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The ailing opinion-makers

India desperately needs an impartial media disseminating unadulterated information in public interest

The ailing opinion-makers

In a democracy, it is the freedom of media that is the barometer for measuring the performance of the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. Considered as the fourth pillar, it is expected to provide accurate and unadulterated information to the public, enabling them to form impartial opinions for making further decisions. Unfortunately, recent happenings indicate that, like several constitutional institutions in the country, this barometer too has been tampered with; media is ailing. Freedom of thought and expression is increasingly being choked. Action against journalist Taseer epitomises it further.

Recently, the government revoked the Overseas Citizen of India status of the young New York-based journalist, Taseer, making sure he would not be able to enter India even to meet his mother. Not only is it an assault on free speech and expression, but is blatant official vindictiveness, casting India in poor light. Perhaps, not knowing why Indian media is unable to summon the courage to frankly write about the country increasingly becoming an illiberal society with encouragement from those in power and their ideological mentors, he ventured to do it. He boldly wrote about it in May in an article for Time magazine "Divider-In-Chief", and is facing the consequences. Instead of putting the matter to rest with a rebuttal, the government chose to revoke his OCI status, although officially they have taken recourse to other lame and untenable alibis. Such incidents are only bound to sully our country's image.

PEN America, a free speech organisation in the US, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have sharply criticised the anti-free speech and suppression of journalist's angle in the matter. It happened in the Kashmir matter too. US Congresswoman, Ilhan Omar snubbed the stout defence of our government nominee, journalist Aarti Tikoo Singh, saying, "The press is at its worst when it is a mouthpiece for a government. If the Indian government's crackdown in Kashmir was good for human rights, it wouldn't be happening in secret." Only we are to blame; there have been numerous incidents of intolerance of free speech and expression. Dissent is a crime.

A year ago, there were pan-country arrests of dissenting intellectuals, lawyers and activists, on the framed charge of plotting to assassinate Modi, even flouting the laid down procedures and humiliating the family members. Recently, Hyderabad police asked the organisers to cancel their closed-door discussion on 'Fascism is still resistible', since it was dubbed as an 'anti-Hindu programme' by a BJP leader. In fact, they were only to discuss our deviation from secular, socialist and republic India. At the behest of the government, the media only paints dissenting thinkers and activists as anti-national villains. Intolerance of thought and expression is strikingly visible.

Even in UP, disdaining the legal procedures, a journalist, Prashant Kanojia, was arrested for allegedly making objectionable comments against the CM on social media. The SC observed that the arrest was an even greater affront to democratic principles of freedom of speech and expression than some person forwarding a social media message lampooning politicians. Yet, the national media is scared of highlighting such incidents.

Like the court-poets of the past, who sang praises of even unworthy kings, news unpalatable to the government is not reported or is underplayed. They are silent even when questions are constantly raised about hacking, tampering, pre-fixing through programming of EVMs in BJP's victory. Videos are in circulation showing truckloads of EVMs at certain places which were not properly accounted for. The High Court Bench of Gwalior is seized with the matter of 20 lakh missing EVMs from the source, the details of which were obtained under RTI subsequent to the orders of Bombay High Court. Based on the details obtained from the EC website, Quint magazine has found that in over 370 constituencies that went to polls in the first four phases of the elections, total votes counted were more than the votes polled; there is a discrepancy of a whopping 58 lakh votes. When they tried to ascertain more details, the information was suddenly removed from the website. Incidents and allegations are too many; people are perplexed; there are protests, even by former Judges. Yet, media is only prejudiced in favour of the ruling party.

It is apparent that the government wants a media that is 'His Master's Voice'. And, for several reasons, it has become compliant. News about hundreds of encounter-killings, religious bigotry and lynching by cow-vigilantes are suppressed. It is no news when much-advertised Modi's rallies are thinly attended —like in Haryana; it is not news when lakhs of Dalits or farmers protest in Delhi. It is only propagating 'nationalism' and 'anti-nationalism' as per the wishes of the government. While honest and conscientious journalists suffer immense mental agony, publishers and media-houses call the shots.

