First & foremost, a humanist

That’s what I learnt from Ramnath Goenka and 40 years of public life... We must debate, discuss, decide and deliver.

Written by M Venkaiah Naidu | Updated: December 22, 2017 7:43:22 am
(Illustration/C R Sasikumar)

I am extremely delighted to be with all of you here today to recall and applaud the spirit of “journalism of courage” piloted by Ramnath Goenka, particularly when the nation passed through trying times. These awards, instituted in the name of such a doyen of freedom of speech and expression, have rightly emerged as the largest and the most coveted journalism awards in the country. This is because Ramnath Goenka embodied the finest qualities of journalism of courage and commitment: Fierce independence, relentless pursuit of facts, a robust determination to withstand pressures, to constantly ask questions and to uphold the principles of freedom of expression in the face of every challenge. These attributes also constitute the highest principles of citizenship and are necessary for strengthening our democracy.

It is indeed my privilege to be here this evening to celebrate the legacy of Ramnath Goenka by recognising the talented journalists who, through their work, symbolise his true spirit. Another reason for my being here is that I have had the privilege of knowing him and to be with him.

What I learnt from him and during my 40 years in public life is that in a democracy you are, first and foremost, a humanist. Your party affiliation and beliefs are vital to the public discourse but most important of all is your faith in justice and humanity. I am now an all party-man and as the Chairman of Rajya Sabha, I need to fulfil my obligations of impartiality and neutrality which apply to good quality journalism as well. I have also learnt that discussion and dialogue, exchange of ideas, reconciling seemingly irreconciliable differences to achieve consensus, are fundamental to the vibrancy and health of a parliamentary democracy. Democracy is not only about numbers but also about understanding and appreciating each other’s point of view. We must debate, discuss, decide and deliver. I am happy that the Rajya Sabha is on track after the first two days of adjournments.

We have adopted parliamentary democracy and our Constitution has given all of us the “right to freedom of speech and expression”. In a democracy, people have to make informed choices about the parties and candidates who claim the patronage of the people. For making the right choices, citizens need to be informed of the issues that confront them in their daily lives and in the life of a nation struggling with multifarious problems of tremendous complexity.

Historically, the media have been organs of the people against feudal oppression. In Europe, the media played an important role in transforming a feudal society into a modern one. The print media played an important role in preparing for, and during, the British, American and French revolutions. The media became a powerful tool in the hands of the people then because people could not express themselves through the established organs of power, as they were in the hands of feudal and despotic rulers. It is for this reason that the print media became known as the “fourth estate”. We are aware of the role the nationalist media played during the freedom struggle.

Journalism is all about the conversation of the people, and for the people, and this is possible in an environment of freedom of expression. This freedom should not be tampered with as was done during the Emergency when The Indian Express, under the leadership of Ramnath Goenka, stoutly protested and opposed it by offering blank editorials instead of submitting to censorship. Indians love their personal freedoms and a fierce manifestation of this was witnessed when they voted overwhelmingly against the dark days of the Emergency in 1977.

We also need to understand the scope and nature of the freedom of speech and expression. Can this be an absolute right? Since every one of us is entitled to such freedom, my freedom obviously ends as it touches the boundary of your freedom. So, it cannot be an absolute freedom. Accordingly, freedom comes along with certain responsibilities and restrictions. The Constitution of India has, accordingly, imposed certain reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, public order, decency or morality and also qualified it with respect to defamation, words or deeds amounting to inciting violence or causing disaffection against the state.

I am not pleased with our country being ranked 133 among 180 countries in the 2016 “World Press Freedom Index”. I am told that this low ranking is on account of the environment of threats, intimidation, unfair treatment, etc. At one level, we have the most vibrant and free media in the region, but still, there are some issues impacting the Freedom Index. All concerned should address this issue and enhance the Press Freedom Index by strengthening media independence, ensuring plurality of media, transparent flow of information, more coherent legal framework vis-à-vis the application of the rule of law and safety and freedom of journalists. This is imperative in the context of our being the world’s largest democracy.

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The media’s role, in my view, should be the empowerment of people with required information, social mobilisation, building partnerships, catalysing individual and collective actions for the betterment of lives and promoting peace and harmony and supporting national reconstruction.

To a great extent, the media shares the three core functions of parliamentary democracy which are representative, deliberative and oversight functions. It should bring out the hopes and aspirations of the people, promote conversation for the betterment of their lives and examine the accountability of decision-making and governing institutions. The media is growing rapidly. India has over one lakh registered periodicals and close to a thousand TV channels, besides the rapidly expanding internet platform. The cumulative annual growth rate of the entertainment and media industry during 2011-16 was 17 per cent, estimated at $21 billion. We are among the top 15 in this regard with countries like the US, Japan, China, Germany, UK, France, etc.

The rapidly expanding media universe in our country has come to acquire its share of concerns. The question often being raised in several quarters is whether Indian media is getting its priorities right. Is our media driven by the needs of the society or only by profit and TRPs? In this competitive, free-for-all media environment, the power of communication is being exercised without responsibility or accountability. This has given a section of the media a bad name and allowed questions to be raised on its trustworthiness. You would agree with me that, many times, hard news is ignored for needless controversies and too much time and space is spent on trivial issues in a nation where inequality, injustice and ignorance still impact the lives of millions.

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A soft and simplified journalism has emerged which is characterised by three Cs — crime, cinema and cricket. Sensational and yellow journalism is another dark side of this noble profession which needs to be addressed. I have always held the view that news and views should be kept separate. Media needs to highlight the facts and leave it to the judgement of the readers or viewers. The four key standards for journalism are accuracy, balance, seeking accountability and separation of news from editorial and advertising.

The Parliamentary Committee on Information and Technology has recommended a statutory regulator for both print and electronic media. To avoid such a contingency, the media should rise to the occasion by ensuring strict and effective self-regulation. External regulations can be countered with quality journalism which is based on facts — independent, objective, balanced and sensitive. Journalism that seeks out the news wherever it may be and puts it on the front page of the country’s attention span.

The tagline of The Indian Express is “Journalism of Courage”. The legendary Ramnath Goenka is the guiding spirit behind this brand of journalism. The Indian Express is holding aloft excellence in journalism as a major ingredient of a healthy democracy and with the Ramnath Goenka Awards, we celebrate journalism at its best. The awards recognise journalism that challenges the frivolity of sensationalism with in-depth analysis and investigation. The winners tonight have shunned the temptation of instant breaking news and, instead, have asked compelling questions of those in power and dug deep to seek answers. They have strived to separate fact from fiction and to shed light on our little victories and big defeats.

Edited address of Vice President of India, chief guest and keynote speaker at the 12th Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards, December 20.

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