A free press serves the governed, not governments

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On a Sunday night last month, at a movie theater in Gurgaon, a city that neighbors India’s national capital, New Delhi, a packed hall greeted Steven Spielberg’s The Post. This is surprising, since The Post isn’t exactly a subject that is a crowd puller in a country more used to Jedi knights or Terminators battling it out onscreen.

A still from 'The Post', that chronicles the The Washington Post's decision to print the top secret Pentagon papers. Photo: Fox Movies

A still from The Post, which chronicles the The Washington Post’s decision to print the top-secret Pentagon Papers. Photo: Fox Movies

It’s a film about a woman (Katherine Graham, played by Meryl Streep) finding her feet in the newspaper business in Washington, DC. It depicts a gritty editor (Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks) battling the lawyers in suits to publish a story nearly 40 years ago, which isn’t exactly a crowd puller in these parts.

But the cinema was full of surprises. Not only did the crowds come, they cheered and clapped at all the right parts. Clearly, a movie about journalism taking on the powers that be, and winning, still resonates in India, a country that is actually witnessing growing newspaper readership.

In May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stormed into New Delhi on a wave of support for its prime-ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. For nearly 15 years Modi had served as the chief minister of Gujarat state, managing to overcome a major challenge to his rule in 2002 when riots broke out. While official figures peg the death toll at about 700, critics suggest it was much higher. The majority of those killed were Muslims.

The 2002 riots saw an unrelenting campaign in the media to pin the blame on Modi. Naturally, for him, the press was not an ally, and at best was viewed with contempt. Some of that slipped through at an election rally for the state of Delhi in February 2015. He dismissed polls predicting a defeat for the BJP, just seven months after winning a historic mandate. Addressing the rally, Modi blamed the “bazaaru log” (people who can be sold) for the predictions. Many interpreted it as a reference to the media, which wer carrying out these predictions.

Adversarial media

In the four years that he has been in power, Modi has never held a press conference. He only gives interviews, to media channels and TV anchors who are favorable to him. He recently gave an interview to a Hindi news channel, which was promoted by a media entrepreneur who is a member of Parliament’s upper house. It is believed that he was elected unopposed with support from the BJP.

The other interview that Modi gave had two TV anchors who lobbed questions such as “Prime Minister, you have been trying to improve India’s image abroad, but some of our leaders go abroad and tell the Indian diaspora that things are not working well in India. They urge Indians abroad to return home because everything is getting worse. What will you say to those people?”

Clearly, they weren’t looking for any incisive comments to recent events, such as the failure of the much-touted demonetization, the rising terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir despite the “surgical strikes’’ by Indian Special Forces in September 2017, or the lack of jobs for millions of young Indians. Ironically, the TV channels closest to the ruling establishment have been found to be among the top organizations spreading “fake news” in India.

The rise of the troll armies

Since  2014, the rise of social media has created a strange phenomenon in India. It helped the BJP and Modi get around traditional media and approach the people directly. This gave rise to the new discourse that SM (social media) was better than MSM (mainstream media). The labels were cleverly used to de-legitimize any criticism that could hurt the BJP’s electoral fortunes. People were told that the MSM could not be trusted, so SM was the best alternative. As this discourse grew, few noticed the irony when such so-called SM platforms became MSM as soon as the BJP came to power.

Today, the sacking of a political editor from a prominent Indian media house raises disturbing questions about the media, in India and globally. The political editor was apparently fired for a tweet that seemed to criticize her colleagues. But her colleagues who were found to have spread fake news, leading to communal clashes, were never pulled up. Journalists have been threatened, arrested, beaten up or murdered. They are routinely abused on social media, and their personal details outed to harass them.

What is also worrying is that the prime minister has drawn unwanted attention for following “abusive trolls” on Twitter. Some of them have also threatened women with rape and violence, but continue to feed the prime minister’s timeline. This has been one of the clearest ways adopted by the ruling dispensation to drown out the traditional news media and shape a narrative that works in its favor. A news channel partly funded by a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament) who is also closely linked to the BJP has now emerged as the key channel to attack the opposition every time it criticizes the government.

Why the press still matters

In 1957, John Grigg, the 2nd Baron Altrincham wrote a piece in his little-known journal, the National and English Review, that created a furor. He wrote a scathing piece against the British monarchy, saying that Queen Elizabeth II came off as “a priggish schoolgirl” and that her style of speaking was a “a pain in the neck.” Until then, few had dared to criticize the monarchy and people began to attack Grigg for “treason.”

But it made Buckingham Palace sit up and take notice. It is believed that the queen changed and opened up, and adopted several of the changes that Grigg had suggested. For a centuries-old institution, to embrace such dramatic change was a tough call. It was left to the media to stand up against popular opinion and effect that change.

In the movie The Post, editors of The Washington Post argue with their lawyers in favor of defying the Richard Nixon administration and printing the Pentagon Papers, a “top secret” study of the Vietnam War. A key moment in the film is when a nine-judge bench of the US Supreme Court rules that the press has the right to print the papers, by a majority of 6-3. The personal opinion of one of the judges, Hugo Black, becomes the clarion call for the role of the press. “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” Justice Black wrote. He also made another point that lies at the heart of the current debates that the media face the world over.

The 2016 US elections saw the rise of Donald Trump, who began to label media exposés as “fake news.” In both the election in India that preceded the one in the US, the tactics were the same. Labeling critical journalism as “fake” ensures that dedicated followers remain committed to the “great leader.”

Ironically, the rise or social media such as Facebook has hurt the mainstream media, but has ended up creating a culture where “fake news” can be weaponized to target US voters. In some ways, this is journalism’s gravest threat. The truth, as two Reuters journalists covering a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar found out, can land reporters in jail.

That is why, in countries such as India, the US, Turkey and Myanmar, the role of the press is becoming more critical every day. The growth of populist and “nationalist” politics is trying to shape a discourse that is patently false. In India, soldiers are regularly killed, but raising questions about the government’s inaction is quickly termed “anti-national.”

This is why it is important to recall another extract from Justice Hugo Black’s opinion on the role of the free press. “Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press,” he said, “is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”

Today, citizens and their rights are under threat from populist governments. The press must soldier on.

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