The Fourth Pillar Totters
A good judgement
Freedom of the press is again in the spotlight —in fact these days rarely out of it—with the release of fact checker Mohammad Zubair on bail. A bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud has delivered justice that is being celebrated by Indian democracy. But it is unfortunate that journalists continue to be incarcerated for doing little more than their job, and courage and integrity of reporting comes with a very high price attached. And the threat of arrest remains hovering over their heads like Shakespeare's Damocles sword. This fear has silenced many and the big media houses in particular have moved out of journalism into the world of propaganda. Individual journalists have felt the intimidation over the years, with many arrested and still languishing in jail. As was evident in Zubair's case, a host of FIRs on any and every pretext are filed, to keep the journalist in police custody and in jail — even as he is paraded from state to state with posse's of cops as if he was a terrorist and not a journalist doing his or her job.
It is true that journalists, if they are doing their job well, come in the way of absolute power and question the executive, the legislature and of course the judiciary. Good reporters are expected to bring the institutions of democracy under the lens, and report facts and not half truths and lies. Journalism serves as a watchdog and a messenger, and governments that listen to journalists do well in the long run. In that they are apprised of the reality on the ground through an impartial media, get to know the facts, and are in position to take remedial measures. By locking up journalists, and intimidating the media governments tend to lose touch with reality faster than warranted, and start functioning in a vacuum with an important source of information silenced. Intelligence agencies can not ever substitute for the first chroniclers of history, as the former brings agenda and incomplete information to the table while the latter gives unbiased and important accounts of incidents and developments.
Intimidation and threats subdue journalists, and this works badly for democracy. India is a big country with thousands of newspapers, television channels, not to mention digital media. Journalism comes in all languages and colours as do journalists - in all shapes and sizes. 70 years of independence have shaped Indian journalism, withthe Emergency and censorship playing a very important part. All governments, no matter what they say, have tried to exercise control over the media with more of the carrot in the past than the whip. Journalists have been arrested under other governments too, but have also been brought into line through government housing, favoured trips, and general access to power. The whip has been exercised as in the Emergency, but sparingly thereafter.
Now it is the whip, used unsparingly. A fact checker arrested for tweets. A journalist locked up while on his way to cover a major incident. A journalist stripped for reporting facts. Every single journalist who has been in the field is well aware of the might of the state. Journalists covering bloody conflict over the decades since independence have seen both the state crumble and the state exercise its might . Punjab comes to mind as does Assam in the 1980's. And no reporter has any doubt that he or she can fight the state, as there is nothing more frightening than when the state machinery turns against an individual. As all doors close and the skies become black. It is for this reason that fundamental rights are enshrined in the Constitution, why freedom of expression, of speech have been made part of the spine of the Indian nation. So that the watchdog can retain its freedom to report the facts.
Unfortunately today journalism has come under double barrel fire. From within and without. Signs of both have been visible for decades now but were ignored. The state has become more oppressive, and journalists more polarised, transgressing all boundaries. Shadow boxing has become central to this chaos, with polarisation being used by the politicians to their own advantage. In the process the fourth pillar of democracy is tottering and needs urgent support.
Cover Photograph NDTV