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Blue Pencilled Rhapsodies: The Freedom of The Indian Media

The professionalism of the press has kept the world afloat when it seemed near impossible. It is the deterrent to totalitarianism because dissent conceptualizes itself in the words of an unfettered journalist.

A few years after the french revolution, Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman looked up to the press gallery of the House of Commons and said, “Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than them all.” Rightfully so, the Watergate expose brought down the Nixon administration and Bofors took down Rajiv Gandhi. The Boston Globe’s investigation into pedophilic pastors who preyed on young boys and then the Church’s attempts to cover these crimes shattered public opinion of the ‘holy orders’.

Time and again, the press has reminded the people of their power over governments, congregations, and themselves. And so it should not come as a surprise when these institutions seek to disenfranchise the freedom of the press.

Over the years, Indian media has guided the public narrative of governments and their policies. However, they have never been free of intimidation from powerful lobbyists which are precisely why India ranks 142 out of the 180 countries who are analyzed by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a French nonprofit that conducts the World Press Freedom Index every year.

In their annual report, the RSF has maintained that “those who espouse Hindutva, the ideology that gave rise to Hindu nationalism, are trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate.” Journalists who critique the regime are often victims of online smear campaigns and this is increasingly true for female journalists who are also subjected to online sexual abuse and rape threats. The use of sedition laws by prosecutors and the establishment of an Electronic Media Monitoring Centre that employs two hundred content editors who watch six hundred news channels and send hourly updates to the Principal Secretary of the Prime Minister increases self-censorship among journalists. Additionally, the creation of the National Media Analytics which surveils everything on the internet and categorizes journalists into those who are favoring the regime and those who aren’t.

However, one region, in particular, has impacted India’s global ranking in press freedom. Kashmir. After the abrogation of Article 370, the internet and mobile services were shut down in the region for six months. This was the longest telecommunications blockade by any democratic country in history. Enforcement of AFSPA(Armed Forces Special Provisions Act) and Section 144(unlawful assembly) has allowed armed personnel to tyrannize the journalists who wish to capture the ground reality in Kashmir as opposed to the government-approved propaganda most corporate media houses were publishing. On April 18th, Masrat Zahra was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for allegedly having posted her work on social media. Peerzada Ashiq, a special correspondent for The Hindu was also harassed by the police who filed an FIR against him for supposed reporting of fake news. And so when the RSF dubs Kashmir to be a “vast open prison” where it is virtually impossible for journalists to cover stories, it is difficult to disagree.

Indian media has now been reduced to the ultra-left and the hardcore right, neither of which benefits a healthy democracy. The fourth estate is supposed to be the alien limb that does not fall within the purview or jurisdiction of any institution. Print media is dying and journalism has become a desolate dry plain that will soon give way to social media and the convenience of personalized, apathetic news feeds. In the middle of this demoralized atmosphere, the only way to save journalism is to step out of the mopery and realize its potential. Media can save us from tyranny and take us there too. Guide the fourth pillar of Indian democracy into the light.

Authored by Naomi Kurian

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