National Media Centre Opened Ahead Of Polls
Long time back, at the peak of the Bofors controversy, an unsavoury spat took place between the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the redoubtable Ram Jethmalani. Stung by constant criticism, the pilot-turned politician took a swipe at his critics referring to them as ‘barking dogs’. The apparently outraged jurist responded saying “dogs only bark when they see a thief.”
The same holds true for media as well. Often the political class, deeply mired in corruption and misrule, makes media the whipping boy and instead of remedying the problem at hand finds the fault at the doors of the Fourth Estate.
Thus, media is made the scapegoat to cover the acts of omission and commission on the part of the Government. Therefore, we have a scenario when the citizens come out on the streets to protest the rampant corruption, the insecurity of women and inflation and a cornered Government instead of engaging in some introspection and soul searching seeks to pin the blame on the media for giving coverage to such protests and thereby adding fuel to the fire.
Apparently unnerved by the growing popularity of the Gujarat Chief Minister, the leaders of the ruling Congress are now attacking the media for giving him what they call “unwarranted” coverage. One does not remember any Democrat or Republican Presidential candidate in the United States blaming the media for giving “undue” coverage to their respective opponents. The Congress leaders forgot that not long back, the same media had extensively covered its scion Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Padyatra’ in Bhatta Parsaul against Mayawati Government’s land acquisition policy. Interestingly, the party did not reap any electoral dividends from the much publicised event and is today dependent on the same BSP Supremo for the survival of its Government at the Centre.
Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s recent address while inaugurating the high profile National Media Centre in the capital assumes significance in this context.
“In a vibrant democracy such as ours, which revels in free enquiry and quest for answers, this is a significant calling. But there is need for caution while executing this responsibility. A spirit of inquiry must not morph into a campaign of calumny. A witch-hunt is no substitute for investigative journalism. And personal prejudices must not replace the public good,” he said.
The Prime Minister’s concerns, in the wake of the recent expose of Robert Vadra’s land dealings, was understandable, given the fact that the latter’s mother-in-law and UPA Chairperson was sharing the dais with him.
Smt Gandhi was perhaps more candid in her observations when she said, “At times the language and dignity of media discussion can be found wanting. Sometimes I, too, have to confess that the media makes the political establishment uncomfortable.”
But one would like to know from the Congress President what she has done about the language and dignity of political discussion engaged in by the likes of Digvijay Singh, Shakeel Ahmed, Rehman Khan, Salman Khursheed et al.
Moreover, media had only highlighted and exposed what had been substantiated by Constitutional bodies such as the CAG, civil servants such as Ashok Khemka and Durga Shakti Nagpal whether it be the Coalgate, 2G, Commonwealth, Sand Mafia, or illegitimate land dealings.
The same media did not show any leniency towards Opposition leaders such as Nitin Gadkari though no Constitutional body had raised any questions on him.
The media only holds a mirror. If there is violation of the border by the Chinese or the Pakistanis and the Government chooses to remain a mute spectator, it should not expect the media not to react. Media’s role is to inform and educate the masses and mould public opinion. Highlighting the incompetence of the authorities is neither jingoism nor war mongering. It is only an awakening call.
In 2011, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal’s suggestion that social networking websites should screen content before publishing triggered widespread anger amongst internet users. In fact, the hashtag #IdiotKapilSibal emerged as one of the top Twitter trends in India during those days.
Sibal had asked leading Internet companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook to screen alleged derogatory, defamatory and inflammatory content about religious figures and Indian leaders (read leaders of the ruling coalition).
The UPA Government had earlier introduced the Information Technology Rules 2011 giving it the authority to prohibit content of specific nature on the Internet. In its analysis of the rules, PRS Legislative Research, a leading Delhi based research initiative, highlighted that “the Intermediary Guidelines Rules that allow blocking of content on the internet may violate the right to free speech. These Rules differ from the requirements governing content of other media like newspapers and television.”
Last week, Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari suggested a ‘common examination’ for journalists, who would then be required to have ‘licences’ to practice the profession.
The Editors Guild of India promptly termed Tewari’s suggestion of licencing journalists as an “undemocratic” practice and said it is a tool of totalitarian states to control the media.
“The reporting of facts and the expression of ideas is the right of every citizen and to require the passing of a test and the possession of a licence issued by the Government would be a violation of the very concept of freedom,” N Ravi, President of the Guild, said in a statement.
The Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi’s homily coming soon thereafter has only served to raise questions on the Government’s intentions vis a vis media ahead of the elections.
While the inauguration of a world class Media Centre in the heart of the capital is indeed a welcome step, the timing of the move, barely a few months before the polls, is also suspected given the UPA Government’s carrot and stick policy towards the media.
A more pro active approach in implementation of the recommendations of the Wage Boards for journalist and non-journalist employees of news organisations, stronger measures to checkmate cross media ownership and curbing increased contractual employment in media industry would have been more effective steps to strengthen media freedom but then that would be the last thing any discredited Government would be wanting.
(The author is National Secretary, Indian Media Centre)