Reflections on World Press Freedom Day
As we are hunkered down, this World Press Freedom Day, in
the face of the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, hoping we will liberate
ourselves from it sooner than later, we must also be alive to how the situation
is fraught with risk and danger, not only for our health and life and
livelihood, but equally for our right to be informed citizens – our right to a
free press which is the sine qua non
of any meaningful democracy.
We need to do so because our right to know is as crucial as
our right to life and personal liberty guaranteed in Article 21 of the Indian
Constitution. Indeed successive Supreme Court judgements have read the right to
know into Article 21. Three decades back, in Reliance Petrochemicals versus Proprietors of Indian Express
Newspapers Ltd the two-judge bench comprising Justice S. Ranganathan and
Justice Sabyasachi Mukherji described the right to know as a basic right that jells
into “the broader horizon of the right to live in this age in our land under
Article 21 of the Constitution”. Again, in 2004, Justices Ruma Pal and B.N.
Srikrishna maintained, in Essar Oil versus
Halar Utkarsh Samiti & Others in the apex court, that there is “a strong
link between Article 21 and the right to know, particularly where secret government decisions may affect
health, life and livelihood…” (italics added). It was as if they were,
presciently, speaking to the present condition.
The other side of this Right to Information, which became
law in 2005, is the right of the people, the citizenry, to be informed by the free
press. It becomes the bounden duty of the press to keep the people informed, so
that they may exercise their democratic rights and choices in their own best
interests, which by definition translates into the larger public good.
We have to be alive to the growing threat to the fourth
estate from illiberal regimes which see it as nothing but a hurdle in their
pursuit of narrow, divisive, populist agendas. We need to be alert to, even as
we are ashamed of, the fifth column in the fourth estate itself, which has
become an unabashed propaganda arm of those in power, and worse, a willing cat’s
paw to swipe at any opposition to their arbitrary rule.
We need to reinforce, today more than ever before in our
independent history, the dharma of
the free press to speak truth to power, to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict
the comfortable’; and not kowtow to, nor be cowed down by, those in power.
We have to be wary of the insinuation that the role of the
press in times of a global health emergency like this is to blindly support the
work, and bolster the image, of the governments of the day rather than critically,
rationally, fairmindedly, scrutinize the policies and measures being taken to
tackle the crisis. We have to call out glib opportunistic attempts at reducing the
role of the press in this crisis to handout journalism. It is precisely in tough situations like
these that tough, competent and resilient investigative journalism needs to get
We must be wary, and steer clear, of the misinformation and
disinformation rampant in the social media which muddy the waters and make it a
whirlpool of prejudice, hate and distrust, and of journalism being caught in
and dragged down into it. We must, at the same time, be able to call the bluff
of ‘fake news’ being used as an alibi and an epithet of scorn against the
independent-minded media by precisely those who peddle lies and hate.
Journalism in many parts of the world today including ours
is, to adapt Rousseau’s enduring metaphor, notionally free but actually in
chains. It is not the fault of Indian journalism that it features abysmally
low, 140th in a list of 180 countries, in the World Press Freedom
Index. It is the fault of those at the helm of affairs who have made and kept
the conditions so inimical and precarious for the free press to exercise its
freedom, boldly and fearlessly, in the larger public interest.
We are faced with the worst virus in living memory, but know in our hearts that this too shall pass. With the same measure of confidence and determination, let us this day declare, about the challenges facing our press freedoms, that we shall overcome.
(Sashi Kumar is the Chairman of the Media Development Foundation and the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.)