Updated: August 6, 2022 8:20:41 am
The notice to the Indian Women’s Press Corps to vacate its premises by July-end is yet another indicator of the media’s dispensability in Modi’s New India. The closure of the IWPC at 5 Windsor Place on Ashoka Road, a 27-year old institution, would mean one less forum where journalists can engage with people in public life. It would also be a major blow for many young women scribes who require a central place to operate from since their offices have mostly relocated to the faraway National Capital Region.
Nearly two decades ago, when the IWPC premises’ lease renewal seemed in jeopardy, Parliament passed a resolution backed by all parties, including the BJP, expressing solidarity with the institution and requesting that the IWPC be allowed to retain the premises as it had an important role in our democracy. Whether this time the IWPC gets its lease extended or is foisted with a new administration on the lines followed in the takeover of the Delhi Gymkhana, or is simply evicted, is still unclear. True, the government could argue that a government bungalow allotment is not the right of the media, but a favour bestowed originally by Narasimha Rao as prime minister in 1994.
The notice, however, does indicate the government’s dim view of the role of the media in a democracy. Earlier governments followed the tradition set by our liberal-minded first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed that newspersons had an important part to play in acting as a watchdog on politicians, bureaucracy and constitutional bodies. They helped guard against elected representatives and bureaucrats exercising unfettered power and misusing the system. To function freely, the media necessarily needs to remain in contact with those in authority, so that it is in a position to deduce the truth and obtain accurate information on issues of public importance. Accessibility is a key factor in media-government relations.
But the government, post 2014, favours a more authoritarian model. It does not see the media as being the fourth estate and a co-stakeholder in our democracy. Rather, it is perceived as adversarial whenever there is a disagreement on policy issues. Instead of sharing information, the attitude is that the government and the media should work in separate silos. The government will provide its data and findings, but in return it expects a pliant media which does not ask questions. Some overreaching government media advisers assume that it is the duty of journalists to reproduce whatever is fed to them by official sources and even helpfully provide bullet points to highlight the main news. They interpret the term news “reporter’’ very literally. Someone who simply takes notes from the information provided by official channels.
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The long established tradition of sharing information with journalists is slowly fading in many spheres. Rather, the idea is to maintain a distance. For instance, Central Hall in Parliament is now out of bounds for senior journalists even though they possess valid passes earned after many years of parliamentary coverage. The excuse for the journalist ban was Coronavirus, but though the pandemic restrictions have eased in most of the country and few in Parliament still wear masks, this is the fig leaf for the exclusion of journalists. Significantly, in the new Parliament building plan, there is no provision for a Central Hall, where correspondents could exchange notes with MPs. The media’s presence in Parliament House has also been drastically reduced. Media organisations are now permitted to send only one accredited parliamentary correspondent to cover the Lok Sabha and the number of days for coverage per week is also restricted. A few news agencies and official media are the only exceptions.
Correspondents with the once coveted Press Information Bureau (PIB) cards are no longer permitted automatic access to the North and South Block secretariats, housing important ministries such as home, finance or external affairs. An appointment has to be made first with the concerned official the journalist proposes to meet. Similarly, in Rashtrapati Bhavan, photographers are not allowed to cover functions in the Durbar and Ashoka Halls and investiture ceremonies. (The exception is the ceremonial reception for foreign dignitaries). The government prefers to rely on official photographers and agencies for fear that a prying cameraman might click a less than flattering profile.
Prime Minister Modi, whose compelling Mann Ki Baat talks are heard by millions, is surprisingly unwilling to address a press conference. He opts for a one-way dialogue rather than interactive exchanges. Former PM Manmohan Singh took advantage of this lacuna to remark wryly, “People say I was the silent PM. I wasn’t the PM who was afraid of talking to the press.’’ From the start of his tenure, Modi ended the practice of taking newspersons on the PM’s flight. Similarly, the president’s and vice president’s flights allow only official media on board.
Defenders of the government’s somewhat authoritarian approach towards the media like to remind their critics of the dark days of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency when total censorship was in place and there was a complete blackout of any anti-government news. Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency regulations and actions were certainly far more draconian and she was brutally frank in stating her intention of muzzling the press. Today, there are no sledgehammer measures in place, but there are subtle ways of sending a message across, whether it is unleashing the Enforcement Directorate on a media owner or dubbing dissent against the state as anti-national by dangerously equating the government with the nation. The degree of plurality of opinion in our mainstream television channels and newspapers, which could be expected in a country as large, diverse and stratified, socially and economically, as India, is sadly missing.
Objectivity is increasingly perceived as giving spokespersons of different parties the right to express themselves on topical issues, without the media taking an editorial stand. Television channel debates are particularly symptomatic of today’s malaise. People representing diametrically opposite views simply shout each other down without any attempt at a dialogue or rational argument. This results in a deeply polarised society, where there is no meeting ground because of the refusal to have any sort of sober and civilised exchange of ideas.
The writer is consulting editor, The Indian Express
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