16 April 2021 08:30 PM

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SEEMA MUSTAFA | 2 FEBRUARY, 2021

Protests and the Media - We Can Block the Sites But Not the Sentiment

Independent media integral to democracy


The arrest of Mandeep Punia, the cases against a host of journalists including 74 year old editor Mrinal Pande, the threats and intimidation of the fourth pillar of democracy by the government does not bear good tidings for India and democracy. In these years when the media is being divided into ‘gangs’ and ‘godi’ the environment within is taking a knock. More so when the first is intimidated and threatened and the latter nurtured and protected by the ruling establishment. Journalists doing their job have to look over their shoulders for fear of reprisal, and that is in itself a big deterrent as the state is powerful and mighty as every scribe knows.

The farmers stir is the immediate provocation, with the journalists reporting with integrity coming in the line of fire as the protests intensify. Unable to deal with India’s sons of the soil, the messenger always becomes the target as governments feel that by blocking the news they will somehow save the situation by controlling the narrative. Hence Twitter is told to block key handles, cases are filed against scribes including senior editors, young journalists are picked up and thrown into jail, in the hope that this will allow the godi media an obstacle free platform to run its propaganda in and put an end to journalists reporting the truth as they see it.

In the process the internet has also been jammed at the venue spots to prevent enterprising young independent journalists from sending out interviews and pictures of the farmers and the police. In my long years in journalism I have always seen governments getting more repressive (of course the levels vary) when they become more insecure, both being directly proportionate.

This cannot work for long and in the desired fashion in a world ridden with technology so to speak. At worst news is delayed, but that too slightly. Even in the dark days of the emergency when there were only rickety landlines and no mobile phones, forget internet and television, news of excesses flashed from village to village through the peoples grapevine. And even though print newspapers had gone underground, villages in UP fled as reports of family planning squads spread through the hinterland like fire. The world media stepped in as did the people, and opposition to the Emergency grew to a point where late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was compelled to withdraw it and hold elections.

Today the world is well connected and stories have already started appearing in the foreign media that definitely do not enhance the government’s image. The people of India might have had only 70 odd years of democracy but prior to that there was almost two centuries of democratic struggle against the British. Sufficient to make democracy a genetic need and compulsion that is evident on the streets of India today. The farmers who have been under stress for a long while now with a huge spate of suicides that governments even before this one were indifferent to, cannot take it any longer. And have come together in a huge assertion for their rights.

We can ignore it, block it, hate it, but it is so. We can beat it, nail it, arrest it but it will remain so. Because of the sheer numbers. The government was able to create an opportunity on Republic Day to beat the protests back, but lost it the very same night by coming down heavy on the Ghazipur venue site with Rakesh Tikait breaking down in tears, the video going viral, and farmers bursting out of their homes to wipe those tears.

The new wave of protest is different from the first, as it is larger, more sentimental and emotional, less organised and in a sense more desperate and angry. Force will not quell it easily now, but will act as a super spreader. The venues around Delhi can be blockaded but the sentiment cannot.

The government is not appearing confident in its tactics. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi had repealed the laws, appointed a parliamentary committee to look into the farmers demands, brought in a pro-farmer budget he would have by now been unshakeable. Most of the farmers on the roads today had voted for him in the last elections and would have embraced him as a messiah. Indeed many of them came to Delhi sure that Modi would listen to them. In brief, a democratic response would have had results where the farmers would be snug in their own homes, the media would have been appreciative, and the government would have been on top.

Repressive tactics targeting journalists move into the same arena. As it indicates insecurity, more so when sedition charges are slapped for what could be at worst a mistake, and at best the truth. Having been in the field for decades, and covering conflict right through Kashmir, Assam, Punjab and Delhi not to mention the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh one knows how easy it is to make a mistake. More so when the news is instant. Earlier we had a little more time to gauge and understand and report, but even then mistakes were made and apologies rendered. No one was arrested, or slapped with sedition (after all every government since independence has retained and protected these obnoxious laws) even when newspapers stood by their stories, and decided to fight it in the courts. As is the option in democracies.

The Bharatiya Janata Party itself has accused Indira Gandhi of slapping the Emergency as one she could not control the situation and two had a lot to hide. Whatever that might be. So do the same two reasons apply now, with the media suffering directly for doing its duty. And being trolled and verbally abused and intimidated mercilessly?

None of the journalists charged with sedition can even be even remotely accused of the same. They have long careers behind them of journalism, whether governments and political parties love or hate them is immaterial. They have stood in the field, edited newspapers, reported with as much honesty and integrity an individual can muster. Even the young Mandeep Punia was just an idealistic reporter, courageous and independent and enthusiastic about the response he was getting in the media world while covering this huge protest. I remember how excited I was when we found ourselves in the middle of the Assam civil war in the 1980’s, of being part of what was clearly a big story, as we rushed to report what we could while witnessing history. Or when we covered the big farmers marches in western UP and Tikait’s unbelievable show of strength at the Boat Club lawns. Or the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi where we could not believe what we were witnessing. It is because of the media that the truth came out, that conspiracies of death and destruction were unravelled, action taken and India came out stronger for it.

There might be some in the media who think strength is to do with lies, and propaganda as those who control them. Never so. For these instil a world of make believe that eventually turns around to bite its creators. Independent reporting brings truth not just to power but to all, and governments are able then to strategise and redress on the basis of facts and are not created happy to hear kind of fiction. Democratic governments might detest independent journalism ---and of course they are well within their rights to do so---but can only flourish by taking independent information on board.
 

People rally in support for journalist Mandeep Punia, arrested by Delhi  police

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