When Media Freedom is Threatened, Solidarity in Half-Measures Doesn't Help

For decades, media organisations in the Northeast and Kashmir have been fighting for their right to exist and speak freely, without any support from the national media.

Veteran journalist and former Union minister Arun Shourie’s call for the media to unite and defend press freedoms in the wake of the visibly vindictive Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raids on NDTV, once again brings into focus the malaise that afflicts the fourth estate in India. He was not off the mark in stating that the event at the Press Club of India on June 8, 2017 – organised to highlight the overt harassment of NDTV and its promoters – has brought many in the media together after more than four decades. But while making clarion calls for unity, we need to ask why it took so long for this bonhomie to emerge, and whether this unity is truly inclusive.

In the intervening period between the Emergency and the present phase, the regional, small and marginalised media bore the brunt of both harassment and co-option at the hands of the successive governments in New Delhi and in the states. Unfortunately, the ‘national’ media – which is now feeling the pinch because of the present government’s far more brazen approach towards controlling the narrative – chose over the years to ignore this victimisation and these attempts to muzzle the ‘lesser’ sections of the media.

Many small media organisations of the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century were forced to close down when they did not toe the official line of the rulers irrespective of which political party controlled the reins at the Centre or the states. In Gujarat, Jansatta and the Indian Express offices and printing press buildings were attacked for criticising government policies and reporting on police participation in rioting.

Ananda Bazar Patrika, Amrita Bazar Patrika and the Statesman were repeatedly attacked in the early 1970s, 1980s and 1990s to throttle their criticism of the state government. The attacks on these newspaper offices and journalists have been well documented by the Press Institute.

Even mere criticism, or pointing out flaws in development policies and their implementation, or raising a voice against the destruction of democratic institutions, was met with not only conspiracies against the editors and promoters of newspapers and electronic channels, but also with choking their sources of revenue.

Raids by the police and other law enforcing agencies, besides the income tax department, was the second step, followed by registration of cases against media owners and promoters in an attempt to teach them a lesson.

So what is different now, apart from the fact that influential media houses are feeling the heat? The message earlier from the ruling elite was, “Either you (the media) are with us or you are against us”. The new formula is, “Either you are with us or you are an anti-national”. This is the charge that has been used to raise an iron curtain against criticism from bona fide and credible journalists.

At the Press Club event, veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar said that every generation is taught the lesson of freedom. Nayar’s words are extremely relevant today given the government’s attitude. The moot question is ‘how to face it’ and ‘how to counter it’. The suggestion has been to forge unity and take all stake-holders in the media fraternity on board. But while large chunks of the media willingly want to become tools in the hands of the ruling party to serve their own fudged TRP ratings and other petty interests, even the unity of those daring to oppose remains on a weak wicket.

Media solidarity will remain a bridge too far unless it involves speaking up for smaller media ventures, including media operating in the strife-torn states of the northeast, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir.

The media in Kashmir, for instance, has been operating under difficult and life-threatening conditions since the inception of militancy in 1989. We have seen overt pressure and harassment of media houses and their promoters, particularly the journalists. Media practitioners have been subjected to strong-arm methods by the Central and state governments, besides non-state actors. Newspapers have often been forced to suspend publication during the past 28 years because what they were publishing did not suit the government of the day. Unfortunately, the mainstream media in India did not support the cause of press freedom in Kashmir or any of the conflict areas. In fact, most of the media houses in the country supported the regimes of the day or maintained silence.

At the Press Club, Arun Shourie did mention the Rajasthan Patrika case of harassment by blocking the flow of information and finances. But he ignored the long-standing attempts to gag the media in conflict areas. Sadly, incidents like permanent or temporary curbs on the press in Jammu and Kashmir, intimidation, threats and physical violence by state agencies against working journalists, or their technical staff, did not find an echo in any of speeches at the Press Club that day.

As the editor of a newspaper that has constantly borne the brunt of media-unfriendly governments, I can speak with some authority about the lonely battles for survival that small media organisations in Jammu and Kashmir have been waging. Of course, there are many publications and media organisations which have been similarly targeted.

The Kashmir Times group, with its four publications, became the target of the Central government along with other newspapers seven years ago. In 2010, during the Kashmir summer agitation, the Central government suspended the release of all advertisements to Kashmir Times for the second time in less than six years.

The first time this had happened was in October 2004, when Kashmir Times was facilitating the visit of Pakistani journalists as part of a South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) programme. None of our queries were answered by the government. The only verbal message conveyed to us was that the Ministry of Home Affairs had asked the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to suspend all official advertisements.

In January 2005, on the intervention of the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, the advertisements were restored. Later in 2010, under UPA-II, even the prime minister’s intervention did not help. The then minister of home affairs, P. Chidambaram, was adamant on teaching the media in Kashmir a lesson, which he conveyed to me personally during a meeting which took place on the intervention of the prime minister’s office. Even the lone minister from Jammu and Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad, supported the home ministry’s move.

Before this, the arrest of Kashmir Times Delhi bureau chief Iftikhar Gilani on June 9, 2002, also needs special mention, because this arrest was made to convey a message to the newspaper. After seven months of incarceration, Gilani was released but the cases against him filed by the Income Tax department are still pending disposal in the courts. The only silver lining in 2002 was that younger journalists held protest demonstrations, besides building pressure on the Central government.

After the complete stoppage of advertisements to Kashmir Times and half-a-dozen newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir, pressure was exerted on private advertisers too in an effort to choke all sources of revenue. Besides this, various income tax and criminal cases were registered, but the national media never raised its voice on behalf of the beleaguered newspapers of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Press Council of India (PCI), then headed by Justice Markanday Katju, also did not help beyond issuing notices to the information and broadcasting ministry. Six years after we first complained, nothing has moved on the desks of the PCI, which is supposed to fight injustices meted out to media organisations in the country.

This case is just one of the many examples of how sections of the media have been suffering for a long time and fighting lonely battles.

Under these circumstances, the argument in favour of  standing up unitedly against the present pressure of the media has immense meaning. But as long as unity remains exclusive and not inclusive, it would just be a case of hypocrisy and selective bias. The Press Club meeting gives us hope but it needs to be followed up by taking all stake-holders, including regional and marginalised media practitioners, on board to build a united front for upholding the values of the free press.

Prabodh Jamwal is Editor-in-Chief of the Jammu-based Kashmir Times and all its publications