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Interview With Siddharth Varadarajan

Interview With Siddharth Varadarajan

Authorities have criminalised all forms of expressions: Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalists are being attacked/ assaulted in different parts of Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in India for doing their job of exposing corruption or irregularities in the government departments. Despite assurances from those in powers, assaults on journalists continue to happen. Several media bodies like Editors Guild of India or Press Association have taken up such matters with the government but nothing has changed on the ground.

Anju Grover for Indian Currents spoke to senior journalist and Editor of the Wire Siddharth Varadarajan on what lies ahead for media in India. Varadarajan has been vocal on issues pertaining to journalists and their rights. Varadarajan is critical of the UP government for not upholding the Constitutional provisions that guarantees freedom of press.

IC: Assaults on journalists in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country have been increasing day by day. In Mirzapur district, Journalist Pawan Jaiswal was booked for criminal conspiracy by the state police after he exposed a roti-salt “meal” being served under the mid-day meal scheme. In Azamgarh, the district magistrate ordered a probe into the arrest of a journalist allegedly after he took photographs of some children mopping the floor in their school. On September 7, police had booked five journalists in Bijnor after they reported that a Dalit family was prevented from drawing water from a hand pump. Your views.

Siddharth Varadarajan: We have been saying it for some time that media freedom in India is increasingly being compromised.   That's because the state governments are behaving in a lawless way or targeting reporters for doing their job. It is amply clear that neither the UP government nor the Government of India is interested in upholding the Constitutional protection that guarantees freedom of the press. It is high time that the Judiciary took a view on it.

IC: In UP, Journalists are being arrested for exposing poverty or administrative failures or corruption. Such incidents show that these are hard times for journalists as the Yogi Adityanath government is not ready to tolerate any criticism.

The Yogi Adityanath government has emerged as one of the most intolerant state governments as far as media is concerned. But state governments like Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu also have been targeting journalists and it has become very difficult for journalists to do their job in these states as well. The whole purpose of media or independent journalism is that they would expose whatever wrong is happening or ask tough questions to those in power. Cases are being filed against journalists for doing their job. That is nothing but a threat to democracy itself.

IC: Under British rule, cartoons, satirical prose or poetry flourished…It is no longer the case.

I don't think that there is a shortage of good cartoonists or poets these days. The fact is that the authorities have criminalised all forms of expressions. A cartoonist will think ten times before he/she draws some satirical cartoon because it may offend somebody in a government or a police officer may file a case. This has been going on for the last six to seven years beginning with Anshul's case in Maharashtra and another case in West Bengal. If the government take offence to cartoons then cartoonists will think 100 times before they draw biting cartoons. It is applicable on comedians, poets, satirists and other forms of creativity. There is an all-round attack on freedom of expression. The attack on media or journalists is part of it. Every form of free expression can or will be criminalised if police decides that it is inconvenient. It's a crisis as far as free speech is concerned.

IC: Now that journalists and writers, authors and activists are facing the risk of getting hounded by the government for exposing stark ground realities, it is perhaps time for more platforms to come up so that the vital truth is not crushed…Social media has emerged as a tool to expose wrong doings of the governments in power. Few news websites are able to expose scams or irregularities of the governments.

Independent media is the only way to go. At the wire, we chose to be reader-funded because nothing succeeds more easily than the government or police pressurising investors or advertisers. So if you are dependent on investors or advertisers' support for the financial well-being of media then the government will use all kinds of tactics to pressurise. Hence, it was important for us to be funded by ordinary readers. It is ultimately the reader who has to shoulder the burden of holding freedom of the press and supporting Independent media.

IC: How effective are media bodies like Editors Guild of India, Press Association, Press Club of India, Delhi Journalists Union or IWPC? They have been issuing statements or holding protests in support of rights of journalists. They have submitted memorandum to the governments in the past.

They have had a good impact in terms of forcing the government to backtrack on couple of initiatives. But they need to be more vocal and focussed. The courts have to be sympathetic towards the media.   So far, the judiciary has not reacted to the ongoing crisis of freedom of speech and freedom of press with the degree of concern it ought to show.  

IC: How about the role of Press council of India in the current scenario. The PCI came under attack from media bodies after it took a strong stand on the petition filed by Kashmir Times’ Executive Editor Anuradha Bhasin in the top court. Do you think that the PCI has become a defunct body?

The Press Council of India's intervention in the Kashmir matter to support the government's restrictions cannot be appreciated. The PCI resolution stating that the body “stands for freedom of the press, keeping in mind the interest of the nation” is dangerous.

IC: Will you suggest a media council to replace Press Council of India as that would cater to not just print but electronic as well. Will it be more effective?

There is no point rebranding Press Council as media council. That's because it will essentially become an instrument of control in the hands of the government. It is better to have lesser number of such bodies so that there is less control on media. There is no need to have any regular body like PCI as Media in India is self-regulated.

(Published on 23rd September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 39)