The Indian media as an estate has the Hindu to thank for what recent events have demonstrated. Handsome support from civil society and fellow journalists can be earned if you are seen as upstanding and if your epitomise much of what is right about Indian media. Reprieve from attacks upon ones liberty can also be earned without actually paying a major price, if you are weighty enough to reach the highest in the land in a moment of extreme crisis. The Hindu had the reputation, reach, resources and platform to catalyse a tremendous outcry as well as get a timely stay from the Supreme Court.
But the worrying corollary is, what of those who cannot summon all these but are entitled to liberty and free speech none the less? And will even the Hindu episode actually be enough to galvanise elected representatives into starting the process of codifying the privileges of Parliament and the legislatures? Will the Supreme Court actually give a direction or judgement when the case comes up soon for hearing shortly? Will the BJP and the Congress who both condemned the Tamilnadu legislatures action agree to codification of the privileges of Parliament as a starting point? Will all the chief ministers who rushed to associate themselves with the papers credibility pause awhile to consider their own record in the sticky matter of press freedom?
The problem at this point is threefold. There are threats to press freedom arising from the way privilege is used, there is oppression of the media by the forces of the state, and there is also growing restrictiveness in some parts of the country in the access given to the press to do their job, notably in Tamilnadu and Gujarat.
In Bihar, about a year ago or less, the Hindustan Times decision to conduct an opinion poll on whether the state legislative council should be abolished earned it a notice of privilege from that august house. Neither the newspaper not the rest of the press took it lying down. There were protests, and even a seminar organised on the subject until Laloo Yadav intervened to have the notice withdrawn.
But in Maharashtra the editor of Mahanagar, the Marathi evening paper, has been to jail twice as a result of motions of privilege. The first time it was invoked was when he profiled a Shiv Sena MLA who had been murdered, describing his record as it was. That was deemed to have lowered the prestige of the assembly. He went to jail for four days. The second time, much more recently, was when he wrote an editorial opposing a privilege motion on a writer in the Economic and Political Weekly. That earned him a privilege motion too. Nikhil Wagle refuses to appear before the privileges committee because he does not consider it an independent committee. He preferred to go to jail for a day.
The second category of threat is state oppression. Tehelka and Iftikhar Gilani suffered it in recent times, the first for its sting operation which exposed the powerful. The latter spent seven months in prison despite being totally innocent, but civil society does not react quite as handsomely when the victim happens to be a Kashmiri Muslim. That includes Mr L K Advani who sprang to help The Hindu with such alacrity.
Similarly Chief Minister A K Antony who rushed to condemn the Tamilnadu police action against The Hindu seems unable to help a mofussil reporter in Wayanad whom his state police have harassed for nine months. Ramdas Mannarottu has been falsely implicated for murder following the February clash between police and tribals at Muthanga in which a policeman and a tribal died. He continues to be on anticipatory bail, reporting every week to an investigating officer, and banned from leaving the state. The CBI has now taken over the case. A long time sympathiser of the tribal cause, his reporting prior to the clash had irked the local police. Asianet whose stringer he used to be has pretty much dumped him, and his legal expenses have reduced him to penury. His fellow journalists have repeatedly appealed to the CM and others in vain.
In Tamilnadu controversial Nakkeeran editor R R Gopal continues to rot in jail under POTA after the Supreme Court set aside the bail granted by the High Court. Journalists in the state are divided over support to him because of his relationship with Veerappan, but few dispute that he has been falsely implicated under POTA. The High Court found discrepancies in the police descriptions of the weapon they allegedly found on him.
In Gujarat the Modi government has filed a case against Aaj Tak for carrying a story on an orphaned child whom President Kalam had picked up after the Gujarat riots and announced that the state would adopt. A year later the channel found the child back on the streets and did a story. The state government did not respond when asked for a comment. The government has not questioned the authenticity of the story but says it will cause public disaffection. Aaj Tak has moved the High Court to have the case vacated. The hostility is not new: its reporters and OB vans were attacked during the elections last year.
The exception is Uttar Pradesh. No conflict with the press of any kind, the fourth estate here is legendary for being happily coopted.
In the third category, that of restricted access, both Narendra Modi and Jayalalithaa share a common dislike for communicating with the media. Both actively discourage their officers and ministers from meeting the press, and keep formal interactions to a minimum. Jayalalithaa slaps defamation cases against the media at the drop of a hat, Modi is learning to drag the media to court as well. One case of defamation filed by the Tamilnadu government against the Hindu was for printing a a story about Pondicherry school children being taken ill on the Tamilnadu state page of the paper.
And in Kerala journalists have clashed twice with the same Speaker of the Assembly. Once recently over access for cameras in the house, and once in the eighties when he denied a press pass to a reporter whose reporting annoyed him. The case went to the High Court and is now before the Supreme Court. Threats to free media functioning come from criminals in Bihar, and from both the police and the Shiv Sena in Mumbai. There are documented instances, in both places.
Little wonder then that India ranks 128th out of 166 countries in the latest ranking of the state of press freedom done by Reporters Sans Frontieres, after Swaziland and Congo.