Press Clubs are Citadels of Solidarity
A hoary and proud history
Not every reporter takes rum. Some have coffee, or even drink tea, if they are of that kind. But they sink their differences in beverages when at their local press club in the evening. The conviviality is nurturing. The fellowship, a restorative for the spirit, and the solidarity that is so apparently almost a shield against all manners of evil forces that would attack them or dilute the freedom of the press and of expression.
Press clubs are not trade unions, which anyway have become an anachronism in a world where reporters are hired for terms one or two years at a time, and hundreds can be fired at a moment's notice much as Elon Musk is now sacking engineers and journalists – or content writers as they are termed – with the ease of a deciduous tree in autumn shedding its leaves.
Press clubs, and other similar organisations are essentially social organisations. They are registered with the taxation offices, the local government departments and exercise or health controllers for their commercial activity, including the bar, the dining hall, the card room, or the gym where these exist.
But even in States such as Gujarat which do not permit the public imbibing of alcohol, the "dry" press clubs nonetheless fulfil a very important function in the pursuance of defending and strengthening democracy. A gathering place for professionals, an easy access to the media for the poor and the average who would have a difficult time reaching their tales, or their press notes to the reporters of the city, and in fact of the nation and the world.
Many press clubs in the country become de facto offices and workplaces of reporters, with workstations and telecommunication facilities, among other essentials as a library rack of newspapers and important magazines.
Though it was not their primary task, press clubs of the country, led by the venerable Press Club of India in New Delhi operating out of a Second World War military barracks, have played a remarkably important role in supporting and helping operationalise Article 19 of the Constitution. Article 19 is the mother of press freedom, and the harbinger of the freedom that people must express themselves. In its final shape, this is what we mean when we say Speaking Truth to Power.
Governments are power, whichever be the political party in power at the moment. Indira Gandhi had her moments with the press which, despite an initial hesitation and support for the Syndicate, had largely cooperated with her on most issues. It had helped the national line in Punjab as much as it had done in the war for Bangladesh.
And yet as in the Emergency, press clubs and media groups scrumptiously joined in opposing the curbs on civil liberties. There was no distinction whether an individual journalist or writer had political leanings towards the Left or was the Right.
The Press Club of India in New Delhi, together with journalists and press trade unions, the Editors Guild of India and the Press association had their brightest moment when they opposed, and defeated, attempts by the governments of Bihar, and the union government led by Rajiv Gandhi, to muzzle the press.
Press clubs in their commercial avatar pay GST, which is massive, as much as they pay taxes and fees charged by various municipalities. They also spend money in maintenance and providing professional equipment such as computers and internet services to member journalists.
Journalists pay for their rum and their coffee, for food and for remaining a member. But these are not-for-profit charges. The money for the upkeep comes from letting out facilities for press conferences, book releases, and the occasional party for some reporter's first grandson.
Unless one is a proclaimed offender, a murderer on the run, or a person wanted by the government for anti-national activities, just about anyone can hire the press conference hall by paying the fees hen prevalent.
A recent news report quotes anonymous government sources to say central agencies are alert on how the Press club generates its resources and the easy way it rents its facilities to host press conferences and solidarity meetings.
The Press Club of India has indeed hosted meetings held by wives and partners of people arrested under the Unlawful Activities Act.
It has held more than one meeting when the media was targeted in any way. I think its most valuable support has been for individual journalists who have been arrested for frivolous charges and then denied rightful bail for months and years.
The allegation is that the press conferences and meetings were held by people who were acting as frontal groups for the Popular Front of India, the Kerala-based Muslim organisation which has been recently proscribed by the Union Government.
The people who are arrested are fighting in courts for their freedom. So also must be political groups in Kerala, Delhi and elsewhere which have been banned by the union government for various reasons.
It is absurd to link the Press Club with these, or any other organisations, or to attribute a political colour to the institution with a hoary and proud history. The management and leadership of the Press Club of India is formed by men and women elected to office by members in a transparent election.
The same process is followed in the formation of leaderships of other groups such as the Indian Women's Press Corps, or the Editors Guild of India. All members of such institutions are practising journalists and, as such, must have been scrutinised more than once by the intelligence agencies of the Union and State government in their long careers.
India needs a free press now more than ever before. We must keep it and its institutions free, unfettered, and not having to look over their shoulders all the time.
John Dayal is a veteran journalist and author.