3.5.16

The hypocrisy of a Free Press

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” — Soren Kierkegaard




Today is World Press Freedom Day. Freedom of Speech is being discussed more than ever because there are increasing restrictions the world over, from the most repressive societies like North Korea and China and Saudi Arabia to the liberal democracies like America and India. 

Such shackles on freedom include subtly toeing the government’s line on policy and social issues. Self-censorship is also a form of censorship, like abetment of suicide. And, yes, that valid but dismissed question remains: Where does one person’s freedom end and another’s begin? 

My personal stand is that if we do truly believe in freedom of expression, then we have no business to object to a viewpoint different from ours. Irrespective of whether we are liberal or conservative, left-wing or rightwing, we need to be open to others in a public space as purveyors of news and views. It might not be pleasant to hear what, from our perspective, are shocking opinions, but given the closed minds they probably find some of our views shocking too. 

It certainly does not mean accepting abuse. All media outlets have a way to deal with those. But, what happens when media channels become mouthpieces of political and other groups? We would be in denial if we ignored the reality of this. With reports that journalists were paid to muffle news on the Augusta Westland deal or earlier their involvement with the lobbyist Niira Radia, these suspicions have always been in the news, their veracity dependent not on the truth but on perception. Whose side you are on decides who is right and who is wrong. 

Today discourse is all mutual-backscratching in the safe huddle groups, whether it is going gaga over 'brave' headlines or journalists making news instead of imparting it. Quitting a job will ensure moments of martyrdom and deactivating a social media account will result in weeping over victimisation. An example of the latter is Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today TV deactivating his Twitter account. He can reactivate it without losing a thing anytime he wishes. Whatever issues he has should be a police case, not a ‘trend’. Besides, he is friends with the top brass of the BJP leadership. Do we care about reporters, unless of course there is sly video grab? 

Worse, we have Sanghi (BJP affiliated) scribes and Congi (Congress, sometimes the Left-oriented) scribes. And they are heavily dependent on trolls, who add heft to their online persona. 

There is churlish one-upmanship. While Arnab Goswami of Times Now holds a moralistic court running down his contemporaries, his opponents in the media respond with a tone that tries to ram home the point that they are sophisticated and dignified. 


Recently, anchor Ravish Kumar had an hour-long show with a black screen as the backdrop. All his words were designed to be a contrast to the burning flames of Arnab. People were stunned. They were overwhelmed. This continued till they had made Ravish Kumar a hashtag, proving precisely the point he was making against somebody. Noise. These people need saviours. Ravish is probably a very good journalist (I don’t watch Hindi news channels and neither do most who found in him an anchor). His words were nice. But this too was a performance to prove who is better at the game and, honestly, emotionally exploiting viewers is as bad as bluster. 

A bunch of groupies began infantilising viewers by advising them about lies and a truth that was spurred by competitiveness for TRPs. By taking swipes at the Arnab brand of journalism, Ravish Kumar only ended up suggesting that all debates should be uniform in tone.

The Press has never been just a carrier of news; it has always been a pawn — sometimes willing, sometimes reluctant. Press freedom is negated as much from within the Press as from outside it. Editors censor pieces and kowtow to masters of varied stripes, reports are chopped to make space for ads or when they go contrary to what the sponsors might like. Opinion pieces are censored because, again, they will cause problems. 

Should the media make its position/agenda clear to the readers, their sponsors, and their staff and contributors? Do they have the courage? No. They keep their options open because they want to curry favours. They do not know who will come to power, which industry will have its projects passed, which celebrity will be feted. So, we have a mélange of people of dubious worth featured consistently until such time that they become redundant for the 'free' media.

The media now spoon-feeds readers what it wants, and due to the nature of available soapboxes it falsely empowers people when it really is helping its own motives. Therefore, readers have become biased along the lines of what they read/watch. 

Debate is juvenile. But, hey, it is times of free speech. 

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