Fourth pillar of democracy getting wobbly
In a world of ‘breaking news’ and constant ‘updates’, we sometimes need time to digest the full implications of an event. A good example is the recent terror-boat incident off the Porbandar coast, where a boat caught fire (which is still unclear how) and sank without any known survivors. The incident revealed the state of our media and will go on to adversely affect fishermen, who earn their livelihood from those waters.
The media’s duty is first to bring forth the truth, not servility to any other institution like the government or judiciary. This is why it is considered a separate pillar of democracy. This is why in cases of natural disaster, casualties, riots, and many other such events, the government’s words are not to be taken at face value. It is understood that the government has an agenda and that, like any other entity in the world, is self-interested. The media is answerable partly to its owners but more importantly, to people at large.
The interests of the government and that of its people often do not coincide. This basic understanding goes missing when ‘information’ from various ‘sources’ of the government or press-releases of the armed forces or the coast guard is taken at face value. All states and entities wielding power want to manufacture consent of the kind that helps them the most. And the only way to resist that is to consistently doubt the versions of the powerful and follow that up with intelligent investigation and analysis. When such doubt is semi-criminalised in public discourse, it becomes a sign of dangerous times. There are reasons to be very worried about the prevalent situation in the Indian Union, when a senior journalist like Praveen Swami is threatened and his effigies burnt by militant crowds for exposing certain loopholes and inconsistencies in the government’s version of things in the Gujarat ‘terror-boat’ incident.
During the 1970s, the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government imposed media censorship to control the ‘message’. It turns out that now, by media ownership and public threats, the same kind of pressure can be exerted on those who might want to doubt the official version. We do not even need an official declaration of emergency to produce a similar silence. The emerging media culture of blindly believing the government or other such institutions, without probing the substance of their claim, gravely undermines democracy, civil liberties and the people of India.
Now that the media and the government have moved on to other hot pursuits, lets turn to what has happened with other boats in the vicinity of the India-Pakistan coast. About three days after the ‘terror-boat’ incident, Pakistan Marine Security Agency captured two fishing boats manned by Indian citizens. When gung-ho posturing occurs from the security headquarters of India and Pakistan, the pit-poor fishermen ultimately pay for it. The chattering-class and the elite, which are never at the receiving end of anything in this context, do help create an atmosphere of animosity for which poor people have to pay, often with their lives. We do not know when these poor fishermen will be released. Like perverted stamp-collectors, India and Pakistan collect ‘alien’ fishermen in their jails and exchange them with each other during periodic moments of peace. In this costly charade, fishermen are cannon-fodder of goodwill. This cruelty must end.