The idea of media freedom in a constrained atmosphere!
Is India a truly a free country?
A liberal and open society?

MPSuch questions are not asked. Not because those who are tempted to ask don’t ask, they are constrained.  The other day when a national newspaper celebrated its 140th anniversary its publisher wrote and pointed out how journalists in India were killed and a number on which it seems nobody seemed to care about. There is an international journalists association, called journalists without borders, a Paris based organisation that tracks journalists all around the world. Where does India ranks in the international freedom of the press index?

The country ranks 138, among 180 countries. This is in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index compiled by the Paris based Reporters Sans Frontiers. So, as Indians we must realise that we are not a great nation for freedom of expression, freedom of the press and a freedom of the individuals.

The work related killing of 48 journalists in India, including 34 murdered in retribution for or  to prevent news coverage and commentary doesn’t again speak well of our many claims and self-justification for our own a utterance and actions since 1992. India is again one of the dozen countries figuring year after year in the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ)’s Global Impunity Index where journalists are murdered, the cases remain unsolved and the killers go free.

And, let all of our journalist fraternity and the editors and owners of media, newspapers, magazines and TV channels know and take note and pause and think deeply and come out with their own thoughts so that we as a nation ponder over what all these developments convey to our collective existence.

Today there are many challenges. One, is of course the technological changes, the great impact of the internet spread, the phenomenon of the mobile phones and the revolution in Google, Face book, the very telecommunications, the new revolutions in  the speed and the accuracy, the social media with its advantages and its challenges, the rise of the phenomenon of  false and fake news.

Lately, the fake news menace is such that there is no way politically the open societies can thrive and grow if there is no way ordinary people, the common man on the street has to get his information correctly.

Unfortunately it is not easy for the free media to thrive unless there is so much concentration of power, money power, political clout and also the muscle power. In the context of mob lynching as new phenomena, there is no way democracies can provide a peaceful existence for citizens if politics is going through a phase of intolerance. We in India thought at one time, during the first few years of freedom, under leaders like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru that a non-violent society could thrive and sustain. Today alas! It looks that such a dream is not possible.

Our democracy is not so non-violent, as far as possible, it is a mixed blessing. So, what are we left with?

It looks that sheer commercialisation, sheer concentration of power both economic and political, drives our very social and moral trends. There is any number of fake phenomena. Even the much talked about our spiritual traditions see an influx of fake swamijis, godmen and what else you have got. There is a strong dose of irrational fake forces to drive our mental inverse.

Also, there is the democracy’s many undesirable features. Propaganda in political discourse is deteriorating day after day. The Prime Minister and the other leaders of the ruling party also seem to indulge in discourses that are far from restrained and civilised. So too the Opposition leaders. Specially for the leading Opposition party, namely Congress, under an young leader seems to be going far from the traditional Congress ethos.

There is a tradition left behind by Mahatma Gandhi and Panditji where we have to carry the entire country forward if we want to leave behind a hoary tradition of “live and let live’ culture, the self-restrain for a leader is  very important. Now, as for the news media too, we see the local language TV channels indulge in all sorts of cheap language and even vulgar expressions for the sake of drawing the lowest common denominator of the audience.

Media freedom has to be nurtured by the government. In this sense we are not yet a free society and free culture. This is an area we have to give much attention too. Indian English language press needs much protection and there is a wider awareness that in the long run, it is only the print press, the independent small press that can save the soul of a nation, a society that can call itslef as a civilised one.

Or, carrying favour with the high and mighty?

We once asked a Corporate heavy-weight, and a lady at that, who sat at the high table of Sonia  Gandhi for an ad for this media publication!

CSRThe lady was not only negative, she seemed to have dismissed our request in a nonchalant manner! This has been our almost routine experience and we have learnt a lot of lessons in corporate  social responsibility(CSR) tag given to  the corporate to spend 2 per centage of their net profits on their CSR activities.CSR is a political lobbying spends of the corporate? Yes, it looks like that. Sometime, you read some ridiculous and even plain exercise of some nonsense or other in the name of charity! Including  tending for their stray dogs as one big corporate advertises for these starry animals!

So, CSR is  community engagement, like say the PM’s swatch bharath or even  other such socially responsible production or socially responsible  employees’ relations.

But one thing is clear that we, as a nation, have not grown out of coshing with powers that be, be it the Congress leaders or by now the BJP leaders. We are a nation of cringing citizens, right?

One can speak only with one’s experiences, our experience is not beyond sceptical outlook.  Let us be clear about one thing. In spite of so many years of corporate wealth creation, from the pre-Independence days, we haven’t grown into a mature social conscious society.

