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.

The SC/ST Act and the many land legislation acts too fall in this category.

BR AmbedkarIndian is known for a country with very many outdated legislation from the British era. In the Independent India too we have enacted some legislation in the time of many in justices and inequities in fast changing socio-economic times. Times have changed. But not the mindsets of politicians and other vested interests.

It is only right when you really want to create a liberal and open society you have to relax the earlier rigour and restrictive practices. The recent Supreme Court observation on how we treat inmates of jails like animals. In the 1,300 prisons across India over-crowding of unfortunate prisoners are dumped, overcrowding is well above 150%, in one prison it is as high as 609%!

So, irrespective of vested interests within the society, why even in the excising political parties, we have to progressively allow the natural justice a due role and a rational debate in place too.

And the changed rural socio-economic realities!
The political environment seems to be becoming more and more distorted. Parliament does not function for over 20 days in a stretch.

The budget and finance bill are passed without any debate!

The most powerful department of the government, namely, the Finance Ministry, is in the news for all the wrong reasons. The big scandals in the PSU banks, the role of the Reserve Bank of India and the latest the fake news order where the PM seeme3d to have acted faster, are all making headlines but not much comment or light from  the sections of public perceptions and public opinion-making institutions. The media is under fear and insecurity and at the same time there is widespread fear and a sense of confusion in the ranks of the public.

The ruling and the Opposition parties are almost not on speaking terms. The AP Chief Minister was in the capital and at the Central Hall of Parliament, the PM and the CM walked past without greeting each other!

Where is the country heading?
These are some uncomfortable questions.

As a media mainly concerned with the rural issues and much else we are very much engaged in the very same dialogues about the current issues of SC/SC (atrocities prevention Acts) and also at the same time we are equally committed to see that the rural development issues are not very different from what the SC/AT Acts and the various states-level agricultural land reforms acts. The land tenancy protection and also land ceiling acts are also about what developments take place or more correctly what land related acts impede agricultural prosperity under the existing land legislations.

Now, the Dalits constitute very powerful vote-banks and as such no political debate is possible without taking into account the newly awakened Dalit voices.

In all the states, the regional political parties have some at least exclusively committed to the Dalit voter population.
Some parties are purely casteist outfits and some of their political activities   are outspokenly, sometime, violent and leading to many undesirable methods and ends.

We have to restrain from stating many of the obvious news, sometimes sensational and many times, they, the Dalit vote banks, make for breakthrough news on the various TV news channels. Yes, there are any number of atrocities against the oppressed sections of the bottom end of the population and yet, there are also cases where we read that some of the members of these very exploited sections are also detained under the Goondas Act where there is no bail and so too there is this counter response in the current SC/ST Act where there is no provision for anticipatory bail for the alleged exploiters.

You see these are all very sensitive issues and the current violence that saw the death of some 11 and more people speaks volumes about the sensitivities involved in this very important segment of the people.

We  are also concerned here the exploitation of the poor farmers who under the current oppressive and exploitative legislations, widespread corruption that govern farmers’ lives that the old tenancy and ceiling laws are also leading to tension and the  farmers suicides are also related to the oppressive land legislation provisions.

Farmers, as we often say in these columns, are first a debtor and second a litigant and finally an expendable commodity when it comes to the administrative solutions that are sought to be used to settle the rural distress issues.

Dalits are the large number that are still engaged as labour in the farming activities. How far the Dalits have prospered, benefitted by the various rural development welfare schemes of the governments, both the State and the Central governments?
This is an again a ticklish issue.

So, too the Dalits as a vote bank! Another equally ticklish issue!

The winning of elections is now paramount for the various parties and the caste politics is tied up with the Dalit welfare policies.

The Prime Minister in his latest response to the Dalit protests over the SC Order alluded that the government had done the maximum honour to BR Ambedkar. But it is only pertinent to point out here that the public perception and public opinion today seems to be veering around to see the ruling party as high-caste oriented and as such anti-Dalit, right?

We are not sure how far the mainstream media is treating these otherwise non-glamorous segments of society. The mainstream media, we mean the print and the TV media are only after the sensational events, like violence and deaths and for all practical purposes, the visual media is almost tabloid and there is no way to reform and re-orient the media. Now, the fake news controversy and the PM’s direct intervention to rescind the Information Minister’s order and give some sort of a seeming autonomy is to be seen how the new order plays out.
Violence, communal and caste violence are also increasing, we have to admit.

Of course it is not one man or one institution is alone responsible for the communal and caste violence.

We need wider discussion and also expert opinion how to reform the polity and society towards a more open approach, a more  objective approach towards a more peaceful  and accommodative way.

As for the rural distress, we have to also note the latest socio-economic realities in the rural areas.

