Are threats to journalistic freedom internal, external or both? Do journalists impose restrictions on themselves?
Journalism is a public good. Once you accept that premise, the two questions posed above fall into frames that point to individual and collective responsibility. Journalism is a skill and like in all skills, some people are more disciplined and rigorous than others. Being able to put pen to paper is a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege that has to be earned every day.
There is a raging national debate about the media most of which is noise intended to take attention away from real issues, which, to my mind, are three. They are — the journalist, the owner and the public responsibility of both to report, debate, inform and in some cases, instruct. I see a spectacular blurring of lines and a real and prepared confusion of interests. Failure to introspect will always lead first to a false ballooning of space with all the trappings of fake fame and outrage followed by a sudden collapse as the bubble bursts. The foundation was false — how can the edifice be strong?
When a journalist is a reporter and not an owner, the internal threats to freedom are perennial. When a reporter is part owner-part reporter, the conversation is layered and the quest for journalistic excellence can be cleverly nuanced as external threat. That can lead to false conversations and fake pursuits. The other external threats in India — official secrecy, 66A etc — does not keep me awake. Technology is a tool — cuts both ways. I have faith in the stamina and capacity of Indian journalists to fight back.
When The Hindu abruptly pulled itself out of the Bofors investigation due to an internal family tussle, as a reporter I was left with no option but to move on. The decade-long investigation and court proceedings in Sweden, Switzerland and India (1987-1997) were not linked to a newspaper’s boardroom.
When Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency (1975) a handful of people including the late Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express fought back. When Rajiv Gandhi attempted a backdoor entry to the 1989 defamation bill to gag the press in the face of mounting Bofors’ evidence and other issues, the press hit back.
I am happy to report that the more it changes, the more it remains the same. Journalists who raise the spectre of the Emergency are responding to private ghosts and fears. The fear of the unknown is what brought us out of caves. The fear of the known is what will keep us in.