Forty years ago on June 25, 1975, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency on the country. One of her first steps during this suspension of democracy was to enforce strict censorship on the press. With defiant expectations, much of the press caved in quickly to the new rules, prompting LK Advani, one of the founding members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who was jailed during the emergency, to comment later: “You were merely asked to bend, but you chose to crawl”.
How did India deal with the Emergency? They fell silent, and later, they fell in line, nobody spoke.
Today forty years later, India is the largest democracy in the world, the press is free to write what they wish and government censorship is a far cry from reality. At least, that is what we like to believe. The reality however, is a staggering display of disregard for democratic values, freedom of speech is in the dumps, and the press is as fearful as 1975.
During the Emergency, journalists had cause for fear. If they criticised the government their freedom was in jeopardy. If newspapers published articles of dissent, they were threatened to be shut down. Government appointed officials were sent to newspaper offices to scan every copy to make sure they abided by the strict rules put in place. The enemy was clear, it was the government, it was Indira Gandhi, it was the censorship board.
Today the enemy is less visible, he hides behind glass walls and ornately carved desks, behind crores of rupees and under the wings of politicians he helped get elected. Today the enemy is the man running the show.
“Given that those who run the newsroom don’t usually own it, perhaps it’s more precise to say that a newsroom is as free as its owners wish it to be”, said Raj Kamal Jha, Chief Editor of The Indian Express, to The Quint.
Media owners have started putting direct pressure on journalists to curb reporting or change editorial direction. Several prominent journalists have been removed from their jobs or quit as a result of not being able to do their jobs the right way. In October 2014, Siddharth Varadarajan left The Hindu after the newspaper’s owner took over editorial direction. Hartosh Singh Bal was fired by Open magazine in November 2014 over the protests of his editor, Manu Joseph, who himself resigned in January, 2015.
When PM Modi appointed Amit Shah as the party president, DNA writer Rana Ayyub wrote a critical article on the appointment, citing charges of murder, among other crimes, for which Mr. Shah is still technically on trial. The paper took the article off the website.
The biggest shock to the industry came when Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose resigned from TV18 Broadcast Ltd after it was sold to Reliance Industries Ltd headed by India’s richest man, and a supporter of PM Narendra Modi, Mukesh Amabani.
All of this is a direct result of internal pressure on journalists. Bosses telling scribes what to write about, whom to write about and whom to cover up for, it may not be press censorship in its most traditional form, but it is censorship nonetheless.
The real issues
While the expansion on the media space would suggest that there would be much more room to report on issues such as poverty, hunger, human rights, on the invisible and marginal parts of India, the reverse is true. In a media driven by the market, such news has no value. So while during Emergency, reporting on such issues would result in punishment, today the view that such news will not sell your product denies them space.
In the 24×7 news culture that our country has adopted, one would believe that every story of every day would be given coverage. However, the opposite is mostly true. So not only is our press censored by internal forces, it has degraded due to consumer pressure. The middle class, which happens to be the largest consumer of the 24 hour news, pay little attention to the plight of the poor or the hungry. They want the masala, and that is what they are being given.
Our news channels are a joke, the reporting is a farce and the coverage of important issues is almost non-existent.
Freedom of expression
Recently there has been a lot of debate about the freedom of expression in our country. It started off when a BBC documentary on the Nirbhaya rape of December 2012 surfaced, the government decided to ban the documentary, stating that it encouraged people to rape. Since then there have been a number of cases where the State infrastructure has violated sections of this country’s Constitution.
Most recently was the case in IIT Madras, when a student group was shut down by the university at the request of the Human Resource Development Ministry, for criticising the government. Freedom of expression means the freedom to openly critique the government, to openly discuss the manner in which the leaders of our nation conduct themselves. If not for freedom of speech, democracy would not exist.
Freedom of expression is also an integral part of press freedom. The press is the watchdog of the government, they represent the voice of the people, when the press is muzzled so are the people. Therefore, when journalists are attacked for reporting and investigating stories, the public is the one wounded. In the last three weeks three journalists have been murdered and s everely injured , and the perpetrators of these crimes were not gang members or dacoits, they were ministers or police officials . What does that say about the safety of our press?
In February, 2015 Reporters Without Borders ranked India as one of the most restrictive countries in the world for press freedom. Today, the freedom of press is in great jeopardy, in that sense not much has changed in forty years. Kuldip Nayar, a veteran journalist, who was arrested for his reportage during Emergency, told The Statesman, ” Both [Indira Gandhi and Modi] believed in one-man rule, concentrated power to themselves and at both times, the PMO was supreme. Modi is no different than her and can be called this era’s Indira Gandhi.”
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of ScoopWhoop)