Freedom inside a cage

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’

———Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Some months back there raged a debate regarding ‘freedom of speech’ and allegations were made against the government that it had trampled the right to expression of the general people. Let us not get into the debate further, but keeping up with the same veins, let us talk about the right to expression that the press and media across the world enjoy.

On May 3, the press fraternity come together to celebrate World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), which is considered to be an important date and day in the life of a journalist. We, as journalist, have the power of words and we have the power to unearth the truth and struck a chord of change. ‘Press is free’, it is often said but are we actually free?

Guwahati-based journalist Nabarun Guha says, “The concept of World Press Freedom Day is a utopia for me. We are living in an age where it looks like journalists have a lot of freedom and they might control the world but in reality they are mere pawns, controlled by bigger players.”

Adding further, he says, “A recent survey has found that only 14 per cent of the world’s population live in countries where government intrusion into media operations is minimal. Number of journalists assaulted or killed is increasing alarmingly across the world and it doesn’t augur well for the fraternity.”

“One of the main reasons why journalists are struggling for their freedom is because they are not liberated economically. These guys are engaged in one of the toughest and riskiest profession. They don’t have a fixed schedule and sometimes have to spend the entire day on the ground. However, for all their efforts, they are getting just peanuts. They fight for the justice of the entire world, but are the biggest victims of injustice. Because they don’t have economic freedom, they have to follow their bosses because losing a job in this lousy scenario is not an option. There are some journalists who show their liking towards a party or an individual openly and by doing this, they are neither doing themselves nor the fraternity any favour. But most of the times, journalists are compelled to pursue a particular line of reporting due to pressure,” Guha concludes.

Speaking on the similar veins, Sayanti Deb, another young journalist from the city says, “Even though much is said about the freedom of press, but due to the corporatisation of media, the press today can hardly enjoy that freedom. The priority for the ‘mainstream’ media is not the readers but the advertisers. Under this juncture, working independently is almost impossible for journalists. The role of editors in media has been diluted. Flashing of news in channels or printing of stories in papers today is decided not by the editors of the news channel or papers but by the management.”

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It is true that media today is constantly under the attack of people with self vested interests. We cannot speak openly about the religious bigotries that are prevalent within every religion. As a journalist, even though I don’t say that I am religiously biased, I cannot write of a second religion as this will lead to a clash and fingers will be pointed at me. Forget writing about other religion, situation has become such that today even if I write about the wrongs of my own religion, there are chances that I might be hacked to death.

As per 2015 annual World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), India was ranked 136 out of 180 nations worldwide in terms of press freedom. This marks an improvement from its rank of 140 in 2014, even though its absolute score declined from 40.34 to 40.49.

The report further revealed that India’s ‘abuse score’, which reflects the intensity of violent harassment faced by journalists was 59.58, which is higher than Sri Lanka’s score of 40.6 but below Pakistan’s score of 64.91 and China’s score of 89.64.

Regarding the country performance the WPFI report said, “One journalist and no net citizens were killed.”

The WPFI ranks the performance of countries according to a range of criteria that include media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate, according to its producers. While the top of the list was this year and in previous years dominated by Scandinavian nations such as Finland, Norway and Denmark, at the other end of the scale, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea, were the worst performers.

Some months back I met some old friends who are currently working in the corporate world. As we talked on and on, one of the conversations shifted towards journalism and one of the friends was quick to say all sorts of nonsense about journalists and journalists.

“You journalists are blackmailers,” he had said.

Replying calmly, I said, “I won’t disagree. Yes, some of us are blackmailers but then in the corporate world too you have blackmailers, don’t you? You expect us to write the truth, but when we do write, how much attention do you give? How much of you are interested in reading about the rural India ahead of the glitz and glamour world of Page 3? Yes, most of the journalists don’t follow the ethics, but do you care about those who follow the ethics? You remember a blackmailer but do you also know the names of those journalists who have sacrificed their lives in the line of duty? Do you know about the freedom that we actually enjoy?”

And there followed some more questions and the discussion which looked calm initially took an ugly turn and I decided to make an early retreat. Later on, I hear, this friend of mine called me an ugly faggot!

“All journalists are the same and Partha is no different,” he had exactly quoted.

We are in a free country and we can express our views. Coming back to freedom of press, if we closely observe we will see that even though the Article 19 gives us the power to express the truth freely, yet we cannot call ourselves to be free to the real extent.

In Uttar Pradesh on June 1, 2015, a journalist named Jagendra Singh was burned alive, allegedly by police, after he accused a politician of raping a nursery worker and corruption. Is this the freedom that boast about or the non-journalists envy about?

A Delhi-based journalist, Amit Saxena, during a candid chit-chat over the phone said, “Compared to some other countries, media in India is free even though we are not free to a great extent. Here, we have bloggers and freelance journalists who are doing commendable job. But the sad part is that they seldom get the recognition which they actually deserve. The government, in most cases, acts as a check-gate and it filters a lot of news as well. India is a dynamic country and the media is under constant bombardments of judgments and criticism. WPFD is a noble effort, I feel, as it gives recognition to those journalists who are working day in and day out for the community. This year, jailed Azerbaijan investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has been chosen to receive the 2016 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. This is actually good news for the fraternity as this shows that no matter what, good work will always be appreciated.”

Journalism is the index of the society and we journalist write and cover stories that are close to the society. Even if some journalist comes up with a voyeuristic story, it is also the reflection of the society. We must be intelligent enough to do the right story in the right way. Government pressure would always be there and there will be scrutiny from different sides. A free press certainly helps in creating a stronger society but this freedom must not be misused. And WPFD reminds us as how we should use our freedom of expression. The 136th rank is an indication that the freedom that Indian media enjoys is actually ‘caged freedom’ and the cage is chained to a pole as well.

(The above has been published in the May issue of Good Times of North East)

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