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Media's #SelfieWithModi further proof no freedom of press

Media's #SelfieWithModi further proof no freedom of press

The Delhi media scrum to grab a #SelfieWithModi at the recent Diwali milan at BJP headquarters has come in for several rounds of criticism - most of it unfair. It has variously been branded unethical and sycophantic and a lot more.

There was former J&K CM Omar Abdullah tweeting that it was an "undignified selfie circus" and asking whether this was "the media we expect will ask tough questions of this government?" The BJP, while being happy with the no questions asked spectacle, was quick to absolve itself and Modi of all culpability. "The party cannot be blamed. It is all because some journalists wanted to have selfies with him. Journalists were free to ask him questions. Why didn't they," asked BJP Intellectual Cell convenor, R Balashankar. The unkindest cut was the cruel contrasting with UK journalists. A much retweeted tweet read, "Modi meets UK press: gets asked uncomfortable questions. Modi meets Indian press: gets bombarded with selfie requests."

India ranks low on press freedom

Now now, just because we call ourselves the world's largest democracy, we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously and start comparing our press with the press in Britain. They are placed a good 102 places higher in rankings on the 2015 World Press Freedom Index - they are at #34, while we are way way down there at Rank #136. The correct comparison should perhaps be with the press in #135 ranked Chad - ruled since 25 years by military strongman, Idriss Deby, where the penalty for insulting the president is five years in prison. Among other things, Chad's media regulatory body has banned reporting on the "activities of rebels and any other information that could harm national unity".

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Assam Rifles' notification to Nagaland media

Before you start saying that there's no equivalence whatsoever, think again. It was only just more than a month ago, on October 25, 2015, that a Colonel of the General Staff of the Assam Rifles sent a notification to the editors of five Nagaland-based media houses, forbidding them from publishing press releases of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) [NSCN(K)] under threat of prosecution for abetment under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Abetment of terrorist activities carries punishment extending to life imprisonment under Section 18 of the UAPA.

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The editors protested this gag order and several of these newspapers even ran blank editorials on National Press Day on November 16. The Press Council of India too weighed in by taking suo-moto cognizance and issuing notice to the Assam Rifles as well as the state government.

But the negligible effect of all this on the government could be seen in later statements by the highest constitutional functionary in the state and the region, the governor of Nagaland and Assam, PB Acharya. He pronounced, "As per the law, the Assam Rifles had done the right thing. Any banned organisation will not get the publicity in our newspapers. If they (armed outfits) are in peace agreement with the government, their statements can come in the newspapers."

He added, "There is a central law which prohibits publicity of banned outfits. Let law takes its own course." But all law is subordinate to the constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought and expression. Such statements display scant respect for the press, whose duty in a democracy is to provide the people with news and information from all sides. They also send signals to the lower levels of the state apparatus to clamp down at will.

Targeting of journalists who do not toe the line

The readiness to put editors behind bars, merely for publishing press releases that they may consider as news, is no idle threat. Arrests and torture of journalists in conflict zones is par for the course. November saw two such incidents in Kashmir. Meanwhile, efforts of Amnesty International and journalists continue for obtaining the release of two reporters arrested in Bastar in Chhattisgarh in July and September this year. They were targeted for their intensive reporting, including coverage of incidents of serious human rights violations by security forces.

Reporters Sans Frontieres, an international body focused on press freedoms, has in its condemnation of the Nagaland notification stated, "Quoting or reporting the statements of militant groups, like the statements of any source, is part of the work of the journalists. We remind the Assam Rifles that reporting statements is not the same as endorsing them or promoting them. It is part of the job of providing the public with information." But the government, both at the State and Central levels, shows no signs of listening. The policy of targeting journalists who do not toe the line is likely to continue and even intensify.

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Selfie seekers motivated by self-preservation?

It is in this background perhaps that one must then re-examine the show of what was apparently the sycophancy of the selfie-seekers at the Delhi Diwali milan. The journalists' assembly there would quite likely have had its fair share of consummate fawners hell-bent on showing their proximity to the throne.

But it would also be difficult to deny the instinct of self-preservation that must have inspired the enthusiasm of many others who wrestled to record their fleeting moment of access. In a country that is near the bottom of press freedom indicators, it always helps for a journalist in a difficult situation to be able to show accreditation from the powers that be. What better testimonial then than some cheek to cheek intimacy with the man at the top, captured on an instrument always at hand and saved at sundry points on the worldwide web?

Last updated: December 03, 2015 | 16:13
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