PM Modi's tweets on National Press Day are welcome, but will BJP follow his advice?

The blank editorial in Rajasthan Patrika is a sign of the times.

 |  4-minute read |   16-11-2017
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi's greetings to his "friends in the media" on National Press Day - a four-tweet series - is certainly a wonderful gesture, befitting his role as the topmost elected member of the highest legislative body in the country. The PM batting for a "free press" that is "the cornerstone of a vibrant democracy" and his commitment "to upholding freedom of press and expression in all forms" are worthy and encouraging words from the man who holds the most powerful office in India.

The wise words from the PM, echoing his tweets on World Press Freedom Day, are however, in sorry contrast with the ground reality. And a particularly potent sign of the times - that all is not well with media in India - is the blank editorial published in Rajasthan Patrika today (November 11), as a mark of protest against the infamous "gag ordinance" of the Vasundhara Raje government in the BJP-ruled state.

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Taken together, the irony of the day and age comes into glaring focus. While PM Modi voices his commitment to freedom of expression and press, India's rank in the global press freedom rankings slips to 136th out of 188 countries. While attacks on journalists continue, including the brutal murder of Kannada journalist Gauri Lankesh in September this year, internet shutdowns and sedition charges against journalists are getting normalised, testified by reports in media watchdogs such as The Hoot.

The word "presstitute" as an invective are repeatedly used against many mediapersons, often by BJP members, including MPs and MLAs. There are defamation suits slapped against journalists writing reports that question those connected to the ruling party at the Centre.

Not only that, senior editors are forced to resign because of investigative stories that hint at a Pandora's Box of nepotism at the highest level. Often, managements are allegedly pressurised in case the editor decides to experiment a little with truth-telling in innovative ways, and eventually an unceremonious exit is explained away as one for "personal reasons".

Fake stories and trends are often connected to the ruling party's IT cell, even though PM himself bats against fake news, calling it a menace. Media outlets perceived to be anti-establishment are subjected to sudden punitive gags and/or CBI raids, and when the foreign press publishes editorials on "India's Battered Free Press", the apex investigative body cries foul and shoots off embarrassing letters to the editor.

All this and more don't indicate that the health of the press is indeed vibrant and robust, and that democracy in India is conducive to its fourth pillar, the media, operating in a fearless and unbiased manner. Tax raids, after the Finance Act 2017, can happen to anyone, and singling out media becomes particularly easy, making it a soft target. There are those who lament the fact that PM Modi has held not a single press conference in the three-and-half-years of his tenure, while giving only two interviews during the same period.

As senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai once told DailyO:

"Asking questions is a fundamental right, and as a citizen of the Indian democracy, the right to dissent is integral. But to interpret that as anti-national, is extremely troubling. Using words such as "presstitutes" by even ministers, making blanket allegations of paid media - this is character assassination, destroying the credibility of the media, and opening the space for potential muzzling of the media. Because in order to survive you have to ingratiate yourself, become part of the chamcha media. But if you want to be an honest journalist questioning everyone, then those in power who don't like the questioning, brand you as anti-national. The larger goal is to emasculate, enfeeble the media, turn us from the watchdog to the lapdog. Progressive democratic societies live by the idea of a free, vibrant media. Without that, we become an authoritarian, intolerant society."

While PM Modi asks media to "showcase the skills, strengths and creativity of 125 crore Indians" in his National Press Day tweet, BJP members like Subramanian Swamy disparage young actors such as Deepika Padukone for essaying a mythical character. While PM Modi lionises the rise of social media as a democratic force, online trolling of journalists reaches newer, more menacing depths. The cyber threats translate into real-life consequences, as was seen in the case of Lankesh.

PM Modi's statements are commendable, and much needed. But is it too much to expect that his government in the Centre and BJP regimes in various Indian states pay heed to his pearls of wisdom? Wouldn't they be proved empty if there's no walking the talk?

Also read: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati is full of historical mistakes - and he must admit it

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