Sunday, 7 October 2012

the indian press. pressing on. free and fighting.

The Indian press was something that i grew quite cynical about when i was a part of it .  It was moving to Australia in  2000  that changed my opinion about it. The one and a half horse  (largely Murdoch owned) press that I found Down Under  made me appreciate the sheer variety of media that India has. The multiplicity of voices and opinions  in the Indian press was something I now missed.  That multiplicity  meant something.   It is what keeps the culture vibrant  questioning.  This essay by an editor I liked  from a newspaper I read everyday sums up the contemporary condition of the  press that I once was very wary  and cynical about.  Good read.

The Indian press is more than two centuries old. It has always been a highly political press. Its strengths have largely been shaped by its historical experience and, in particular, by its association with the freedom struggle as well as movements for social emancipation, reform, and amelioration.The long struggle for independence; the sharp ideological and political divides; controversies and battles over social reform; radical and revolutionary aspirations and movements; compromising as well as fighting tendencies; and the competition between self-serving and public service visions of journalism –these have all found reflection in the character and performance of the Indian press over the truly long term(Ram 2000: 242).Even in the pre-Independence context, the press learned to act like a player in the major league political and socio-economic arena, despite its well-known limitations in terms of reach in society, financial viability, professional training, and entrepreneurial and management capabilities.This rich history accounts for the seriousness, relevance, and public-spirited orientation of the press at its best (Ibid.: 242-243).

Free speech has come under serious pressure in India. Consider these examples from the past quarter-century.
Being the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and carrying through this policy of appeasement of murderous intolerance to the last Jaipur Literary Festival.
Criminalizing paintings by India’s greatest painter, M.F. Husain, from 1996 onwards, the state standing by asan orchestrated Hindu Right campaign intimidated him with dozens of criminal complaints filed across the country, vandalized his art works and exhibitions, and eventually forced him into exile in Dubai, to die, at the age of 95, in London as a Qatari national.
Carrying out several acts of localized violence and intimidation against journalists, writers, historians, cartoonists, artists, activists, and others.
Assaulting journalists and sending toughs to stone, smash, and burn the offices of media organizations, here and there.
Piling on criminal defamation cases against journalists, with the lower courts hardly applying their mind to prima facie admissibility even under this illiberal law, thus ensuring that the process is the punishment.
Blocking text or sms services in the name of law and order or public order. Notifying under the Information Technology Act, 2000 (as amended in 2008) illiberal rules, especially the notorious Intermediary Guidelines Rules, which permit blocking of content on the Internet.
Threatening to tame the social media, which, among other things, shows a complete inability to understand the nature and ways of the sharing beast.
Using the sedition law against the writer Arundhati Roy.
Imprisoning a cartoonist for sedition, with the result that the Indian criminal justice system has itself become a cartoon gone viral on the worldwide web.
As the journalist Salil Tripathi put it earlier this year in a tweet at the FreeSpeechDebate site: ‘Biggest threat: combination of state passivity, antiquated laws, and existence of ‘the right to feel offended’’ (Tripathi 2012). The right to be easily offended – genuinely offended or offended for the sake of an ideological or political cause – he might have added, had Twitter allowed him more than 140 characters.
This paradoxical situation demands well-considered, progressive reform. The aim of such reform must be to expand the scope of media freedom – but also to ensure professional and social accountability. But it is well to remember that media freedom cannot survive, let alone thrive, unless free speech can be safeguarded in society at large.

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