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Don’t shoot the messenger

Below posting is from Mapreet Badal’s Blog.

I always look forward to my meetings with Mr Kanwar Sandhu. The perspicacity and intellect of this venerable and distinguished journalist never fails to impress me. But I was deeply perturbed when I met him a few days ago. He told me that how the broadcast of the news channel he was heading was being stalled by the cable mafia simply because the channel had dared to air certain news that powers that be found inappropriate or against their interests. This in fact, isn’t the first time that such a thing has happened. I have been hearing instances of ‘unfavourable news’ being blocked out, media organisations being persecuted for daring to report things against the ruling dispensation. The unfortunate aspect is that the malaise isn’t restricted to a particular state or a political party. It is a pan India problem now, a fact borne by the recent survey of Reporters Sans Frontiers, which puts India at a dismal 122 on its famous World Press Freedom Index. It is a disgraceful paradox that in a country which takes pride in being the largest democracy in the world, the fourth estate is being treated so shabbily by the governments. The survey clearly mentions that in India the rich and powerful can intimidate journalists with ease.

For India, this is tantamount to utter hypocrisy. We make no qualms in teaching Chinese how to treat its Nobel Prize Winning peace activists. We castigated Myanmar when it restricted access of international media to Aung Sang Su Kyi and waste no time in preaching the Mid East countries the values of an open press. But our own record is miserable. I am really disturbed with the impunity with which media is being stifled in Punjab in particular. An unhealthy trend has emerged wherein the ruling government of the day patronises a particular media organisation (which is owned by it and or its well wishers) and then bullies the others to toe its line. This is akin to what was happening in Germany under Nazis. As the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in the Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels, maintained absolute control over all publications and broadcasts. Criminal penalties were set in place for hearing non German radio stations or subscribing to non German newspapers or periodicals.

Eminent thinker and prolific writer, Naom Chomsky had once written that propaganda is to democracy, what violence is to totalitarianism. I feel that attempts by the powerful to ‘tame’ the media can only be to the detriment of India. Vibrant democracy presupposes a well informed citizenry. If the government chooses to determine what people know, then it is undermining the very principles of the democracy. It is only when the citizens have the information that they can make the right choices. Some of our politicians need to accept the fact, that media is not their personal public relations office. It is not media’s job to be charitable to them. Media’s job is show things as they exist- the good, the bad and the ugly. Media is the most important sentinel of a democracy. A true democracy listens to the warnings of the sentinel and goes about reforming itself. If we silence our sentinel, there will be no one left to tell us of our warts. The fact, that the ruling British government obfuscated information pertaining to the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, ensured that British citizenry ended up supporting a war it did not believe in. Media in Italy, is often despised and rarely trusted because most of the media organisation are owned by President Berlusconi.

Through his two legendary books 1984 and Animal Farm, George Orwell, brilliantly portrayed the pitiable state of a society where media is controlled. Though the subject of Orwell’s description was Stalinist Soviet there were ample warnings that liberal societies could also descend into such repressive regimes if its governments show intolerance towards ideas that they consider undesirable. A mature polity welcomes dissent. It is unfortunate that in India, some governments today want media to sing paeans for them. While I can understand that today’s politicians may not have the broadmindedness of our first Prime Minister (who was so wary of his cult following and media worshipping that he once wrote an anonymous letter to parliamentarians wherein he exhorted them to be wary of ‘this man called Nehru’) they can at least ensure that they do not stop media from doing its job in a proper manner. Media is the most important purveyor of information in any society. All our measures to bring in more transparency in government functioning through measures such as RTI would be futile if media is silenced. Our policy makers may do well to remember what Thomas Jefferson, the author of US Declaration of Independence, said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

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