Press freedom is inviolable in democracy

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Kuldip Nayar

THE Dawn is a fairly respected newspaper in the subcontinent. It was founded by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah at Darya Ganji in New Delhi to propagate his cause of Pakistan. When Pakistan was founded The Dawn started appearing from Karachi. Since then, the newspaper has continued its publication from there. It recently carried a story on the growing differences between the military and the civil government. The perturbed Nawaz Sharif government wanted the paper to disclose the source of the story. But it refused to do so. However, the government approached the Press Council of Pakistan, which has upheld the rights of the paper not to reveal the source.
A fairly countrywide debate has begun in Pakistan on whether or not the source should be disclosed. The overwhelming public opinion is in favour of The Dawn and supported the newspaper’s right to withhold the source. For the newspaper to confront the establishment is a courageous step. But it also shows the tenacity of the Pakistan press and the weak-kneed policy of the Sharif government. One doesn’t know how the matter will ultimately be resolved but at present the Pakistan media has won the bout.
The lesson that the Indian media can draw from the newspaper’s example is that however powerful the government maybe, the media can raise its voice as long as they hold the ground. They do not have to wilt against the government’s pressure. If the story The Dawn has broken is correct or the comment it has made is without rancour or prejudice, there is no need to afraid of the powers that be. This is a far cry from what happened to the Pakistani media some years ago. It would look towards Islamabad and mould its policy which mostly suited the government of the day. The misadventure of General Pervez Musharraf at Kargil, when he was the chief of army staff, was accepted without demur. Even there were instances of journalists were being pilloried for stories which did not show the govt in good light.
Unfortunately, the Indian media of today does not measure up to The Dawn example. The one-day ban by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry on NDTV for the Pathankot coverage was defended by the channel itself. Others stood apart until the Editors’ Guild voiced its protest. Subsequently, the channel also filed a case in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the pressure applied by other political parties, too, mounted. The NDTV owner, Pronnoy Roy, was told to appear before the Information and Broadcasting Minister where the channel was offered a compromise formula. But it goes to his credit that Roy did not rescind from his stand.
Information Minister Venkaiah Nadidu looked small when he said that a one-day ban on NDTV was in the interest of the nation. Who is he to determine what is in the national interest and who gave him the authority. Apparently, the minister realized the mistake and did not pursue the matter further. Indeed, the media scene has changed. I recall what the then editor of The Times of India, Shyam Lal, telling that Shanti Prasad Jain, the owner, did not even indirectly tell him what the paper should or should not carry. I knew Shanti Prasad Jain and he really thought that the owner was only a trustee as Mahatma Gandhi had defined the role newspaper owners.
The role of Ramnath Goenka, the owner of The Indian Express was equally commendable. I was working with the newspaper and I know even though Goenka was at the end of the road facing financial crisis because of the Indira Gandhi government’s ban on advertisements. But Goenka did not budge even an inch and gave his editors full freedom which they used to express their anti-government views freely. In the face of the emergency, The Indian Express bore the wrath of the establishment and yet continued its lonely battle against it. There were several instances of the newspaper defying the censorship. The language papers were bolder than the English ones.
Today’s Indian media, by and large, does not appear to be anti-establishment. The journalists themselves prefer to go in the direction of the wind that blows. Even the integrity of most is questioned unlike in the past. There could several reasons attributed for this change in attitude. One, the owners of the media houses have come to consider newspapers or the television channels as commercial ventures. Profit, not principle, is their motive. It also leaves no room for the handful of honest journalists to pursue their profession with full freedom.
However, Bangladesh continues to be an exception. The two leading-most papers, The Star in English and Prothom Alo in Bengali daunt Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina who is dictatorial in her methods and does not brook any criticism. It’s tragic to find that the daughter of Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, who fought for the independence of Bangladesh, has muzzled dissent and falsified all principles of her father. The Dawn example should give heart to the Bangladeshi media and the rest of those in the subcontinent. The freedom of the press is inviolable in a democratic setup. It cannot be compromised in any circumstances. People themselves take vengeance from the rulers who restrict their freedom.
Mrs Indira Gandhi, whose centenary birth anniversary is being celebrated, is an example. Her Congress Party was swept out of power in the 1977. So much so even she lost her own seat in the election held when the emergency was relaxed. In any democratic setup the sovereignty lies with the people. And they have shown again and again that they are the masters to give verdicts on political rulers. By defying the government, The Dawn has reminded the people of Pakistan that they can confront establishment and restore democracy in the real sense. Political parties have a vested interest in power. People’s interest is in the betterment and development. The latter should prevail.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.