 2018, six places from 136 in 2017, and nine places from 133 in 2016. This comes as no surprise to those who experience this loss of freedom in their own lives and all around them. However, to observers these yearly reports must sound alarming, for they clearly suggest that journalism is being throttled and smothered in India.
The freedom of speech is neither the prerogative of the elite nor the privilege of journalists alone. A lively, bold and free media is the keystone to a democracy. Freedom of press is of paramount importance as the press is an interpreter between the citizens and the state. It is considered as the voice of the voiceless, it keeps the public informed, provides critical information needed to make thoughtful decisions, acts as a watchdog, and holds leaders and governments accountable. Weakening of press/media freedom is the weakening of the democratic fabric.
From a democratic standpoint, the state of Indian media is deplorable. The world’s largest democracy, as they call it, has turned into a breeding-ground for prejudiced, biased and stifled media, serving the hegemony of vested interests who have robbed it of its very essence. The stranglehold of the government over the media has resulted in creation of two media factions – one that is now, unfortunately, perceived to have morphed shamelessly into an extension of the State and the other comprising of those who decide to stand by the truth, or, to put it another way, those whom the state cannot stand!
Publicising an issue to garner support is imperative when advocating a cause. It is believed that “Publicity is the soul of Justice. Where there is no publicity, there is no justice.” Placing it into context, the constitution in Article 19(1)(a) guarantees the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. Although Article 19(1)(a)does not mention the freedom of press, the Supreme court in 1972 had held that it is a settled law that Article 19 (1)(a) includes the freedom of press and circulation. Also, Indian courts have repeatedly held that the right to free speech “necessarily includes the right to criticise and dissent.” In another pronounced legal battle in 2015, it was observed that there are three concepts pivotal to the understanding of the reach of Right to freedom of speech and expression, viz, discussion, advocacy and incitement. Advocacy and discussion are at the heart of Article 19 (1)(a),it is only incitement (that leads inexorably to or tends to cause public disorder or affect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation and so on) that can trigger legal action leading to curtailment of such speech or expression.
What needs to be contemplated upon here is: Who should decide, in specific contexts, what advocacy and incitement mean, who should determine the threshold, who should fix the ambits and how?
These “who should and how” questions will never be allowed to surface as long as the “who actually does” paradigm remains unchanged.
On the pretext of national security, charges against individuals holding differing opinions and gutsy journalists have multiplied in the country, and intimidating critics of the state has become a routine. People at the helm are leveraging on the legal concept of “incitement”, using it as a means to curb and muzzle dissent. The past decade has seen ever growing hostility towards fundamental principles and purposes of press freedom, with increasing disdain for honest journalists who serve naked truths on a platter, thereby, disgusting and displeasing those who want to relish self-serving lies. This hostility and disdain has been clearly manifested in the growing attacks, both physical and legal, on media professionals all over the country. Several brave dissenters like Kalburgi, Dabholkar, Gauri Lankesh have paid the price of their lives for exercising the freedom of expression and publicising the truth. On the legal front, there are myriad examples of media professionals like Manjit Mahanta, Kishore Chandra Wangkhem, Kamal Shukla, et al, who have been slammed with charges of defamation, sedition and incitement merely because they agree to disagree over certain critical issues or criticise the state.
We are witnessing a role reversal. As opposed to media holding the government accountable, the government is holding the media accountable for their words and actions.
Of late, with journalists like Masrat Zahra, Gowhar Jeelani, Peerzada Ashiq being booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, these attacks are ostensibly coming to a crescendo. The government is capitalising on the “anti-national branding campaign” that it has launched against journalists who are true to their profession. In the guise of the “anti-national” trite, the authorities are trying to silence every sort of remonstration and dissent.
Tailpiece: While penning this essay down, the pictorial maxim of the Three Wise Monkeys embodying the principle of “See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil” crossed my mind. It is often used to refer to those turning a blind eye to impropriety. Perhaps, that’s what the masters are now trying to convey by this maxim.
Shhh….finger on your lips!
The writer is studying for a doctorate at Department of Management Studies, University of Kashmir. [email protected]