Press freedom has become a subject of national debate these days due to the sudden rise in attacks on media in India. Journalists’ bodies have slammed the attacks on the media and even recently took to the streets to condemn the recent spate of killing, threats and violence directed at the press. The most worrying thing is the rise in threats to journalists on the social media. Also journalists living in small towns are being threatened, assaulted or killed for writing against the rich and powerful.
The Golden jubilee celebration of the Press Council of India on Nov 16 on the occasion of National Press day brought a spotlight on issue of press freedom. Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu has warned that businessmen and politicians getting into media and distorting facts to further their interest has become a threat to free and fair press in India. He however urged the media to stay away from paid news making credibility a casualty in pursuit to sensationalise news.
Anju Grover for Indian Currents spoke with senior journalist M K Venu, one of the founding editors of the news website The Wire, about the state of media affairs in the country. The Wire is credited with several important stories including a report which stated that the turnover of a company owned by (Amit) Shah’s son increased 16,000 times in the year following the election of Narendra Modi. In October, the website was debarred by an Ahmedabad court from publishing any further report on BJP president Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah’s business turnover “so that the right to live with dignity of the plaintiff (Jay) may be protected”.
IC: What are your views on the freedom of press in India in the wake of recent assaults on journalists in India?
M K Venu: Every government tries to muzzle media. It is a natural tendency of any government or state to curb media freedom because media is trying to expose the wrongdoings. It is a well-known fact that the governments in the past, have tried to curb media freedom. Be it the Indira Gandhi's government or the NDA I government, all of them have done the same. Hence, the Modi government is merely doing a repeat of the history. Rajasthan Patrika, one of the leading Hindi dailies of Rajasthan, published a blank editorial page on the National Press Day to mark the protest against the draconian law which the Rajasthan government is trying to bring. I think it is the most absurd law brought out by any state government. The BJP government in Rajasthan did it, but the BJP government at Centre remained silent on it. Being in power for four years, this government is slowly coming under pressure for its non-performance and mess up in governance, etc.
This government has managed to create a psychology of fear among the media that if they try to do anti-government writings, then they will face consequences. These consequences could be of various forms including withdrawal of government advertisements. NDTV case and several other cases are examples before us. Journalists’ bodies have protested against such tactics.
The new thing under the current regime is that certain friendly big corporates or businessmen close to the government are filing defamation suits against the media. However, there is a demand from several journalists and activists that India should de-criminalise defamation as cases can be filed against media persons on frivolous grounds. So these are certain constraints under which media has to work now.
I would also blame the media for buckling even before challenging the government. What possible explanation can be given when news-reports on the wealth of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah, were taken down within 24 hours few months ago. If you can't report official data, then what kind of journalism are people doing these days?
IC: Prime Minister Modi recently said that freedom should not be misused by media. He also advised the press to focus more on social and environmental issues. Your comments.
I think PM does not want media to speak truth. The government has no moral right to tell media what to do. Media knows what it should do and at least a section of Media is doing its job. Historically, the state and media always had adversarial relations. We are not running a PR agency. In democracy, there is always a tension between the government and free media.
As regard to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest advice that media should cross check facts, I would say that media in the last three and a half years have spent half of the energy in cross checking facts of PM on various economic issues, welfare schemes and big claims of his government. Journalism itself is fact checking.
IC: In Chhattisgarh, journalists are living in constant fear of being jailed, killed... In Rajasthan, the state government came up with criminal law that seeks to protect public servants and judges from prosecution and barred media from reporting on allegations against them without prior sanction. In both states, the BJP is in power. Do you think that media is under major threat under BJP run governments only?
It happened under the Congress regime as well. But under the current regime, it is happening in a different way. No state governments ever came up with any draconian law like the Rajasthan government. Former Union minister in the Vajpayee government and former journalist Arun Shourie recently said that this government seems to be implementing a low intensity and decentralising emergency. What the state government is trying to do is what the Centre used to do earlier.
IC: The murders of Gauri Lankesh and Tripura based Shantanu Bhowmick and the arrest of Vinod Verma in extortion case have come as a shock to the journalists across the board. Press bodies like the Press Club of India, Indian Women Press Corps and Editors Guild of India held protests against these incidents. Do you think it was enough?
The Press Club has organised several protests on such issues and some of them had an all India impact. But I am disappointed with the traditional bodies like Editors Guild of India which were not hard on the government on various counts. These bodies were far more vocal in the past than they are now. Of course, they are issuing statements but that is not enough. There is a general feeling among the journalists that these statements are somewhat mild. There is a sense of disappointment among journalists on that point also.
IC: Is it a matter of concern that journalists are being threatened on the social media?
Yes, it concerns me. The fact is that nature of journalism is also changing. The organised media (traditional newspapers) is in decline in terms of economic viability. It is being replaced by smaller internet based organisations. Individuals are writing blogs, using whatsapp and other social media platforms as a means to disseminate news and opinions. Interestingly, it is internet based media rather than traditional newspapers and TV channels, which are exposing the government by doing good stories. So, smaller organisations need protection. The biggest threat is civil-criminal defamation which The Wire is also facing. I think, we should have a legal fund and journalists should contribute to fight such cases. My suggestion was accepted by the Press club and it is being taken forward by the office bearers of the Club. There should be a body which will have lawyers on the panel to help journalists working especially in small towns or far flung areas like Chhattisgarh, MP, UP where there is more threat to media persons. So legal help is one area where a body of professional media people are moving forward.(Published on 20th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 47)