Few questions have been as passionately debated in global newsrooms and coffee houses as this one: Is media free from external and internal controls? A question that hardly lends itself to easy answers. Conversely, it’s less difficult to argue that the idea of free media has never really gone unchallenged in the world.
With time, the contours of these challenges have shifted, their forms appearing equally subtle and sinister at the same time.
However, it’s easily argued that media today is under more and more attack in a world awash with technological innovations leveraged by couriers of information as well as those desiring to control the irrepressible leaks. If organisational restructuring has turned into a fetter on the fourth estate’s autonomy, the attacks mounted by the state and the political establishment, are no less ominous.
The resultant conflict among information explosion, insurgent social media, citizen journalists and a paranoid state, is impossible to dismiss. Of late, worrying signals further testifying to such a trend, have come from our top political leadership.
Inaugurating the National Media Centre, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has recently cautioned the media. A “spirit of inquiry”, Singh said, should not “morph into a campaign of calumny”. Media should be careful that “a witch-hunt” did not become a “substitute for investigative journalism”.
His party president Sonia Gandhi said that while media should highlight the shortcomings of a government, at the same time “the government and the media have a share in disseminating the programmes, policies, decisions and information.” Do we hear a veiled admonishment that media is not doing enough of a ‘positive campaign’ ? But is that not the mandate of a party mouthpiece and not of autonomous media?
Earlier, the country’s Information and Broadcasting minister Manish Tewari, trotted out a bizarre proposal to be only be read as the government’s growing uneasiness with the media revelations around scams, at the heart of which are political bigwigs. The minister proposed an examination on qualifying which journalists would be given licences to practise journalism.
One can’t but ask Tewari why he is not proposing such lofty standards for his peers infamous for making outrageously ignorant statements. Should politicians too not pass mandatory examinations in basic disciplines like political science, history, economics, gender studies?
Such schooling, one can only hope, might put an end to their terrible utterances each time they are under pressure to speak on sexual violence. Besides, the oft-repeated argument that elections are politicians’ litmus test can equally be countered by the argument that journalists too learn their trade on the job.
May we remind Manish Tewari that England, until 1694, had an elaborate system of media licensing. Government license was mandatory for every publication.
During the civil war, John Milton in his pamphlet Areopagitica, argued against this government censorship, parodying the idea. “When as debtors and delinquents may walk abroad without a keeper, but unoffensive books must not stir forth without a visible jailer in their title.”
Although the practice of licensing continued, Milton’s critique came to be viewed later as one of the most eloquent defenses of media freedom.
Paranoia and anxiety are as integral to the modern world as are information and media. Their connection is intimate; one spawning the other, one nurturing the other.
Official gatekeepers, much to their exasperation, are discovering that information has a way of sneaking into the public domain. Such leaks are ‘dangerous’ in their sheer unpredictability and the multiple conduits which carry such information. Confrontations today are on the rise between media and government.
In the West, journalists are on a collision course with the state. On the heels of the turmoil triggered by the revelation of massive state surveillance networks in the US and UK, David Miranda, partner of The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was recently detained by the Metropolitan police at the London airport for nine hours.
Greenwald hogged headlines after running stories about the US intelligence agencies based on material leaked by the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In an open letter to David Cameron, the editors of Denmark’s Politiken, Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter, Norway’s Aftenposten and Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat have said, “It is deeply disturbing that the police have now announced a criminal investigation”, adding that “the implication of these acts may have ramifications far beyond the borders of the UK, undermining the position of the free press throughout the world”.
In India, too, the political classes are groping for covert and overt means of control. Governments have repeatedly misused Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, prescribing punishment for “sending offensive messages through communication service, etc”. In Mumbai two girls were arrested for posting a comment on Facebook questioning the shutdown of the city following Bal Thackeray’s death.
Similarly Sanjay Chaudhary was arrested for posting ‘objectionable comments and caricatures’ of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh , professor Ambikesh Mahapatra for his political cartoon about Mamata Banerjee, businessman Ravi Srinivasan for an allegedly defamatory tweet against the son of Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Aseem Trivedi for drawing cartoons lampooning Parliament and the Constitution.
The question is not merely of media freedom — but also of freedom of expression. Paradoxically, the self-proclaimed worshippers of modern, upscale technology, are now finding that very technology to be their nemesis. It hardly needs any reminding that few instruments of power can be as effective as information.
In the recent years we have seen the lid being blown off on massive scams — revealing corporate as well as political sleight of hand. For the first time the son-in-law of India’s first family is being openly interrogated for his alleged involvement in fraud land deals. Information is changing the way politics and policies have been negotiated so far.
The interrogation has begun. And those in the dock fear not being able to stem the flood of information.
The author is National Editor, dna of thought.