A free press?
ALEX PERRY is lucky. He is not an Indian, and he is not a Kashmiri. His harassment by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office, following his over-imaginative reporting in Time on the Prime Minister's health, is a picnic compared to what lesser media mortals in this land have to contend with. The good thing about the paranoid response of the Prime Minister's Office to his reporting is that it helped to raise the issue of press freedom again.
While the Perry storm has blown over, Iftikhar Geelani, New Delhi bureau chief of the Indian daily Kashmir Times and correspondent for the Pakistani daily The Nation, continues to bide his time in Tihar jail. When they raided the house of his father-in-law Syed Ali Shah Geelani they also raided his house and checked out the contents of his computer. They found material about the Indian Army taken from a published book; they also found blank visa forms for Pakistan. Given his relationship to Geelani senior that was enough to arrest him on June 9, after booking him under the Official Secrets Act. He has since then been assaulted inside the jail. The explanation given to his lawyer is that "those who come to jail with this kind of allegation get this kind of treatment".
Geelani was accredited to the Press Information Bureau in Delhi and the executive editor of the Kashmir Times has called it a totally fabricated case. But he is a Kashmiri journalist, and like journalists in the North-East, this tribe is always vulnerable to government suspicion. The militants attack them, and so does the Border Security Force (BSF). In May last year, over 17 journalists were attacked by the BSF headed by a DIG while they were covering an incident in Magam on the Srinagar-Gulmarg road. Injury and destroyed equipment resulted. But nobody in Delhi gets worked up for long over cases like this. It is treated as par for the course. This year there was also an Internet and STD ban in Kashmir for over four months, and naturally journalists were badly affected. Is it a press freedom issue? It is.
Last week Tehelka was raided, and this dotcom's relentless harassment has become the most spectacular example of just how much you must be prepared to endure if your journalism comes too close to the bone for those in power.
Sections of the middle class admired Tehelka for what it did. In Delhi they flocked to a conference room in the Indian International Centre when Shankar Sharma, the stockbroker who had invested in Tehelka, described his horrific travails. But that was about it. Civil society does not assert itself beyond that.
Violations of press freedom that occur in Delhi get noticed. But experiences from all around the country show that tolerance from the Government as an institution is thin. There are no deep-rooted convictions among those who rule today about a free press being essential to the health of a democracy.
Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu decided suddenly in August last year that the press should not have access to the Tamil Nadu Assembly proceedings. Instead reporters got a suitably edited tape every evening.
This year the Speaker of the Kerala Assembly also decided to revise the rules regarding Assembly coverage. Under the new rules, TV crews have to leave the assembly premises immediately after "Question Hour". Previously, they were permitted to cover the entire proceedings of the house. Camera angles modelled on the Lok Sabha coverage guidelines have also been specified. When a boycott by TV channel crews followed the Chief Minister retaliated by refusing to meet the press.
In Tamil Nadu, the Chief Minister takes a dim view of the press and it shows in what her police and officials do to them. After the incident of the Karunanidhi arrest, which Sun TV exploited to the hilt, there was a police attack on journalists during a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) rally last August. More recently, Sun TV's efforts to cover a lathi charge against DMK cadres were foiled when the police confiscated the cassette and taped it over, to erase the pictures of the lathi charge. Innovative repression is the order of the day.
Intolerance of the press among politicians, the police and government officials is growing, even if all three find the Fourth Estate occasionally useful. The Tamil magazine Nakkeeran and its editor were used by the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka Governments during negotiations to secure the freedom of actor Rajkumar from the clutches of Veerappan. But subsequently the magazine's reporter Sivasubramaniam was arrested and continues to alternate between police and judicial custody. Gopal himself is suspect and facing severe questioning by the Tamil Nadu police.
In Gujarat, the State Government had tried to tame the press even before the events of February-March this year. Last August it had initiated a move to bring the press in the State under the purview of the Consumer Protection Act. The Chief Minister told the Assembly that people would be able to move the consumer courts, if they felt wronged by newspapers, he added. There was an instant reaction from the media and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre quickly leaned upon the State Government to drop the move. In the North-East, newspapers are under pressure from militant groups to publish their statements and attacked by the Government if they do so.
Growing public disenchantment with media practice also helps the Government. It is resulting in a loss of sympathy for the profession, which detracts from the awareness and concern that should be there over the state of press freedom in this country. There is no public outcry.
Thus, belonging to the media in India is a truly unique experience. You can be wooed and kicked at the same time. You can be elevated into positions for which you have no qualification if your journalistic politics is of the right colour, you can also be hounded for simply practising your profession if they are not of the right colour.
No Prime Minister has had so many journalists as advisers or on his staff as this one. The BJP's favourite media stalwarts sit on committees, chair institutions, and get loans from financial institutions.
So where does that leave us? True press freedom warrants neither carrot nor stick.
Both signify a lack of respect for the Fourth Estate. Recently, civil society won a victory in cleaning up the electoral process by getting a favourable Supreme Court judgment on a public interest litigation. The court's orders have been accepted by the Election Commission. Now public attention should be on better safeguards for press freedom. If the Press Council is acknowledged to be toothless, it is time to seek an alternative.
E-mail the writer at email@example.com
Send this article to Friends by