Just now, we read in the Karnataka media that in the Assembly elections, the incumbent Chief Minister Mr.Siddaramiah is contesting in a Mysore rural constituency.

The media reports that the adjoining villages on the outskirts of Mysore city, the agricultural lands   are all sold out to real estate companies and the lands are parcelled out into house plots.

There is also migration of people from outside, belong to newer castes and communities and as such the traditional castes are also  disturbed and distributed and election outcomes, the media reports indicate, might not be on the traditional concentration of castes.

The dominant communities are no more intact and so too the distribution of other castes, including the Dalits.
These are the newer rural socio-economic realities.

In this changed or fast changing times, village farmers too, that too small and marginal farmers are no more do farming as the old land and tenancy legislation assumed.

The tenancy and other land reform laws are now inhibiting farming and the farmers are in big debts, litigation and to own agricultural land today is becoming a great liability! Land ownership is no more so prestigious as was assumed by land reformers.

So too our scepticism about the Modi government’s claim they would double the farmers’ incomes in the next five years!
How is that possible, given the current rural realities?
The PM might be well-intentioned. But how do we know about his grip on the rural India?

We find that in Gujarat, in the interior areas, humans are used as cattle to pull the ploughs!

Is it any indication that farming is modernised, as we find in some advanced states? Even in TN, in remote locations, there is opposition to the use of farm mechanisation to harvest such crops like paddy.

There is also a great deal of interstate migration of labour.IN TN there is much migration, from Assam and North East.
There is a need for much relaxation of land laws to make farming viable.

Also, reforms in agricultural education and training. Most agri universities are cut off from what they are doing!

Now every political party, the major and regional ones, every political leader, from the top to the lower-down segment., talks of these issues not in an objective, empirical manner but try to browbeat the opponents with their own tall claims to promote the Dalits, as people, more the Dalit icons, from Ambedkar to the other ones like Babu Jagjivanram.

We are sorry we don’t have enough facts but we can only observe that in all cases of Dalit leaders and their parties or groups, it is the very same socio-economic and cultural prototypes operate. Dynastic politics too permeate in these sections also.
Also, in the accumulation of wealth and seeking funding for their parties, the same habits, the same mindset, resort to illegalities in  seeking funding for their parties, the same ailments, the parties, with no  distinction for the social  and economic class and status.

Parties when they come to operating in a secular democracy like that of India’s  every political party, the Dalits too  are today feel emboldened and  also empowered to call the shots, so to say, like all other parties and their agendas.

Now, in a latest move the government has drawn from the supposed  autonomous institutions like DD and AIR and posed them,15 and 16 respectively, and posted them to work as publicity officers for various ministries. The government’s publicity wing, Press Information Bureau, PIB, is going to see, say reports, a conflict of interest and confusion.

prasar_bharti_logoThey will be now  publicity officers as well as DD and AIR staff.
What sort of objective publicity you can get from government propaganda?

What information citizens get from this wing, which the people can’t get from private print media or from TV news channels?
The government has a broadcasting arm, named Prasar Bharati!
There is a huge budget of  Rs.28 billion!

India is a democracy, supposed to enlarge the freedoms of the citizens. The government also has an advertising department.
It is supposed to propagate the government’s public interest programmes.

But once you peep into the working of the bureaucrats-run departments in the area of public broadcasting and advertising the government’s various public programmes, you would soon find yourself into some darker corners of the public life!

There is a tug of war between the Prasar Bhaarti Board and the union ministry of  and broadcasting. Nothing to be surprised given the Indian bureaucratic system and the mindset of the current political dispensation which has had no tradition of internal democratic functioning. The appointment of a serving IAS officer is another step backward.

The Prasar Bharati is supposed to be free and creative enough to command credibility by the viewing public. There are enough indications why the whole goal of turning Prasar Bharati into one likes the British Broadcasting Organisation(BBC),of course a  tall order. There are any number of innovative and daring and credibility-winning private sector enterprises in TV news channels.

The Doha-based Al Zazeera is a latest example. A Gulf country could become a trailblazer, the staffs of the AI Zazeer is recruited  from the BBC primarily and you are surprised by the high quality and credibility of their broadcast. #Even within India itself you gave now any number of private TV news channels, NDTV, Times Now and India Today and many others, the latest Republic TV are all prime examples of what a freedom loving TV new channels have to be.

We all expected that Mr.Narendra Modi would bring in new wind, really the breeze, to the media environment.
Alas. There is just the opposite.

Freedom of media is a strong point of any free society.
Let us how there will be change in the right direction.
Also, we should all realise that we all live in a free society.
So, how can the Prasar Bharati can think of blacking out the broadcast of a state Chief Minister, that of Tripura Mamnik Sarkar’s Independence Day broadcast simply because it carried a contrary view.

