Has the government burned its hands by touching the hot button issue of press freedom?
The indomitable former editor Arun Shourie thinks it’s the situation. And proclaims, “Anyone who has raised their hands against the press, against the media, has had that hand burned, and has had to withdraw it.”
At the Press Club of India meeting held to protest the CBI raids on the premises of NDTV promoters Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy, he called on the press to boycott the government’s press conferences and ministers because the "nature of the regime, its genes, is totalitarian".
But isn’t Shourie aware that the government has been boycotting the media? Does PM Modi give two hoots about media?
Does he need the media that Shourie wants to boycott the government?
No. Modi has his captive media, a very large section of them, who solicits the government and the ministers.
Image: PTI file photo
Shourie said boycott them because like “terrorists” the minions of Modi need oxygen of publicity. Without oxygen they will choke.
Modi is the first prime minister who has not given one single press conference in the past three years. How many interviews has Modi given?
He is the first prime minister who broke with the tradition of taking the media on his foreign trips.
He is the first prime minister who has employed no media or communication officer. He doesn’t need them. Who can be a better media manager than PM Modi himself?
Only a myopic media with its head buried in sands can refuse to see and fail to understand Modi’s media strategy. Modi can’t help if media mandarins haven’t understood that his agenda is best communicated not by the media that can ask uncomfortable questions, but without them.
He has Doordarshan, Radio, Twitter, Facebook and "Mann ki Baat". And he has host of television channels broadcasting 24/7 at his beck and call. He has any number of newspapers and magazines and digital news sites that fall head over heels to carry his message.
Shourie's call for war against Modi, I emphasise against Modi because Shourie, who is master of one-liners, has repeatedly called the current dispensation a government of two and half men: Modi plus Amit Shah and the rest.
However, he mistakenly assumed there are objective and subjective conditions for lunching a media war on Modi. Media became Modi’s supplicant even before he came to power in Delhi.
Modi mesmerised them, held the press in thrall during the 2014 election campaign. The Modi magic for media continues.
How can the press contemplate to boycott when what the government dishes out daily as propaganda are carried as "breaking news" by prominent channels? In fact, members of the press are always one step ahead of the government’s propaganda machinery.
They have developed skills to second-guess. They save embarrassment for the government by putting out stories, which could carry credibility if covered by non-official channels.
What’s shocking is that the media has become more preoccupied with exposing the opposition rather than the government. This role reversal media has brought about for the government and the opposition is bizarre and unprecedented.
Will the media listen to Shourie’s call in this sort of atmosphere?
Even in normal circumstances, a call to boycott the source of information is impractical, unwise and amount to shooting in one’s foot. An alert and independent media can better expose the government by getting access to information through available channels than by blocking them.
In one respect, though, Shourie is indubitably right. Whenever any government has tried to muzzle the press, they have burned their hands. That’s our experience since the days of Indira Gandhi when overt and covert ways to muzzle the press began.
Annoyed by The Indian Express and The Hindu campaigns against corruption in the Bofors gun deal, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi brought a Defamation Bill to punish the press. The bill was passed by the Lok Sabha in 1988, but had to be withdrawn from the Rajya Sabha following nationwide protests by journalists and the civil society.
Before that, Jagannath Mishra, chief minister of Bihar who was embroiled in corruption cases, piloted a bill in the Assembly to check what he called “scurrilous” reporting by the press. He too was forced to put the bill in cold storage after protests.
Both Rajiv Gandhi and Mishra lost elections they fought after their attempt to muzzle the media.
Nobody would have reservations over Shourie’s call on journalists to stand up to government’s arm-twisting approach and its high-handedness. Most people agree the government has no respect for independent press.
One must listen to him even if the warring camps, the BJP supporters on one side and liberal voices on the other, accuse Shourie of being a turncoat and opportunist.
BJP supporters are angry because Shourie has been snipping against their Hriday Samrat, Modi, after having denied a ministerial position in the government.
Liberals deride him as a turncoat because of his past associations with the BJP and his pro-RSS views.
To tell the truth, consistency has been his virtue ever since he came into limelight in the early 1970s. From his first stint in The Indian Express in the late 1970s to 2014 he had been consistent in support of the BJP and the RSS worldviews.
He defended Modi during fierce storm over the 2002 Gujarat riots.
One also can’t forget that Shourie as an editor had called in Delhi BJP leader Madan Lal Khurana to break a strike in The Indian Express in 1987.
Journalists choked inside as the BJP goons laid siege to the office.