Even before the last of the guests at the Modi2024 extravaganza had been ceremoniously seen off, the ugly realities of our collective life began kicking in. A Chief Justice of India-led bench of the Supreme Court found itself having to consider the quantum of relief it could provide against harassment and coercion to the Editors Guild of India, the premier forum of professional journalists in India. A most consequential opportunity to roll back the gathering tide against a free media and, by extension, against the practices and protocols of democracy provided for in the Constitution of India.
The apex court was called upon to decide whether a bunch of FIRs filed in Manipur against the Guild should be quashed. Criminal proceedings were sought to be initiated against the Guild for sending an inquiry team and publishing a report on how (in)adequately the media had performed in reporting the ethnic conflict in Manipur. This attempted coercion was unprecedented. In the past, individual reporters have been subjected to harassment, mostly by right-wing partisans who slap frivolous cases on journalists and newspapers – and, in these times of extreme partisanship the police and the judiciary at the local level have been all too eager to be a complicit in these rites of intimidation and coercion. But it was the first time that a professional organisation was sought to be prosecuted for expressing an opinion on the lack of professionalism by the media fraternity in Manipur. A defining moment.
Let us step back a bit. In early 1981, Gujarat got engulfed in a vicious caste war, in which the Dalits found themselves at the receiving end from savarna groups. There were charges of bias and distortions in the Gujarati press – a media that was controlled almost entirely by the upper caste journalists and owners. The Editors’ Guild of India, in its collective professional wisdom, decided that the facts needed to be investigated and ascertained. A four-member team, consisting of B.G. Verghese, Inder Malhotra, Mahendra Desai and K. Narendra, visited Gujarat and produced a professional analysis, cogently titled A Mirror Cracked. The report concluded that “the Gujarati media took sides and published unverified reports in poster headlines, adding fuel to the fires. Perspective was lost.” And, as Verghese recalled, in his book, First Draft: “The Guild team hoped that the Gujarati press would look inwards and institute corrective measures. Regrettably, the same weaknesses were to show up, in an even worse form, in 2002.”
Sections of the Gujarati press were obviously not pleased with the Guild’s report and expressed their dissent. But there were no attempts to visit vengeance upon the team members or the Guild. No FIRs were filed; the chief minister did not hold a press conference to denounce the Guild and its members. It remained a conversation within the journalistic fraternity.
This was an earnest effort by a professional body of journalists to try to initiate introspection among the entire journalistic fraternity, not just in Gujarat. As the country entered the decades of armed contestations, reporting from conflict zones became complex and hazardous. It was vitally important that the media, both as a democratic institution and as a modern professional organisation, should try to prescribe good practices and proscribe not so healthy ones. And that remains a work in progress. Ask any police or army officer who has done a spot of duty in a conflict zone and they will have a litany of complaints and suggestions on how the media should do its job. As will those who are critical of the way the security forces operate.
The democratisation of the media has been triggered exponentially by revolutionary enhancements in technologies of information; there is a virtual chaos, with a million mobile handlers churning out distortion and disparagement. There are no standards; nothing is considered sacred, nothing profane. It is a state of nature, everyone is at war with everyone, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes. And, when ethnic groups declare war on one another, the notions of media objectivity and professional neutrality are the first casualty.
For months, Manipur has tragically willed itself into a self-feeding cycle of violence. The agencies of state and governance in New Delhi and Imphal have overplayed the hand of majoritarian viciousness. The media in Manipur, too, succumbed to this game of ethnic antagonism.
After an extensive internal conversation, the Guild decided to send a three-member team to Manipur. The overwhelming majority of the editors in the Guild belong to the “mainland” and none has any fish to fry in the Manipur ethnic fires. It is in this context that the Editors Guild wages a lone, and perhaps a losing, battle to remind media professionals of norms and ethics. To restore a semblance of order. The very instrument of an inquiry team is anchored in the journalist’s sacred obligations—of public duty to inform and educate readers and citizens. For this, the Guild and its team members are being harassed and prosecuted.
Also read: Normalising the Death of a Free Press
Another kind of professional challenge is posed by the INDIA alliance’s totally misconceived ‘boycott’ decision against some TV anchors and news channels. Opposition parties feel they have more than a legitimate cause to believe that some sections of the media, mainly electronic, are consistently unfair to them and that these offending channels and anchors are guided by considerations other than professional norms. It is generally agreed that the Indian media seems to have surrendered its most-cherished duty to “speak truth to power.” Most journalists have lost their professional sure-footedness and intellectual elan.
Recently an anchor, newly inducted in the India Today group, was humiliated openly by a Union minister who raked up the controversial journalist’s criminal past; this was breath-taking audacity. None of the other senior editors witness to this intimidation had the moral courage to protest the minister’s outrageous bullying. Yet, when the same anchor is ‘black-listed’ by the INDIA, his fellow-editors express disapproval and rightly so.
There is no authoritative forum of appeal which an aggrieved citizen or group or political party can approach with a complaint against this or that journalist. Many of these are even beyond the reach of “name and shame” ministrations. Such “media professionals” end up doing grave harm to the protocols of a level playing field. This has terrible consequences for society and our collective morals and manners. No political party or leader can coerce a newspaper or channel to be fair. The only remedy lies in invocation of moral suasion. A society that no longer subscribes to some minimal notions of fair play can aspire neither to greatness nor civilisational nobility, notwithstanding the heralding of a faux Amrit Kaal.
Harish Khare is a former editor-in-chief of The Tribune.