Still, the rich-poor divide is so  wide, in spite of so many positive developments, the growth of corporate wealth and the sharing of the same with the employees. We remain a socially insensitive nation and society. The PSUs are supposed to make a 0.5 % to 5 % of net profit for CSR spends.

In our media ventures we have written at length about these non-profit, on selfish natures of creating and distributing wealth. There are some areas like education, culture and other intangible areas of life that sometimes a society, a country and a culture is rated high for the simple reasons they, the many institutions have survived and money had been  found and spent for some unprofit-seeking reasons.

There is college like ALL Souls at Oxford. If you see its history, it is there with no students, but only some Fellows who haven’t produced any tangible profits or incomes, but they had done the world proud by their unselfish seeking for greater ideals, ideas and truth at its best expression.

That is one reason why some of these institutions have brought glory to the countries and also to mankind. Why you give away your CSR?
To show in the audit?

So, silly! Why education today has become irrelevant to society? All such institutions have been turned into money making. Not one capitalist of the country, may be with exceptions to the pre-independent days under Mahatma Gandhi, we can recall like say the great Robert Owen in England?

One Birla, one Bajaj are the only exceptions we can recall now! Self-sacrifice, self-interest sacrifice,giving to causes greater than tangible funds for political parties. Why so much mystery surrounds the donations to political parties?

Any notable VIP has come out of controversy or  from the list of current donors?
Of course we live a new age of materialism and so much of aggrandisement is inside us to exploit to the maximum, the poor and the weak?

So, at the end of the day, what matters in CSR spends is the non-tangible ideas and ideals and thought-processes, why even including such ideal of democracy like citizens freedoms, citizens rights, human rights, human values like truth, ethics and such other higher ideals.

Even areas like agriculture, rural development calls for media exposure and media coverage where there is not much money or reward. Such non-tangible ideals are worth the CSR spends and attention. Amen!

We need to sensitise the public opinion and public policies with greater doses of ground level realities!
The growing inequities, injustices and falling sensitivities make life for the common man more and more miserable!

In many social  sector policies, like education, health, why even other sectors that address issues for weaker sections and disadvantaged sectors like farmers, why even like prison reforms we as a country have not yet become serious enough to make policies that get attention of the general public public.

K.Sujatha Rao, former Union Secretary

K.Sujatha Rao, former Union Secretary

Even  the public and also the public opinion are not stirred by sensitive people, even highly educated  and well-placed sections like government servants and teachers and other professionals  like lawyers and doctors, we as Indians take many inequities for granted!

This we say from our own personal experiences and encounters with others in discussions.

Who cares for the prison population? We read today there are over many lakhs of under trials suffering inside jails, some 1,400 odd jails.
What are the Legal Aid activities? Do they make headline news?

No, never! Also the state of our children? Children caught in many situations like the Act, POCSO?

So too women inside jails, women as mothers inside the jails?
What about those who can’t pay for their bail and are inside the jails?
Or, the higher authorities who can do much and yet they remain silent in their high offices?

We don’t want to be seen as rocking the boat. That is why, in spite of our leaders, we mean politicians talking too  much we don’t cut ice with any other the national and much more with the international bodies doing some great work and that is get noticed.

When it comes to some of the larger issues like pollution, environment protection and why even bigger issues like war and peace, though India is one of the pioneers in international peace keeping operations, India doesn’t make news.
India can very well have all the credentials to bid for a Nobel Prize in international peace keeping operations and other efforts but we seem to be a nation too much concerned with our own narrow self interests.

We don’t seem to be a nation known for its great compassion or outwardness!
Now, what we started off was with the social sectors.

K.Sujatha Rao, the former Union Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare often writers about her domian. In a recent article she had highlighted the high costs of medical care in private hospitals and this caught our attention. The abysmal system of healthcare in the country must wake up concerned citizens and even policy makers alike. Even a well-placed state like Tamil Nadu has an over 30% shortage of medical and non-medical professionals in government facilities.
The highly motivated secretary has made many useful suggestions.

We need to upgrade the 150,000 sub centres into wellness clinics that provide 12 sets of services. We can then easily provide health security to 40% of India’s population requiring hospitalisation  through a health insurance policy upto a sum of Rs.5 lakh per year.

Fine fine.

What is holding us up from implementing the policy?

The explanation  for the current crises in  the public and private healthcare system could be a tortuous path!

There are crises from the very start. From the way the medical education is imparted with so many corrupt practices, MCI onwards and also, the way the private medical  practices, here we have to add the private sector-turned entrepreneurs class, from small towns to big metros  to organising the public healthcare providers in the rural areas to upwards in the towns and cities.
The private medicare is now a booming business.

