Long years ago, famous playwright and Bollywood script writer, Kamleshwar, wrote a story about a journalist.

The journalist smoked hard, lived frugally and maintained irregular hours. His presence in his living quarters could only be inferred from the density of rising tobacco smoke, or, its lingering smell emanating from the open windows in his room. Kamleshwar named his protagonist, Bishan Kapoor — a person he had never met.  

Coincidentally, Bishan Kapoor was my father who was also a journalist and pretty much fitted into the storywriter’s cinematic description. He was frail, lived frugally, smoked every kind of tobacco available, and relished asking tough questions from the people in power. Not for him the quest for riches or any worldly desires to accumulate wealth.

He died relatively young without leaving much for his family except memories of a ‘lofty profession’ that allowed ordinary people their share of heady dreams and idealism, and the capability to tell truth to power. Those were the 1960s and ’70s, and the ideals of the freedom movement were still fresh in public consciousness.

Indeed, he was feared, and respected, as people – both, in power and outside — recognized the crucial role journalists played in a chaotic, fragmented and young democracy like ours. Most of those who were in power then were either journalists or lawyers, among others, and many of them sincerely believed that journalism made government’s accountable to the people that elected them.

Unlike other countries, journalism played a crucial role in the Indian freedom movement. Across the country, freedom fighters, writers, thinkers, reformers and intellectuals published daily newspapers, journals, weekly magazines, in various Indian languages and in various formats. Among others, Mahatma Gandhi edited ‘Young India’ and Jawaharlal Nehru helmed the ‘National Herald’, joined in solidarity by othermen of letters. If there was any country other than the United Kingdom that respected its media, it was India.

I used to know so many old-time journalists who could just walk into Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru or his daughter, Indira’s house. They were not called ‘presstitutes’ or ‘bhakts’ for doing that.

Those were the days of early idealism, driven by the values and ethics of the Indian freedom movement, when a slight criticism of a policy or an aspersion on the character of a public servant was taken very seriously. Ministers or bureaucrats chose to resign when such allegations were publicly made.

Indeed, when the governments seemed to be afraid of certain journalists, they did not go around making their lives miserable — chasing them out of their jobs, blocking advertisement to their publications, getting sedition cases filed against them, with an over-enthusiastic police force joining in, sending central agencies to their offices in revengeful and premeditated raids.

They did not then openly hound ‘independent journalists and media outfits with integrity and spine’ while only selectively patronizing those editors and journalists who were totally loyal to the king and the power establishment, and ready to compromise to any limit. Those were the days when journalists and journalism demanded a certain inherent integrity and commitment to media ethics and social values.

Many years later, I survived in my job with tabloid Blitz even when I broke a story which was credited as a crucial factor in the defeat of the Congress party in 1996. This was the ‘Jain hawala scandal’ that involved exposure of a diary carrying the names of those who were given bribes by a Delhi-based businessman. The diary had the names of a president, a prime minister and scores of politicians and bureaucrats — all charged for accepting copious funds.

This exposure led to a split in the Congress party and subsequently propelled its electoral debacle. The report was followed by a public interest litigation (PIL). It caused periods of political instability, but it never hurt the media or tested its limits.

In fact, journalism became more empowered after this episode.

Certainly, this trend continued for many years, till recently.

IN 2003, I started Hardnews magazine. The idea was to fight the tendency for ‘soft stories’ that was being encouraged by many editors and thereby, one way or the other, support the then BJP-led central government’s project of ‘Shining India’. As per the ads, all was rosy and shining in the India of those times!

Hardnews therefore chose to report on those people and issues that this uneven and unequal development model was choosing to leave behind.. It found a worthy partner in Le Monde Diplomatique of Paris, France, which had similar values and reported extensively on Maghrib and West Asia (which were largely ignored in the Indian media), among other distant parts of the world such as Latin America, with in-depth and well-researched ground stories.

Hardnews went against the tide of the mainline media, and chose to make the margins the mainstream. In turn, it found a sensitive, responsible and serious readership, both in India and abroad.

In 2021, in contrast, the government seems to be still wary of ‘good journalism’, but, for different reasons altogether.

The complexity caused by technology and increased globalization has changed the way we perceive not just journalism, but the mediums that disseminate news as well as contribute in building political narratives. In fact, the big change that has taken place in the last few years has been the zealousness displayed by those in power to build fake narratives without really bothering too much about facts.

The objective and impartial narrative of ground reality is just not accepted, if it is not in praise. Note for instance the total denial of the abject lack of oxygen and beds, and mass cremations in some cities, during the second surge of Covid. We have seen fudging of the numbers of the dead; followed by the raids on the offices of the biggest Hindi daily in India as it chose to send reporters across river Ganga in the Hindi heartland, to report on the hundreds of dead bodies being dumped in its waters, and buried on its sandy banks.

indHHIn this scenario of invisible censorship, fake narratives, or organized propaganda, most often indulged in by the ‘loyal media’ itself, both truth and objectivity are brazenly sacrificed. All news therefore should be good news – in praise of the government in power at the Centre. Media ethics thus goes for a toss.

In a manner, it all started in 2009-2010 during the Arab Spring, which blew up the so-called ‘settled order’ in the Middle East. At that time, a view began to gain ground that the new social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook could help change repressive regimes that do not allow ‘Free Press’. This view, peddled by some American think-tanks and their State Department officials, was played out in Iran, among other Middle-East nations, but with different results. It was obviously only partially correct.

The truth was elsewhere, in the chaotic reality of both mass uprisings and the ruthless dynamics of power politics. TV and traditional media still played a big role in the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or the president of Tunisia – both eternal dictators who never thought they would ever leave their corrupt, authoritarian and luxurious thrones in their lifetime.

The Arab Spring, meanwhile, promised a rainbow – but moved rapidly into a sad sunset. For instance, in countries like Egypt, the military dictatorship was back even while democracy and democratic rights seemed to have been thrown to the garbage can of history, and not a leaf seemed to have turned orange or pink after the heady Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia.

These were early days, but social media has been effectively used by rightwing ideologies for propaganda, fake news and doctored narratives – and not only by organized trolling. Besides, traditional media has been forced to follow the social media or provide content to the vast network of Whatsapp users, reducing it largely to an ephemeral, limited and shallow enterprise.

Combine this phenomena with the big picture of an intolerant establishment which is so uncomfortable with impartial and independent journalism, and those early days of the freedom of the Press during the Nehruvian era seems far away and distant. Indeed, editors and journalists who have chosen not to follow the ‘Yoga of Bending and Crawling’, are facing a tough time. It does not need rocket science to see through it all – if all other democratic institutions are under threat, or crumbling, or turning soft and vulnerable in India, then how can the media be left behind? The big question remains why are governments afraid of the media?

(This article is based on a speech delivered by the writer during a webinar organised by Department of Journalism, Christ Nagar College, Thiruvananthapuram).

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Till recently, governments were afraid to control the press. No longer. Now governments in their desperation to control the narrative just don’t want a free media.
So why are they afraid of the media?