When Has the Indian Press Truly Been Free?

POV

When Has the Indian Press Truly Been Free?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Indian journalism is facing something of a crisis. After our dismal ranking of 138 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index, the most recent shockwave to send tremors through the foundations of the fourth pillar has been the high-profile resignation of two members of ABP News’ editorial team. The exodus began on Wednesday, when the channel announced that its editor-in-chief Milind Khandekar was resigning after holding the post for 14 years. Shortly after, news anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai also made his exit from the channel, while another anchor, Abhisar Sharma, was “sent on leave”.

Last month, the channel ran a story on Bajpai’s primetime show Masterstroke, about a farmer named Chandramani Kaushik from Chhattisgarh, and how she’d been tutored to exaggerate claims about the profits she’d from her crops during a video interaction with PM Narendra Modi. When Union Ministers Raghavendra Rathore and Nirmala Sitharaman challenged the reports on Twitter, ABP News ran a follow-up story, refuting the BJP’s rebuttals. Soon after, broadcasts of Masterstroke began facing disruptions, with signal disappearing during the show’s airtime. It was not long after that Khandekar and Bajpai parted ways with the channel.

The controversial context to their exits – there are already murmurs that they have nothing to do with the Chhattisgarh stories – has prompted concerns about the health of journalism in the country. It’s obviously possible that the link between them is correlative, not causative. But fears that the free press is no longer free, that speaking truth to power is an exercise in futility or worse, a self-destructive endeavour, have predated the immediate context. Look no further than the defamation case filed against The Wire in the Supreme Court after they reported on Jay Shah’s disproportionate assets.

At times like these, it’s important to hold on to the moments when the Indian media did display a backbone. While there’s no denying that India is hardly a journalistic utopia, it’s moments like these and other instances of reporters digging out the truth to inform the public despite the cost to themselves that prove there is still hope for Indian democracy’s fourth pillar.

It takes a brave person to be a journalist in this country.

Today, the Aadhaar security debate is as much a part of household dinner tables as yellow dal, but it was Rachna Khaira, a reporter for Chandigarh newspaper The Tribune, who first uncovered how the biometric data could be accessed for as low as ₹500 in January. She had an FIR filed against her for her trouble, but did not let that cow her in the slightest, continuing to highlight the flaws in the Aadhaar’s security.

It takes a brave person to be a journalist in this country. Exposing political scams or challenging powerful interests can often end in tragedy, as we’ve been reminded recently with the cold-blooded daylight killings of editors Gauri Lankesh in Karnataka and Shujaat Bhukari in Kashmir. Yet, it’s the efforts of investigative journalists and activists that unearthed India’s embarrassing treasure of scams, and there have been instances where even Chief Ministers have had to step down after journalists discovered the skeletons in their closet – Ashok Chavan’s Adarsh scam, BS Yeddyurappa’s land scam, and Jayalalithaa’s disproportionate assets case; corrupt undertakings that ended with the perpetrators resigning from their posts.

The most high-profile instance of Indian journalism speaking truth to power has to be the 1987 Bofors case, where the public became first acquainted with the staggering levels of corruption that had seeped into the Indian administration. Undoubtedly, The Hindu’s exposé on the Bofors scam affected the then-PM Rajiv Gandhi’s fortunes in the next elections, and he lost his seat. While the events at ABP News might imply that criticising the PM is taboo in our country, it has been done before – and could easily happen again.

Even the darkest period for India’s press, the Emergency, which lasted from 1975 to 1977, had its bright spots. A first-person recollection of those years by journalist and editor Kalpana Sharma recounts how journalists were pushing the envelope and testing how far the censors would let them go even in those authoritarian times. In closing, she asks a pointed and pertinent question, given the atmosphere around press freedom in the country today, “If even under overt censorship, some publications managed to communicate the truth to their readers, why can’t journalists do it under the indirect forms of control that exist today?”

India’s press might be facing a crisis, but it has bounced back from much worse in the past. It has to, for it must be the truth alone that triumphs in a country whose national motto is Satyameva Jayate.

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