The high cost of private medical services. The Union health secretary herself says that a three-day stay in a hospital in Hyderabad for a respiratory problem cost her Rs.1.8 lakh! A CT scan that costs Rs.19.080 in a Hyderabad hospital. While it costs Rs. 500 in government hospitals in Tamil Nadu. Of course the very same costs Rs.7,000in Tamil Nadu and Delhi, say the former Union Secretary. Perhaps, the Secretary is a bit out of date or out of touch! The very same CT scan test in Bangalore, at a top end hospital charges Rs.27,000 with all “concessions”!. Of course in the private hospitals in TN and Delhi must have learnt the latest practices from TN and  Bangalore!

Says the former Union Health Secretary: It is estimated that Rs.30,000 crore will have to be spent if the three tier primary healthcare system is to be brought to minimal health standards.

Anyway, it is becoming clear that private medicare is sought by almost all sections. To meet the demands of the public who seek often the private care we have to ensure at least some control over the exorbitant costs that are now sought for latest tests and drugs as well. This is already a well-trodden subject and all that requires is an update of the same issues to make it more  a reality-check!

Do  the elite society play any notable role in the public life of India?

In the Western societies, including USA and Western Europe, in France and other liberal democracies  there are who are commonly called public intellectuals. They are either academics or even philosophers or literary figures who speak out openly for the common  public good. There are so many examples. They are usually independent-mind  thinkers or writers, poets and art  and culture people.

Jean Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre was the most famous among these people in our opinion who dared to reject the Nobel Prize awarded to him. Such was his power and popularity ,he became a cult figure   for a generation or more. There are many other names too. Picasso, the famed painter was another such such figure and they have all helped to shape the public taste and belief systems. That is why these countries are called liberal societies and earned much respect and  status in the international arena.

Intellectuals help shape public opinion and an enlightened public opinion raises the quality of public life. In India we have experts, scientists and economists but these experts don’t talk on issues of public importance. The difference between experts and intellectuals must be clearly understood. Here we see still a sort of slavish mentality, among the bureaucracy, why even the uneducated or poorly educated mass of people who get seized by mass frenzy, get attracted my demagogues.

That is one reason why extremist politics too thieves at certain levels of society. So, let us understand the public intellectuals whose roles are very critical for a liberal society culture. Even in India we see, in West Bengal and Karnataka, some sections of intellectuals called by those in power to consult and gauge public opinion. Recently, the West Bengal Governor called the members of the intelligentsia for tea! To discuss public issues! Very fine indeed!

Why, even in Communist countries like China and Russia there are even today daring such individuals. The Opposition leader in Russia was barred from standing against Putin, the current President and  there are such daring opponents of the regimes. In China too we have such individuals who are put behind bars.
England is known for its liberal traditions, Karl Marx himself found a safety net only in London!

How far India is a country that tolerates such dissident, independent minded intellectuals. It is a matter of much regrets that in recent times some of the dissident writers were killed by opponents. The rise of Hindutva is one recent phenomenon.

Usually, the Rightwing and the Leftwing are seen as opposition forces. They need not be. Rich nations like the USA is also now seen as a violent society. Gun culture there is a new phenomenon.
The rise of terrorism is another feature of modern world.

The point is that as education spreads there must be more appreciation of different points of view and there must be more elite groups, well-off middle class and also an open society of sorts. The dury of the elite sections is to see that this culture of open debate and discussion at the universities or cultural sabhas  are giving  society a new  open society culture.
It is a matter we have to discuss more and more freely.

The common man must feel elated by the freedoms he enjoys and also the other classes, from the upper strata to the middle and  lower sections helps to build  harmonious social climate.
Any society that wants to earn the respect and admiration of other societies have to keep this larger good as their goal of development.

Even now, China with all the restrictions on freedom of expression and other freedoms allows the Chinese people, the common man much freedoms, you know?

When we visited China not long ago we spent time in Shanghai city and there in the Nanging street every evening and even other times, we saw people dancing, singing and other concerns in the public spaces drawing people in large numbers.

The point here is that only public debate and  discussions and open society atmosphere can help people, the common citizens to grow in mental and moral  health.

Public libraries and a book policy are all important, so too the various national level cultural bodies, Sahitya Academy, Sangeetha Nataka Academy and Fine Arts body must all have the right type of leaders and spokes persons. Women leaders must play a more pro-active, prominent roles in these bodies.
We have to encourage such a secular and open society culture here too. Freedom of the media is already creating a positive environment.

The quality of public life, eradication of corruption in politics and business and high sense of individual morality etc are all important.

Any link?
Are we lacking in culture and good behaviour in public? In our governance sphere?

Are protocols for the people or for bureaucratic bungling? See how the film awards are distributed!

