By Bikash Sarmah
The answer in a democracy is obviously ‘yes’, theoretically. But this prompts another question: are we really a functioning democracy? Many erudite democracy alysts have already concluded that we have de-mutated into a classic ba republic masquerading as a rapidly evolving democracy. If this is so, and it seems to be so in view of what we are confronted with in the real world, the media cannot be free. Yes, it is of course free to the extent that it often runs stories very inconvenient to the powers-that-be, but even here it is more an exception than a rule.
Now, what is intellectual or jourlistic freedom? When one has the space to think and write undeterred, without of course being sacrilegious or vulgar or dangerously provocative or anti-tiol, and when on the ground one can operate so as to dig out truths without being obstructed in any way, it is that freedom. Do we really have it? Yes, we seemingly do. But what if the right to disagree or the agree-to-disagree doctrine is trampled upon, overtly or covertly, as it has been happening so often? Our intellectual or jourlistic freedom is not lost, but crushed in that case. This bitter fact of life in Indian democracy militates against the very tenet of democracy whose trumpet our politicians and the disparate crowd of hypocrites blow so boisterously.
A few days ago, in a horrendous incident, Shahjahanpur-based jourlist Jagendra Singh in Uttar Pradesh was set on fire by a group of policemen for the ‘crime’ of writing against UP Minister for Dairy Development Ram Murti Verma on the social media. ‘‘Why did they have to burn me? If the minister and his goons had a grudge, they could have beaten me instead of pouring kerosene and burning me,’’ he told the magistrate recording his fil statement. And yet many of us pompously boast of a free and robust media in a rapidly evolving democracy!
Two pertinent questions arise here. One, the minister concerned being reportedly very influential, what message goes out? It is that an investigative scribe bent on revealing inconvenient truths vis-à-vis influential politicians and others and coming to the aid of a faltering democracy must take his steps backward. Else he will face the music, even death. Two, what and whose freedom do we talk about? It is in fact the freedom of influential politicians, especially in the government, to use the khaki — meant for the security of commoners like Jagendra — to intimidate those in the media not to utter a single word against them. In other words, the state machinery is used freely to gag those in the media who are upright, investigative and on their dogged way to reveal truths. Are we still a democracy then?
Many would say the case of Jagendra is an exception. It is not. Investigative scribes have always borne the brunt. Now the theory would go that this is tural, given that the politician being investigated will obviously use all his power to stop the scribe by hook or by crook. Fine, but if this is tural, should not in a democracy the state machinery rather come to the aid of the scribe because what the scribe is doing is rescuing democracy that we otherwise are so boastful of?
Jagendra’s case is also not an exception because in the Northeast, infamous for graft of all sorts and myriad theatres of insurgency-turned-terrorism, many in the media have been intimidated; in fact some have been elimited. The state machinery has failed them either by choice or callousness. Press freedom in such all-important cases — with great ramifications for society — is a myth then. There are reports of scribes getting threatening calls. Editors are a very soft target. The sense of insecurity is palpable. And yet nothing much happens because for many in the government it is press freedom that cripples them, and so covert sanction — of course violent mostly — must be imposed on it. As for our self-styled revolutiories masquerading as insurgents but who in reality are sheer terrorists or hardened crimils, the media is good as long as it champions ‘revolutiory’ causes but turns bad and must be threatened if it tries to alyse such ‘revolutions’ and comes up with critiques. The fact of the matter is that in a conflict zone that the Northeast is, the notion of freedom of press is mostly theoretical. It is another matter that some intrepid jourlists and columnists have overcome such overt or covert sanctions on the freedom of press and written boldly and sensibly. This should happen more and more.
The other dimension of the notion of freedom of press is about the saleability of the press itself! Be it the paid news phenomenon or the propensity of some scribes, including some editors too, to serve the ‘cause’ of influential politicians or corporate houses or individuals with tremendous money power, press freedom is a classic utopia. Instances galore of some scribes acting as trusted lieutents of the moneyed class. Some would say since scribes in general, especially in the regiol or vercular media, suffer from extremely low and humiliating salary in comparison to what people get in other sectors, it is tural for them to get tempted to inch towards earning from extra sources, no matter how badly press freedom is compromised. But, then, some among even those enjoying mind-boggling salary in the metropolitan media choose to take resort in the lap of unscrupulous persons with money power, be they politicians or whoever. Hell with press freedom, such scribes would say, as they mint money through their unsavoury links.
Press is called the fourth pillar of democracy, after the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. In other words, the structure of democracy rests on these four pillars. turally, if one of the pillars starts cracking and crumbles eventually, the structure too does so. Which is to say that if the media is not free (by choice as is the case with paid news and scribe-politicians-others nexus) or not allowed to be free (by coercion as is the case with violence unleashed on it, the Jagendra Singh case being just one instance), democracy cannot function, however well-functioning be the other three pillars.
Unfortutely, in the case of Indian democracy, two more pillars have degenerated — the legislature and the executive, given the horde with horrific crimil backgrounds who have entered the democracy’s sanctum and vitiated it. In other words, just one pillar — the judiciary — is in shape. Since there is no likelihood of redemption of the legislature and the executive, at least the two other pillars should bear the load of the structure as far as possible. The media, therefore, ought to be free and demand freedom so that this democracy does not collapse. Or is it just another silly hope?
(The writer is a former Editor of The Sentinel, Guwahati and an independent researcher on convergent media.. He can be reached at email@example.com)