It is rightly said, the freedom of the press is limited to the pleasure of the publisher. Modi has shaped their pleasure by serving information on a platter. The legendary nose of journalists for news surgically cut, independent media has become the victim, like other autonomous institutions in the country.

With no exception, every institution — bureaucracy, CBI, IT, ED, CVC, etc. — has been atrophied. In demonetisation, Electoral Bonds, etc., institutions, like RBI and Election Commission, were bulldozed. Even the EC did not have the courage to pull up the BJP leadership for election violations. A lone dissenter, Lavasa of EC, is being haunted. CAG trivialised the Rafale matter. The perceivably-powerful Judiciary is no better.

Former Justice Kurian Joseph said that he felt the former CJI Deepak Mishra was remote-controlled. Justice Arun Mishra even said, 'When someone tries to correct wrongs, he is killed or maligned.' An upright judge Loya had to pay with his life for his strict legal approach in the Sohrabuddin case that involves Amit Shah; with remote control in the SC, an enquiry into his death was buried. The connection between the promotion of Justice Khehrar, who was under a cloud of corruption charges, and closing of Modi's Birla-Sahara diary matter, is not a mystery. Similarly, it is no wonder that in the incidents of Hindutva terror, every dubious method possible, including influencing the judiciary, is used to save the accused, who is from RSS and kindred outfits. Cases of Bilkis Bano, Sohrabuddin, Malengao, Ajmer Shariff, Samjhauta Express, etc., are only examples. In the Malegaon case of 2008, even the Mumbai-based special public prosecutor Rohini Salian had publicly claimed in 2015 that the NIA in Delhi was leaning hard on her to go easy on the accused in the case. While every such incident only kills the tenets of democracy, the media is stoically silent about them.

In the latest incident of police action in Jamia Millia University, it is alleged that while videos show uniformed men emptying cans of petrol on buses and set on fire, only a photograph of the burning bus was splashed, to impress upon the country that students were violent and that Delhi Police had acted correctly in entering the premises and thrashing the students. It becomes obvious that police and media are under the absolute control of the government, like during the days of Fascism.

Mussolini and Hitler had established absolute control over every element of information dissemination to ensure that promoting their Fascist agenda was the cardinal duty of the media. Any activity contrary to the 'national interest' and 'faithfulness to the Fatherland' was routinely abused to stamp out any vestiges of dissent. Media became so obedient that it blacked out the news when hundreds of Jews were murdered and their properties destroyed on November 9 and 10, 1938, and the holocaust. Now, with such blackout, the country is in the dark about what has happened in Kashmir. Constitutional experts like Harish Salve lament that in the case of Habeas Corpus petitions and HR matters, the adjournments by the SC are not convincing. Only time will reveal if at all there were excesses. Government is getting its way, and the media is dancing to its tune. And, Big Brother is watching every citizen, using every technological innovation.

With 430 million Smartphone users; half-billion using the Internet; 300 million Facebook; 200 million sending messages on Whatsapp; 30 million using Twitter, the BJP has been aggressively using technology and social media to influence public mind, while abusing it unabashed several times, especially when there is dissent. The Pegasus revelation by WhatsApp is an example, in which snooping was done on activists, journalists, academics, political dissidents, etc.

Thanks to the SC, it has thwarted the attempt of the Centre to set up a multi-crore surveillance structure to snoop on every computer, at least temporarily. But, the government would find some other means. Now, it is being said that they are planning an assault on social media too by putting restrictions.

In this atmosphere of intolerance of freedom of speech and expression, the country is thus not surprised about the action taken against Taseer. But, sadly, Indian democracy would become a laughing stock in the eyes of the international community. One only wishes that ailing Indian media would soon recover its health. Country and democracy desperately need true opinion-makers.

Dr N Dilip Kumar is a retired IPS officer and a former Member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. Views expressed are strictly personal

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