The four-pronged strategy of fascist regimes is to throttle, denigrate, manipulate or co-opt anyone who is a dissenting voice, exposes the truth, seemingly a threat or is just pliable enough to toe their line and subscribe to their subversive ideology. On all these counts the ‘Sanghis’ of India seem to be winning spree.
June 5 was being observed as ‘Environment Day’, all across the globe. In India however, the ‘environment’ for the freedom of speech and expression was anything but healthy. On that day, The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) carried out raids at the residence of NDTV founder Prannoy Roy in New Delhi and in Dehradun for allegedly causing loss to a private bank. The CBI apparently registered a case against Roy, his wife Radhika and RRPR Holdings for allegedly causing a loss of Rs. 48 crore to ICICI Bank; however a significant section of India’s intelligentsia, media, civil and concerned society were not buying the allegations of the CBI. There were outpourings of protests from several across the globe. The Government was rightly criticized for witch-hunting and throttling the freedom of the press.
One needs to look into the track-record of NDTV to understand why these raids took place. Unlike most media in India, NDTV has been fairly critical of Narendra Modi and of various policies of his Government these past three years. Ravish Kumar their well-known TV anchor in Hindi has taken strong stands. Last year the government banned NDTV India, the network’s Hindi channel, for a day on the grounds that it had aired sensitive information about a key military operation. Several protested these ban with an “I Am Ravish Kumar” campaign. A few days before the recent raids their popular news anchor Nidhi Razdan had a verbal- spat with Sambit Patra (the national spokesperson of the BJP) and she asked him to leave her show for his accusation that NDTV had an agenda. This was all on air and it went viral on social media.
The action on NDTV clearly exposes the Government and how it has systematically tried not only to erode but also to destroy Article 19 of the Constitution of India which guarantees to every citizen of India the fundamental right to freedom of speech and of expression. Very significantly, this very same right is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “ everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
In its defence, the NDTV emphatically stated, “ It is shocking that the CBI conducted searches on the NDTV offices and residence of the promoters without even conducting a preliminary enquiry. This is a blatant political attack on the freedom of the press as sources confirm that under pressure, the CBI has been compelled to file an FIR based on a shoddy complaint by a disgruntled former consultant at NDTV called Sanjay Dutt, who has been making false allegations and filing cases in courts of law with these false allegations. So far, he has not obtained a single order from any of these courts….. No matter how much the politicians attack us - We will not give up the fight for freedom and the independence of media in India”.
This is not just a one-off example or an aberration. In the last three years, most of Indian media has either been corporatized by powerful vested interests who have a nexus with the Government or have simply been coopted. Today there are hardly any healthy debates with penetrative, perceptive analytical editorials and op-eds There are plenty of examples showing how the media has simply toed the Government line or are just too frightened to stand up for justice and truth. There are certainly those government-cronies who shout and rant and claim to be ‘republic’ spewing hate and venom; lies and myths!
The recently released ‘World Press Freedom Index 2017’ ranks India a measly 136 out of 180 countries stating, “ with Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media. Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals. Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment. No journalist has so far been convicted of sedition but the threat encourages self-censorship”.
The way right-wing fundamentalists have gone on attacking and even killing people for what they say or read, eat or wear – with impunity and with blatant immunity –, is a call for a reality check from all those who cherish and value the rights and freedoms which have been guaranteed in the Constitution.
Pope Francis has been consistent in wanting the Catholic Church to be more visible and vocal in taking sides with the poor and the marginalised, and for making efforts to preserve and promote the values enshrined in the Gospel. So when the Bishops of Kerala hobnobbed recently with Modi’s right-hand man Amit Shah (the BJP President) it sends out very wrong signals; more so, when what transpired at the meeting is not made public. Did the Bishops tell him that the BJP and the current Government should not destroy what is sacrosanct in the Constitution? Did they take up issues of freedom of speech? Or the rights of the dalits and the adivasis? Or of the suicides of farmers? Or the way the environment is being destroyed in India?
It is important that a cue is taken from Pope Francis who in ‘Evangelli Gaudium’, says, “ Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle while others have to make do as they can. Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority. The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised ” .
The Catholic Church recently (May 21st) observed World Communication Day, Pope Francis in a message for the day said, “I would like to encourage everyone to engage in constructive forms of communication that reject prejudice towards others and foster a culture of encounter, helping all of us to view the world around us with realism and trust. I am convinced that we have to break the vicious circle of anxiety and stem the spiral of fear” Truly an important message for Catholics engaged with the media in India today.
Freedom of speech and expression which needs to hold its rulers accountable, freely and fearlessly, is undoubtedly the pillar of a truly vibrant and participative democracy. For we the people of India, our choice is clear: to protect and preserve our fundamental rights and when someone is throttled, denigrated, manipulated or co-opted, when values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised!
(The writer is a human rights activist. He is currently based in Lebanon, with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East, on advocacy and communications. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )#(Published on 12th June 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 24)