Our media is not officially muzzled. But the spirit of dissent is being hollowed out bit by bit.
At the end of Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, former New York Times investigative reporter James Risen wrote: “[This book] is my answer to how best to challenge the government’s draconian efforts to crack down on aggressive reporting and suppress the truth in the name of ceaseless war.” Risen, whose reputation as an intrepid reporter travels far and wide, was persecuted by both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Referring to this constant battle, he goes on to say: “My answer is to keep writing, because I believe that if journalists ever stop uncovering abuses of power, and ever stop publishing stories about those abuses, we will lose our democracy.”
These words acquire a distinct resonance in the contemporary Indian media world. We think of Risen’s advice as we grapple with different kinds of censorship virtually every day – some thinly-veiled, others blatant – imposed sometimes by the ruling party and sometimes by other powerful institutions.
Only last month, a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Mumbai, hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, asked the media not to report its proceedings. Endorsing one of the defence lawyers’ plea for a “complete ban on print, electronic and social media”, special judge S.J. Sharma said in his order:
“Considering the sensitivity in the matter, likelihood of happening of any untoward incident and likelihood of effect on the trial of this matter, in case of day-to-day publication of evidence that may be brought on record, I am of the view not to allow media to make publication of any of the proceeding during the trial in the matter until further order. It may happen that the publication may create security problem for the accused persons, prosecution witnesses, the defence team and the prosecutor as well. I, therefore, find justification in the request of the defence team of lawyers.”
True, the gag order was not the first in recent weeks, nor did it go uncontested. More than one editorial protested the censorship. The media expressed apprehension over repeated efforts to curb its right to cover stories and report on what is going on around the country. Nonetheless, beneath the protests, a disturbing stillness abides in newsrooms. A stillness symptomatic of times when journalistic deference to power seems to have become the creed of the profession or should we say ‘industry’. Rather than pushing back the sweeping arc of censorship, the media is finding ever new ways to censor itself. Some of this is clumsily done – the taking down of articles from websites, the pushing out of ‘difficult’ editors. This increasing normalisation of self-censorship is perhaps one of most worrisome manifestations of how deeply the media is being co-opted.
Consider in this context the Rajasthan government’s introduction of the Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill this October, which barred the media from reporting accusations of corruption against judges and public servants until the sanctioning authority grants permission for prosecution. This absurd law brought to mind the Bihar Press Bill of 1982. That legislation, which was withdrawn after a year due to public pressure, considered empowering the state government to prevent the publication of “grossly indecent and scurrilous matter or matters” intended to blackmail. The Bill envisaged punishment of up to two years with or without fines for the first offence, and a jail term of up to five years for repeated offences. The Congress’s Jagannath Mishra, the then chief minister and the architect behind the draconian Bill, recently told the Indian Express: “I admit that I should not have brought the Bihar Press Bill”; adding: “I did so to keep then PM Indira Gandhi in good humour.” He also pointed out that Indira Gandhi was upset with media reports talking about differences between herself and Maneka Gandhi. The other motivation for tabling the Bill, the former chief minister said, was to stop two newspapers in Bihar from carrying “spicy and frivolous news”.
Through the 1970s and the 1980s, India had close encounters with an authoritarian prime minister, a string of draconian laws and a series of efforts – often successful – to subvert institutional integrity. When Indira Gandhi proclaimed the Emergency, she also officially gagged the media, alongside suspending the civil liberties and rights of citizens. Treated as a perverse deviation from democracy, the repression sponsored by the Emergency was, however, not normalised as routine. It was seen as abnormal; an aberration.
In 2017, that historic aberration has normalised itself as a present-day norm. Our media is not officially muzzled. Nor are laws preventing free expression being passed at one stroke. But the spirit of dissent is being hollowed out bit by bit through multiple means, most importantly by punishing the defiant and rewarding the pliant. In old Marxist language, we have on our hands today a comprador – not free – media.
Stillness in media is never a good omen for the institution itself. In a recent article, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute writes about the “creeping quiet” he encountered during a recent visit to the country: “There is a creeping quiet spreading across India’s otherwise loud and lively journalism. Front pages, websites, and news programs are brimming with stories, but ‘people are afraid’, one editor told me recently in Delhi. ‘We come under a lot of pressure’ says a journalist from Chennai. ‘I have never experienced anything like this’ is how a veteran reporter from Calcutta put it. They are among the journalists I spoke to on a recent trip to India, all of whom describe how a combination of government pressure, harassment by political activists, commercial actors including both some advertisers and some media owners is exercising a chilling effect on Indian journalism.”
Fighting back against censorship – direct and indirect – requires that news organisations pick up stories and carry exposés published on platforms other than their own. What is unfolding before us is, however, completely contrary to such a spirit of alliance. Any news story that provides severe discomfort to the powers-that-be is studiously ignored by media organisations. The bigger these organisations are, more deafening their silence. But where once such indifference was driven by petty competitive rivalry, today, fear plays a large part in this narrative.
Two complimentary processes are currently at work before our eyes. If gag orders are coming in thick and fast, then fearful media organisations – far too often voluntarily – are confining themselves to ritual protests, without digging deep under the skin of provocative, difficult stories. The more the media backs off from confronting the powerful, the more it debilitates itself and strengthens the culture of censorship.
At the end of the day, the question we are left with is this: when (and from where) will our journalists find the courage to stare power in the face? And will they do so before its too late?