The Supreme Court judgment in the Vinod Dua sedition case is a case of justice delayed but not denied; the bench took eight months to pronounce its order in a matter as clear as daylight. The issue however, is not of the government disrespecting the law, as much as it is of it recognising the role of the media and respecting the right to free speech. It is a sad commentary on our democracy when the SC has to remind the government about the freedom of speech, when it has to teach school-level civics to the powers that be.
The Indian media, with all its faults and failings, is still performing its job of disseminating information from the top to the bottom and vice versa, as well as providing a platform for debate and dissent. At a time when the Opposition has virtually abdicated its role, it is feedback from the media that helps the government course-correct. Despite a significant section of the media being pro-establishment or pro-capitalist, the institution has not given up on its basic duty to its readers and to the underdog. It may not always be in a position to speak truth to power but it does comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
All political parties forget their days in the opposition and develop a persecution complex when in power. Indira Gandhi barely concealed her contempt for the media and many others, including her son Rajiv, followed in her footsteps. However, the relationship between the government and the media has worsened of late. The PM himself dismisses them as ‘bikau patrakar’ (sold-out journalists), his ministers call them presstitutes and the BJP’s troll army calls them ‘sickulars’ and ‘librandus’. Such is the hatred for independent journalists that on February 11, a little-known YouTube channel called for five of them to be hanged.
There is enormous pressure on the mainstream media to toe the government line. A day before announcing a national lockdown on March 24 last year, the PM had personally asked the owners and editors of the 20 biggest mainstream print media outlets to publish “positive stories” about the crisis. His government followed it up by asking the SC to “direct” the media to publish nothing about the epidemic without confirming it with the government.
Mindful of the thought police, most of India’s mainstream media is playing a “both-sides’’ game even when it comes to reporting hate speeches. Some large media houses are in self-censorship mode. Not content with this, the government is going after independent journalists and media houses; Vinod Dua is a case in point. The SC had to finally say that journalists cannot be arrested merely for criticising the government.
Press freedom in India has been built on great sacrifices. This newspaper can proudly recount the one made by its founder-editor S Sadanand, who sold his land and house to pay a ruinous fine, instead of apologising to the British. Mahatma Gandhi, no mean journalist, was tried for sedition and termed it as the “prince among the political sections of IPC designed to suppress liberty of the citizen”.
Why, even Atal and Advani began as journalists. They would certainly not have approved of six journalists, including Mrinal Pande and Rajdeep Sardesai, being booked for sedition just because they “shared misinformed news and instigated violence on Republic Day” through their tweets about the death of a farmer in police firing, which were subsequently corrected as the farmer having died in a tractor crash. Also booked for the same offence was Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.
Let alone journalists, last year, the Delhi police tried to ensnare IAS officer-turned-communal harmony activist Harsh Mander and Prof Apoorvanand of Delhi University under the UAPA when the duo criticised their lopsided handling of the Delhi riots. In fact, the government is also going after stand-up comics and cartoonists. How Orwellian can things get?
It is not as if there was no pushback from the judiciary before the Vinod Dua case. On February 23, a Delhi court granted bail to environment activist Disha Ravi in a sedition case, saying the government could not put citizens “behind bars simply because they chose to disagree with the state policies”. The Delhi court also said that sedition cannot be invoked “to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments”.
That the government carries on regardless only gives rise to the suspicion that the media is being targeted with an ulterior motive. Its rationale is being questioned, its leaders are being constantly belittled, their credibility is sought to be destroyed, the media is fodder for the politics of hatred, which deflects attention from serious issues such as the health of the economy and the nation.
It is worth bringing up this year’s World Press Freedom Day theme, which is ‘Information as a public good’. It serves as a call to affirm the importance of cherishing information as a public good and exploring what can be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism.