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 going.
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.)