There is an anecdote about Ram Nath Goenka, the founder of The Indian Express and a crusader against corruption. Once a Chief Minister told him about a journalist with the newspaper,‘Your reporter is doing a good job’. Back in the office, the newspaper baron is said to have sacked the reporter. He believed that a praise from the government is bad; criticism from the government should be the badge of honour for a journalist. Goenka, a staunch supporter of the freedom of Press, might be turning in his grave seeing the predicament of journalists who are falsely implicated for doing their job.
The situation across the country is bad; it is worse in the Hindi heartland, especially in Uttar Pradesh where journalists are hounded like criminals. A couple of weeks back, in Mirzapur district, Pawan Jaiswal was booked for criminal conspiracy. His ‘crime’ was that he exposed a primary school which was serving ‘roti and salt’ in its mid-day meal to children. In another instance, Azamgarh police arrested a scribe working with a Hindi daily after he clicked photographs of children mopping the floor of their school. In Bijnor, five journalists were booked for ‘promoting enmity’ after they reported that a Dalit family had put its ‘house on sale’ after being denied water from a village hand pump. A video journalist in Mirzapur, who had filmed an altercation between a group of people and policemen, was slapped with charges of rioting and was confined to a police station overnight.Hence, it is not without reason that India finds itself in the 140th slot among 180 countries in the list of press freedom.
Journalists who criticise those in power for their wrong doings are in danger. This is especially true of those working for vernacular media; in the English media also,there are exceptions who are at the receiving end of the government. It is not journalism if scribes are allowed only to sing paeans to those in power. Praising the works of the government wearing blindfolds is publicity, and not journalism. But the government thinks otherwise. A recent announcement in Jharkhand, which is going to polls soon, says that the government will pay Rs. 15,000 each to journalists whose reports on the achievements of the government are selected for publication.
It is disheartening to see the mute and mild response from journalists’ unions, the Editors Guild of India and the Press Council to the attacks on scribes. Even the political parties do not seem enthusiastic to question the misdemeanors of the authorities on this count. The present situation is reminiscent of two earlier occasions when the Press was in chains: the British rule and the Emergency era. Then, groups of poets, writers, activists and artistes had joined hands to protest the efforts to chain the fourth estate. Though undeclared, a similar situation is emerging. It is perhaps time for more platforms to come up so that truth is not crushed.Governments want us to believe that social evils do not exist in themselves, rather they are being produced by the media. Only a free media can defeat this narrative.(Published on 23rd September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 39)