Although Reporters Without Borders do not place India in the category of nations having absolute media freedom, a practicing journalist in the country can safely say that one enjoys enormous amount of freedom even in the midst of inherent challenges, which are both hidden and open.
There are instances, here and there, of threats, intimidations and lack of encouragement for free and fair dissemination of information, ideas, interpretation and analysis, unfettered by interference of vested interests.
But that is not to say that the country, which had introduced the first amendment of the Constitution to put reasonable restrictions on Press freedom, does not allow mediapersons to function liberally. In fact, we don’t have Freedom of the Press, by extension Freedom of the Media, but we have Freedom of Speech and Expression enshrined in Article 19 (1) of the Constitution, which the Supreme Court has confirmed as tantamount to Freedom of the Press. We have the general freedom as available to any citizen of the country, but that is definitely a practical tool for genuine mediapersons to practise their profession in accordance with their conscience and general ethics.
In this country, there were cruel instances of Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare having been done to death by fringe elements which do not want dissent of any sort to their sworn form of ideology, but think about the way the media, intellectuals and the society at large reacted to the dastardly act. I would say, only because we enjoy tremendous amount of freedom of expression has it turned out that the perpetrators of intolerance could be exposed thoroughly.
Even as we rue the ruin of media freedom, there have been occasions when the country rose to fight against the evil of intolerance, persecution and excessive use of powers of the ruling class.
Take the cases of the central government and various state governments, we have the print, the electronic and the social media to take on the authorities for their wrong-doings.
It may be that instances of rape and murder, atrocities against women and children, attacks against Dalits and such other abominable acts of vandalism and cruelty may be on the increase, but it is the hard fact that the evil-doers have been exposed thoroughly because of the incessant probe and vigil pursued by the media.
It is in this context that the National Press Day is being observed in November every year, as an extension of the activities of the Press Council of India which acts as the guardian angel of Freedom of Media.
It was on November 16, 1966 that the Press Council of India, which was constituted on July 4, 1966, started functioning to ensure that the media are not fettered by outside influence, governmental restrictions and other extraneous factors detrimental to free media.
Press Council itself explains that it is a mechanism for the Press to regulate itself. This unique institution is rooted in the concept that in a democratic society the Press needs at once to be free and responsible. If the Press is to function effectively as the watchdog of public interest, it must have secure freedom of expression, unfettered and unhindered by any authority, organised bodies or individuals. But, this claim to press freedom has legitimacy only if it is exercised with due sense of responsibility. The Press must, therefore, scrupulously adhere to accepted norms of journalistic ethics and maintain high standards of professional conduct.
There may be elements within the fraternity which sometimes break the model code of conduct for some petty gains here and there. But that does not mean that the media do not have a glorious history of self-less service for the betterment of the society and safeguarding of democracy.
The country has learnt a lesson from the clamping of Emergency which had brought in censorship and other forms of brutality of sorts emanating from such a political situation when even the Supreme Court had to toe the line that Right to Life was not a fundamental right. Senior leader L.K.Advani had said the Press was asked to bend, but they had chosen to crawl.
It may be of interest to note that the same Mr Advani has not ruled out emergence again of an Emergency-like situation in the country, against which all freedom lovers and right-thinking citizens should constantly be on the vigil.
Now it has turned out that India is a country of corruption, but the silver lining is that instances of corruption are not kept hidden. The media dish out details of bribe, commission, and other pecuniary benefits in each instance of multi-crore deals. We do not welcome a day without skeletons of scams hurtling down the cupboard. But how do we come to know the details and about the individuals and entities who get embroiled in the murky deals? The media are always on the look-out for ferreting out the intimate details, which sometimes go overboard, to the extent of destroying the privacy of individuals. But the golden rule is that privacy of public figures and their activities are not always that private.
I have often thought that, especially after the emergence of a powerful social media realm, everyone has turned out to be disseminators of information, ideas and interpretation which forays into areas of trespassing the laws. But the people concerned very often leave the aggressors alone, without dragging them to courts. Even the Press Council of India gives maximum number of opportunities for all the parties concerned of being heard and the maximum penalty is some sort of censure, on the assumption that people would be careful in future.
We have the Right to Information, Right to Services, Right to Education etc only because the media have been perennially arguing for transparency and conferment of entitlements on the citizens.
It is interesting to note that according to Reporters Without Borders, more than a third of the world’s people live in countries where there is no press freedom. No wonder these people live in countries where there is either no system of democracy or where there are serious flaws in the democratic process. Name-sake democracies do not stand instances of dissent.
The agency gives out every year a list of journalists killed, kidnapped and jailed for what is being dubbed as offensive practice of the profession. Non-democratic countries have their own news organizations and propaganda channels which give out only materials of sycophancy.
It is in this context that we Indians must accept the fact that we are comparatively far better than journalists of various non-democratic countries. These days we hear about millions of people leaving their own countries, being unable to stand the strains of oppression of all sorts from dictatorial regimes. They land up in European countries to be treated as refugees, for at least that way they can breathe fresh air and freedom.
India which is a confederation of states with people speaking different languages and are embedded in variegated cultures cannot be a rigid nation enforcing discipline on the dotted line. The largest democracy in the world, with a lot of illiterates and the poor, have the sagacity to overthrow regimes which torment them. Whenever and wherever intolerance, suppression and oppression raise their hood, people stand up to fight against the evil. This critical character of 1.25 billion people take us to a bright future in a democratic way, through the involvement of a vigilant media.
But the luxury of media freedom should not be exploited and used to gain personal perks. This freedom enjoins on the practitioner to adhere to a code of ethics emanating from within. The authorities, state, public or private entities, would not be entirely successful to rein in an agile, vigilant and truthful media.