The arrest (now released on bail) of Tamil Nadu cartoonist G. Bala under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act and Section 501 of the Indian Penal Code for showing the state Chief Minister in "bad light" reflects the emergence of a new kind of atmosphere of suppressing the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Bala's case has come a few years after the arrest of controversial cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in Mumbai on September 9, 2012, on charges of sedition related to the content of his work which mainly focused on exposing corruption.
In Bala’s case, it was the district administration which acted against him for lampooning the state government for its failure to prevent farmers’ suicides, but the situation is not comforting at the national level too. There is the prominent case of NDTV which has been made to suffer for its policy of remaining adversary to the administration at the national level or functioning independently, not dancing to the tunes of the government of the day.
But before having a look at what happened in the case of NDTV, let us focus on Bala’s case first. He had tried to highlight through his cartoon the plight of a farmer family in Tami Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, exposing the inaction of the Chief Minister and his government for their inability to prevent the labourer's family from committing suicide. The cartoon also shed light on the failure of the district collector in saving the poor family from harassment by loan sharks. The collector did not agree with Bala's viewpoint and brought the matter to the notice of the state’s Chief Secretary leading to the condemnable action against the cartoonist.
Bala committed no crime by putting his cartoon on his Facebook page. He exercised only his constitutional right to express his views, though uncomfortable, on the functioning of the administration. The district collector, however, got furious at this, asserting that he recognised the right to criticise, but one must understand that there are "limits to creativity". Who has to decide the “limits”? The district collector or the Chief Secretary or a court of law? Silencing a critic of the administration by misusing official powers by a government functionary in a democracy can never be justified. It is a clear case of denial of the constitutional freedom of expression – the right to express one's thoughts freely, fearlessly and without favouring any individual or institution.
Now the NDTV case: The CBI swung into action against the media company’s promoters making certain corruption-related allegations against it at a time when NDTV had come to be known as the only major news channel which highlighted the failures of the government on various fronts. The investigation agency has claimed that the raids were conducted only at the premises of the company’s promoters, which should not be construed as action against media as such. The fact, however, remains that the CBI raids on the NDTV premises came when it was perhaps the only news channel which focused on the weaknesses of the government. Here the conclusion that can be drawn is that the NDTV establishment was punished for trying to be fiercely independent.
This led to many senior journalists coming down heavily on the NDA government. Prannoy Roy, one of the NDTV owners, told The Washington Post, "In American media, it is considered patriotic to question and make the government accountable; here to be patriotic is to just agree with everything the government says."
His observation told a lot about the state of affairs in India with regard to the media today. The government would, of course, always wish the media to shower praise on its functioning. The government has also been favouring some media organizations obviously owing to their cooperative policies. It has rarely been seen when most of the newspapers and news channels avoid criticizing the government even when it is required. Most of the media organisations, particularly news channels, have, unfortunately, been taking pride in singing paeans for the government obviously with a view to seeking official favour. This is a sad commentary on the functioning of the media today, but who bothers when making money is the primary motive of today’s media, including the newspapers. Such a depressing scenario has never been witnessed in the history of Indian journalism except for the black 19 months when the infamous national emergency was declared on June 25, 1975.
There may be two primary reasons for the news media coming down to this level: either there is widespread fear of the government’s vindictive attitude or there is little difference between the agenda of the government and those running media companies. Whatever the truth, this is the time for soul searching so that the respect the Indian media enjoys at the world stage does not become a thing of the past.
It appears that there is a race for being more loyal to the government than others to ensure that the media organisation which indulges in playing this game will be a major gainer. That this kind of behaviour will affect credibility is not the concern of newspapers and news channels. A media organisation feels comfortable so long as it gets the maximum advertising support from the government. In such a scenario, it is not surprising that being the media adviser of the Prime Minister or a Chief Minister is considered a big achievement for a journalist!
The media scenario in the country has become so pathetic that no one these days talks of yellow journalism as if the problem has come to an end. It is very much there which could be seen when newspapers and news channels gave undue prominence to any development related to Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of the Sirsa 'dera' fame, now in jail. Even his controversial adopted daughter, Honeypreet, got almost similar treatment.
Trivialisation of news and debates on various issues by TV channels has contributed a lot to the electronic media, in particular, having become a laughing stock. This combined with their public image of most channels and newspapers functioning like mouthpieces of the government, has led to the people calling the media as being sold out to the government (Sab bikey huay hain).
In such an atmosphere, the government is bound to feel emboldened to suppress the voice of any media organisation or professional showing courage to criticise the official viewpoint on any issue or development. The media too is equally to blame for the pitiable situation being witnessed today. But the government cannot escape its responsibility of letting this significant pillar of the edifice of democracy function freely and fearlessly. Any step taken to weaken the institution of mass media, including the press, will amount to ultimately working against the interests of the world's largest democracy.
(The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.)(Published on 13th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 46)