Ram Nath Kovind

Ram Nath Kovind

The controversy over the President’s film awards! Why are these mismatches over the protocol in ensuring all get the awards from the hands of the President? Should media follow some etiquette and manners?

Many media outlets, print and electronic reported the controversy in not an elegant manner. We seem to be becoming a not evolving cultured society but a sort of a shameful one. See the amount of time spent on debates on such damaging stories on rape, violence and many other irrelevances. Cricket reporting is big business and so much money and energy is wasted. We leave it to experts to debate our distorted set of media priorities.

Yes, we as a nation are film crazy people. But as the Oscar Award winner Resul Pookutty said as to why the  national film  awards this year got into a controversy because the President denied the one minute glory to the rest of the technicians and others to get the award from the hands of the President citing lack of time! It was very much resented by the film industry.

The talents in culture needs to be nurtured and  fostered and the cine artistes, not just the glamorous faces of actors and actresses by the men and women behind the cameras, the technicians, one like the Oscar winning Resul Pookutty, who had come out with a scathing attack. Cultures is such a vast impactful area and let us not repeat this practice of following the wooden rules of protocol but display some creativity and originality and win over the most vital springs of culture and decency. Are we improving or the reverse is happening? It doesn’t cost much to ask some questions, right? The many freedoms we take for granted like freedom of speech, writing and expression, in fact are not the freedoms we forget to be used and practiced in our everyday life.

The global media watchdog, Reporters without frontiers(RSF) has put India at the 138th country out of 180 countries. Anybody has spoken about this shameful state of affairs, asks one Newspaper editorial(Deccan Herald).While we write  these lines there is almost non-stop electioneering in Karnataka where the Prime Minister, Rahul Gandhi and even the former Prime Minister Deve Gowda are fighting for a place in the sun, so to say. But none of the top leaders had commented, let alone press freedoms but also other events, local and international.

So, India as a country and a society and more so as the world’s biggest democratic state, has simply come down to street fight for a few states to form the state government. And what spectacle we see? The much controversial persons, the Reddy brothers for instance share the dais with the PM who promises to clean  the society and polity.

But the language we use to clean up the system is far from a language of freedom and culture and refinement. How do we hope to serve the country in this fashion?

It is very distressing that even the minor courtesies, even minor protocols and ways of doing the business of the government seem to be uplifting for the common citizens. Which ministry must be worried over the deterioration of standards? Obviously, there is the ministry for information and broadcasting. Why we seem to be still struggling to fix things up like giving India a public broadcasting system on the lines of the BBC?

Everything can’t be done with a profit in mind. Indian TV news channels industry is exploding, if that is the right word. You have to evolve a culture of governance. Do propagate the government schemes but do it in a non-partisan way. So too honouring the artists and intellectuals. The National Film Awards ceremony was held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan but done in a clumsy manner.

The President’s protocol doesn’t give  the President more than one hour so he skipped midway, it seems;  the awards were then presented by the controversial Smriti Irani. Of course, she did in some style. But let us realize even the very strict protocol has to be further practiced so that everyone concerned feels uplifted.  Indian TV news industry is neither a cultural experience or has any other educational or other values. The news that the President’s event to distribute the national awards for the 68 film industry personalities was boycotted by these artists is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in such a national perspective.

It looks from what we see on the TV screens that the industry seems to be booming. More channels are joining  the channel waves and this in an ideal scene must be much more enriching our viewer pleasure and must be creating a more elevated sense of purpose and leisure content. But alas! We see the reverse. The same old tired  face or faces from some ageing actors projected as the brand ambassadors. Are not people a bit tired of seeing the same face every day and also in every other ad? And , oh, the cricketing fraternity and the gambling  instinct turning the cricket game also into a high stake  gambling.

In Bangalore for instance,  the other day or why for a few days the very Chinnaswamy stadium was packed with long queues, most  of the fans, why the every crowd is from youngsters with very few signs of any sort of formal education or even the knowledge about who were the stars, Indian or foreign and yet the stadium was overflowing. And to cap it all, the very owners, the BCCI is having a stiff fight with the authorities about democratic or transparent administration.

And for the quality of TV news culture or other forms of entertainment, the less said the better. There is now in the media space, all sorts of uncomfortable news or scenes and sights are aired. And, what is really galling is the sort of India, the Indian society and events that are highlighted. All news are news breakthroughs.

So much noise, so much cruelty or cruelties in society, the violence, the accidents, the rape stories make us, we believe, to see ourselves as a sick society. A society which has no order and restraint and we see the new generation leaders, of course we mean the political leaders holding forth on some very funny topics, from science and technology in Ramayana and Mahabharata and also opinions on Charles Darwin and other luminaries who according to these lightweights  were right or wrong  depending upon how they are brought to link with the puranas and ithihasas!