Why Muzzling Of Media Is The New Norm?

by Iqra Shafi   

Recently, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the prime organization involved in analysing and promoting the press freedom scenario globally, presented the 2020 press freedom barometer. The assessment made by RSF is strictly premised upon measures indicative of the freedom of press like pluralism, independence, the safety of journalists and the quality of legal framework in place.

Journalists hold a protest rally against barring of photojournalists from R-Day function on Saturday, January 26, 2019. KL Image by Mehraj Bhat

Of the 180 countries listed in the World Freedom Press Index, India ranks at a low of 142, dropping two places against 2019 (140), four against 2018 (138), six against 2017 (136) and nine against 2016 (133). This comes as no surprise as one doesn’t need to trot out a “posthoc-report” to acquaint himself with something he lives. However, these slipping ranks are alarming as they clearly suggest how the spirit of free journalism is being throttled and smothered.

In a democratic set-up, freedom of speech is fundamental. It is neither the prerogative of the elite or the politician nor the privilege of the commons or the journalist. A lively, bold and free media is the keystone to a democracy. Freedom of the press is of paramount importance as the press is one of the significant interpreters between the subjects and the state. It is considered as the voice of the voiceless, keeps the public informed, provides critical information needed to make thoughtful decisions, acts as a watchdog, thereby, holds leaders and governments accountable. The weakening of press freedom signifies danger as it severely weakens the democratic fabric.

Thomas Jefferson says “The press is the only tocsin of a nation, when it is completely silenced, all means of general effort are taken away”.

From a democratic standpoint, the state of Indian media is deplorable. Ironically, it has turned into a breeding-ground for prejudiced, biased and stifled media, one at the hegemony of vested interests who have robbed it of its very essence. The stranglehold of the government over the media has resulted in the creation of two media factions – one that is now, unfortunately, perceived to have morphed shamelessly into an extension of the State and the other, comprising of those who decide to stand by the truth, or, to put it another way, those whom the state cannot stand!

Publicizing an issue to garner support is imperative when advocating a cause. It is believed that “Publicity is the soul of Justice. Where there is no publicity, there is no justice.” Placing it into context, the constitution in Article 19(1)(a) guarantees the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. Although Article 19(1)(a) does not mention the freedom of the press, the Supreme court in 1972 had held that it is settled law that Article 19 (1)(a) includes the freedom of press and circulation.

Also, Indian courts have repeatedly held that the right to free speech “necessarily includes the right to criticise and dissent.” In another pronounced legal battle in 2015, it was observed that there are three concepts pivotal to the understanding of the reach of Right to freedom of speech and expression, viz, discussion, advocacy and incitement. Advocacy and discussion are at the heart of Article 19 (1)(a), it is only incitement (that leads inexorably to or tends to cause public disorder or affect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation and so on) that can trigger legal action leading to curtailment of such speech or expression.

What needs to be contemplated upon here is: Who should decide, in specific contexts, what advocacy and incitement mean, who should determine the threshold, who should fix the ambits and how?

These “who should and how” questions will never be allowed to surface as long as the “who actually does” paradigm remains unchanged.

On the pretext of national security, charges against individuals holding differing opinions and gutsy journalists have multiplied in the country, intimidating critics of the state has become a routine. People at the helm are leveraging on this concept of incitement, using it as a means to curb and muzzle dissent.

The past decade has seen ever-growing hostility towards fundamental principles and purposes of press freedom, with increasing disdain for honest journalists who serve naked truths on a platter, thereby, disgusting and displeasing those who want to relish self-serving lies. This hostility and disdain have been clearly manifested in the growing attacks, both physical and legal, on media professionals all over the country.

Several brave dissenters like Chhatrapati, Dabholkar, Gauri Lankesh have paid a price of their lives in exchange of exercising the freedom of expression and publicizing truth. On the legal front, there are myriad examples of media professionals like Manjit Mahanta, Kishorechandra Wangkhem, Kamal Shukla, who have been slammed with charges of defamation, sedition and incitement merely because they agree to disagree over certain critical issues or criticize the state.

We are witnessing a role reversal. As opposed to media holding the government accountable, the government is holding the media accountable for their words and actions.

Iqra Shafi

Of late, with journalists like Masrat Zahra, Gowhar Jeelani, Peerzada Ashiq being booked, these attacks are ostensibly coming to a crescendo, clearly suggesting that “these are shushing attempts designed to obfuscate murdered truths.”  The government is capitalizing on an “anti-national branding campaign” that been launched against the journalists who are true to their profession. In the guise of the “anti-national” trite, the authorities are trying to silence every sort of remonstration and dissent.

Be that as it may, there is a genuine reason for concern.

Tailpiece: While penning this essay down, the pictorial maxim of the Three Wise Monkeys embodying the principle of “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” crossed my mind. It is often used to refer to those “dealing with impropriety by turning a blind eye.” Perhaps, that’s what the masters are trying to convey.

Wait… Is it the message or the characteristic of the source?

Shhh….finger on your lips!

(Author is a JRF in Management and is pursuing her Doctorate in Women Technopreneurship at the Department of Management Studies, University of Kashmir. Ideas expressed are personal)


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