Angiography

PM Modi’s World Press Freedom Day tweet is an exercise in irony

It’s time the prime minister walks the talk on his own words that ‘free, vibrant press is vital in a democracy’.

 |  Angiography  |  6-minute read |   03-05-2017
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi can always be counted upon to say the right words at the right time, even though the reality might not be exactly matching his sentiments.

On World Press Freedom Day today (May 3) PM Modi tweeted his greetings to the journalistic community and reiterated his “unwavering support” towards freedom of the media and press. PM Modi said: “A free, vibrant press is vital in a democracy.”

Wise words indeed. In fact, PM Modi has, in his speeches, batted for a free media, saying government should not interfere into the working of the press. For example, at the Ramnath Goenka Awards in November 2016, he said that the days of Emergency must not be repeated and media has a big role to play in that.

However, let’s look at the real picture.

Firstly, India has slipped to 136th position out of 188 countries, in the press freedom rankings. For a few years now, our neighbours in the press freedom index have been Pakistan, South Sudan, among other countries, which Indians often offer as the counter-examples of what a democracy mustn’t look like.

Secondly, a report in The Hoot, the media watchdog, documents that 54 reported attacks on journalists, 45 instances of internet shutdowns, mostly in Kashmir Valley, 45 cases of sedition, etc have been recorded in the past 16 months. This is an abysmal record and frankly betrays the climate where freedom of speech and press is hardly safeguarded, but can land us in deep trouble with the authorities.

Thirdly, media is at present undergoing a tectonic shift and seeing a deep crisis of credibility. While mainstream media is divided between shrill debates on television and increasingly straitjacketed, close-circuit liberalism of the print, there’s an acute disconnect among journalists themselves, who are now grappling with the fast-changing fabric of India’s sociocultural reality.

It is interesting that PM Modi issues the timely and important reminder that free media is vital to democracy; constitutionally, it’s the fourth estate, or the fourth pillar, after executive, legislature and the judiciary. Media’s role is to be the watchdog of the society and the powers that be, hold the government into account not as a matter of boldness and bravery but as routine daily requirement. Yet, this basic premise of free media is exactly what is sorely missing from contemporary Indian journalism.

As the ecstatic coverage of UP elections and the crowning of Yogi Adityanath proved, once again, Indian media is more interested in acting as what Louis Althusser had called the “ideological state apparatus”. In modern parlance, it’s called public relations on behalf of the government. Even prominent journalists who on social media claim that theirs is the republic of truth and courage, act as propagandists for the regime, openly advocating a “pro-military”, “pro-nationalism” editorial approach, when media is required to be absolutely unbiased.

Such hypocrisies are hardly anomalies now; in fact, they are the new normal. And PM Modi indeed has a huge role in shaping the media to suit his larger-than-life image. While the PM dominates much of media space, and not all of it is critical of his government’s gargantuan failures on demonetisation’s economic logic, surgical strikes across the border, national security, the Kashmir question, foreign policy, tackling Pakistan, tear in the secular character of the nation, politics of polarisation — we nevertheless have a government that is riding high on the Modi wave, and much of it is thanks to a rather easygoing media.

journalism_050317062827.jpgIt is interesting that PM Modi issues the timely and important reminder that free media is vital to democracy; constitutionally, it’s the fourth estate. (Credit: Reuters photo)

This was exampled in the manner the Finance Bill, 2017 was almost blacked out in mainstream media, with very few of its countless draconian amendments taken up and dissected on television and in the opinion pages of the biggest news dailies. In fact, the resistance came from smaller opinion portals, which have sustained their principled opposition against the Aadhaar-PAN mandatory link, which this government is hell bent on, but which is an affront to fundamental and civil liberties of citizens.

That PM Modi pays lip-service to World Press Freedom Day, which is observed internationally and was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 following a recommendation adopted at the 26th session of the UNESCO’s general conference in 1991, he nevertheless invites and shares dais with world leaders who have strangled press freedom in their own countries, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

At present, journalism has become one of the most perilous professions in the country, with intrepid reporters regularly threatened, trolled online, beaten up and even left for dead for doing their jobs well. The other extreme is the studio debate where the news anchor presents a skewed worldview that’s instead of challenging the government, makes it easy for its official spokespersons to set the narrative as it wishes.

PM Modi, while he pays lip-service to press freedom and autonomy, would do well to remember what Raj Kamal Jha, editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, had said in this short valdectory speech at the RNG Awards, just after the PM had spoken. Jha had said, “Criticism from the government is a badge of honour for journalists.”

For a government, and the prime minister, whose supporters and sometimes elected ministers in its Union cabinet call journalists “presstitutes”, that is a line worth recalling every year on World Press Freedom Day.

Also read: Malini Subramaniam's ordeal shows journalists are an endangered lot in India

Writer

Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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