National School of Journalism (NSoJ) Bureau, Bangalore: In his recent column in The Hindu, A.S. Paneerselvan wrote: “…some of the cardinal principles that govern journalism: ask questions, provide the context, hold those in power accountable, and provide information that is both comprehensible and comprehensive.”
The muzzling of one of India’s leading news channels under the pretext of national security is a breach of those exact principles, and hints at an ominous nexus between the country’s political milieu and its media.
Even as the reverberations of the ban on NDTV are felt in the media landscape, the state is increasingly treating print and broadcast not as the means for public information but as a mechanism to augment self-interest.
Anyone endorsing the government’s hidden agenda revels in its blasphemy masked as utilitarianism, whereas those contesting the promulgation of a parochial nationalism are ingeniously swept under the rug.
The rhetoric of jingoism is stifling the ‘genuine’ national interest. Opacity is aplenty, and facts are often being bartered for sensationalism.
Clarity is compromised, censorship is being celebrated. A simulacrum of righteousness and responsibility is being extolled at the expense of truth.
The covert use of power by the government is not an aberration but symptomatic of a larger malaise that has been hurting the country’s media for a long time. This is not an indictment of the right wing leadership.
Correcting their stand is a short-term solution. The long-term solution, and that will be more difficult, is to ensure a more articulate government wing that can help the public understand that politics ought to be media’s acquaintance, not its alter-ego.
The history of India is replete with examples where state power has been misused to suffocate the media. The internal Emergency of 1975-1977 imposed by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi is a striking example.
An article in Scroll recalls the repressive times: “The government had sent out ‘guidelines’ that the press had to follow. Number one on the list was ‘Where news is plainly dangerous, newspapers will assist the Chief Press Adviser by suppressing it themselves. Where doubt exists, reference may and should be made to the nearest press adviser.’ Clearly, we had to decide what is ‘dangerous’.”
The time of emergency was a rude awakening for those journalists who wrote fearlessly in pursuit of truth. If clamping down on the content was not enough of an ignominy, the guidelines also instructed “us not to reproduce rumors or anything ‘objectionable’ that had been printed outside India.
Given that only newspapers outside India were reporting what was actually going on in the country, this pretty much foreclosed reporting on anything.”
Such high-handedness to curb the media of the time gave an insight into the frightful consequences if the media were to come in the way of political ambitions.
In the days following the Emergency, the country’s media has steered clear of such arbitrary censorship but there have been sporadic incidents when the freedom of press has been snatched away, often at the behest of politics.
On November 19, 1987, a security guard at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, spotted “ammunition cartridges rolling out over the tarmac from a damaged crate, one in a consignment of 22 that had arrived on an Indian Airlines flight IC 452 from Kabul.”
In an incisive copy titled Known Unknowns: India’s compromised national security beat, Praveen Donthi writes: “While airport personnel argued over who should get credit for the seizure, a man in mufti appeared and identified himself as a Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) operative. Before the munitions could be properly inventoried, he confiscated the crates, claiming they were government property.”
Journalist Dhiren Bhagat broke the story on April 24, 1988, in Bombay’s Indian Post and the London Observer. Seeking an explanation, Bhagat contacted the cabinet secretary, BG Deshmukh, to whom R&AW reported. Deshmukh said he could neither confirm nor deny R&AW’s involvement.
The Khalistan insurgency in Punjab was at its peak at that time, and when the cabinet secretary refused to comment, Bhagat speculated that the smuggled arms had been destined for Punjab. Given the timely nature of his report, and gravity of the situation, Bhagat expected his story to kick a storm in national press.
To his surprise, none of the newspapers carried it. No questions were asked in Parliament.
The Times of India and the Indian Express reportedly did not touch the story, and other newspapers “discussed the incident, but decided not to pursue it on the grounds of ‘national interest’.”
The interest of the nation has become a nervous tic which agitats itself every time prying nibbles on its edges. Nationalism and self-seeking motives rear their heads in the campaign for establishment approval. Debate is discouraged, dissent quashed.
The media today are being sucked into the seductive authoritarian shades and are falling prey to a covert form of censorship where fissures run beneath the watertight scaffold.
Media will have to co-exist with politics. The predicament then is not the mingling of two disciplines but the ease and regularity with which it is happening.