NYT's Hysterical Warning About Freedom of India's Press

Published: August 01, 2014 12:13 IST
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(Sudheendra Kulkarni is a socio-political activist and columnist.)

One can say many admirable things about America, but Americans preach a lot. And they don't always practice what they preach to the rest of the world. One can see this dichotomy in their foreign policy.

One also sees it every once in a while in what their media, a not-so-subtle mouthpiece of the United States of America's ruling establishment, say about the affairs of the rest of the world.
Last week America preached press freedom to India.

The New York Times, a great newspaper in many ways, carried (July 27) an editorial under the alarmist headline 'India's Press Under Siege' - Read Here. "Press censorship seems to be back with a vengeance in India," it said, likening the situation, by way of a reference point, to the muzzling of the media during the Emergency (1975-77).

This is an absurdly inaccurate description of the press freedom in India. It's not my case that everything is fine with the Indian media. It has more afflictions than foreigners can ever claim to know. There is a lot that we Indians, journalists and people's representatives, above all, need to worry about the functioning of our media, whose footprint and influence on society are growing rapidly - and not always in positive ways. But to say, as NYT does, that India is "one of the most restrictive countries in the world for press freedom" is certainly over the top.

One of the criticisms NYT expresses is the growing control of private businesses over media organisations in India. "India's government," it says, "has a responsibility to act to protect the free press before corporate consolidation and private censorship further erode citizens' right to know." We should certainly ponder over why this is happening, and what implications it has for the healthy progress of the print, TV and Internet media in our country. But have media organisations in USA set a gold standard for press freedom? In no other country in the world is corporate consolidation and control over the press higher than in America, a point which NYT conveniently chooses not to mention.

Media is a big business in America. Moreover, big media groups are regularly being bought over by bigger media or non-media business behemoths. Does this not overtly and covertly restrict the freedom of editors, reporters and contributors in America? Isn't the enormous, and growing, pressure of earning advertising revenue distorting the priorities and functioning of even the best mastheads in the American media? Denial of this reality is sheer hypocrisy.

The landscape of media ownership has been changing more maddeningly in the US than in India. Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox is reportedly making a bid to take over Time Warner, a mighty conglomerate. Newsweek, once an influential global magazine, has changed hands twice in four years - first from The Washington Post group to Sidney Harman and then to International Business Times. The Washington Post newspaper itself was purchased by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos last year. All the major television networks in the US are owned by super business conglomerates.

India has imported this phenomenon because we have chosen to follow a model of economic growth whose purpose and priorities are set largely, so far at least, by the US. This model, in which the state is being increasingly called upon to enable the private sector to play a bigger role in every walk of national life, is influencing the media industry, too. This is not going to change in the foreseeable future. What is also obvious is that the media business needs non-trivial infusion of capital in an environment of rising competition, both locally and globally. Hence, a growing degree of churning in the Indian media landscape is inevitable. This is also being accelerated by the revolutionary changes in information and communication technologies (ICTs), which have made print, audio and video modes of media convergent and accessible on multiple digital platforms.

As far as "private censorship" in the Indian media is concerned, it's undoubtedly worrisome. However, NYT's editorial writers certainly know how it takes place in the United States, too. In the last one month alone, two major US TV channels, CNN and NBC News, withdrew their reporters from Gaza. Why? CNN's Diana Magnay found that Israelis were cheering as missiles were fired at the Palestinian territory while she was giving her report from a hill overlooking the border between Gaza and Israel. In a tweet, she described the Israeli celebrants as "scum". She was quickly removed from her Gaza assignment. Earlier, NBC News removed its reporter Ayman Mohyeldin, who had given a moving personal account of an Israeli rocket attack that had killed four young Palestinian boys.

The challenge before all the stakeholders in the Indian media business and media profession - we must always distinguish businessmen from professionals, because the latter are truly the heart and soul of the media - is how to protect and further promote freedom of the press.

Here we should take note of the fact that the Indian press has remained largely free in spite of being largely owned by private entities. Barring All India Radio and Doordarshan, the rest of the TV media and the entire print media have always been privately owned. This has not prevented the Indian media from being as free as, if not freer than, the media in USA and other western countries.

The Indian media is free because, firstly, we are a democracy and our Constitution guarantees press freedom. Secondly, Indian society has a long and proudly cherished tradition of diversity of viewpoints, which many generations of fine media professionals have expressed with felicity and freedom. The boldest among them have prized and guarded press freedom as zealously as their own personal honour.

Therefore, so long as these two conditions - Constitutional guarantee of press freedom and a large army of media professionals who are true to their dharma - are valid, there is no question of India's press being "Under Siege", as NYT hysterically shouts. The Constitutional guarantee is rock solid, so there is nothing to worry about on this score. No government, even the incumbent one that has come into office with a decisive mandate, can do anything to dilute this guarantee, even if some of its functionaries wish to do so.

There is a sobering example of what happened to Rajiv Gandhi's government, which enjoyed a far bigger majority in Parliament than Narendra Modi's government does now. In August 1988, the Lok Sabha hastily passed the Defamation Bill, which sought to restrict press freedom. The Opposition challenged the move and the journalistic fraternity opposed it with an exemplary show of nationwide unity. Ultimately, the government was forced to withdraw the bill.

In any case, we cannot expect, as NYT suggests, the government "to act to protect the free press". That responsibility rests chiefly with journalists and media owners. They must not let their noble profession down. It is they, with freedom-loving and vigilant members of the public urging them to do so, who have to reform the Indian media by curing it of the many ailments it is suffering from.

(Comments are welcome at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com)

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