This is childish to say the least. Also, there is another department of  the government. The Directorate of Advertising.
We who run almost a similar public interest journalism, media publications dedicated to such topics like agriculture and rural development and education.

Not a single ad we are able to procure from the ministry.
Everywhere in the country, in the states there is least concern for public good, we are sorry to say. Take even the Library Movement. Do you know there are state where there is still not a library act enacted?

TN was the first one in India after independence, after 1948 to act a Public Library Act which ,we are pleased to tell the best run state level library act and the TN public library system is a first rate one and there is one more reason why the TN is a leading education state.

It is time the Union HRD ministry ,please take note of it.
Education, library movement, free public broadcasting service and a great deal of freedom and creativity to the TV news channels would go a long way to enhance the quality of our public life.

It is time we take serious steps to revamp the government publicity and also try hard to evolv e a credible independent media, both in the public and the private sector. It is not an easy job that can be done by any minister or a bureaucrat. Please consult the experts and known professionals with high standing.This month, the Central government seems to be caught in multiple conflict of interest issues.

Nirav Modi

Nirav Modi

On the other hand the government’s move to transfer a large number of staff from the DD and AIR  to serve as publicity managers to various ministries.

Who is the minister in charge of the Information and Broadcasting ministry? None other than the already high visible Smriti Irani who was entrusted with this sensitive ministry last July.
We should all know how a government propaganda wing can do things wrong? Last October the DD missed reporting the upgrade of India in the ease of doing business, a highly top priority news item on the World Bank ranking of India.

Yes, it was  a serious lapse.   We have to cultivate a more committed public opinion!
The credibility of government publicity and propaganda apart!
There  are the  public perceptions and public opinion issues!

We seem to be living through an unusual phase in India’s  public life. There are more scams and  scandals  everyday these days. The people are not able to access more information and  reliable news.

Our media is not forthcoming to investigate and report news in an objective and bold manner. Fear of authority is restricting media freedoms. There must be more  institutional reforms, Prasar Bharati and  the other government agencies must be easily accessible to the public.

With the coming of the BJP government and the  entry of Prime Minister Nr.Narendra Modi in 2014,even those of us who belonged to the Indian National Congress and yet disenchanted with the way the Congress party under Sonia Gandhi deteriorated in some of the traditional  roles as a democratic party, a secular party and also as a traditionally equal and anti-exploitative economy, be it old style landlordism or even as a feudalistic and capitalistic economy, we welcomed the coming of Mr.Modi for the basic reason there was after a long period of dynastic rule by one family and that too  thrust the leadership role on an outsider, a bureaucrat and not a politician of some credibility. So too many other features of a collective political leadership, the Congress party fell into a coterie rule.

So, the coming of Mr.Modi with an absolute majority in Parliament  was a refreshing change, we all felt.Apart from what the BJP promised, Mr.Modi seemed to have to have proved that in India a fairly open election and transparent election process can work.

So, there was a great sense of resurgence in the country and in the expectations of the people.Now, after nearly  the term of the BJP government is nearly becoming complete, what is the public perception? What is the public opinion?

At this critical juncture comes the many disturbing developments. The latest scam is the Nirav Modi’s diamond business and the astounding revelation of Rs.11,000 crore swindling of PSU bank funds, from the Punjab National Bank.

Of course, this was a great shock to many, we are sure, to the great many friends of the government, not just from the political spectrum but also from the business class, the very many new entrepreneurs   who are all keen to see India emerges as a  successful third largest economy and why, even, India as a super power! Why not?

Mr.Narendra Modi also emerged as a sort of world-known Indian Prime Minister after a long time. This is the first time we see a confident Indian Prime Minister striding along international capitals  with a sure touch of a nation in search of its legitimate place in the comity of nations. As one China expert states, India can  score over China not by its cash pile or economic or military muscle, but by its cherished values of a democracy, secularism and a sense of equality of opportunities for its citizens, that is by deploying private capitalism, yes, and yet with a wider sense of capitalism with a compassionate face, right?

Mr.Modi(from now onwards we have to keep a distinction between Modi, the PM and the other Modi, Nirav Modi)as the PM was all that was shine and from now onwards whatever we may think individually, collectively the public mind would always tag the other Modi.

The financial scandal is such a high scale that the confident PM must be seen acting expeditiously.

After so many days of the scandal news circling and recircling around so many guess-work and no authentic  responses from the government, the predominant impression in the in the public mind is utter confusion and dismay of unprecedented  magnitude.
Why the top guns of the party and the government so utterly speechless.

Why no swift action on the part of the government?
Why not dissolved the Board of Management of the PNB? Why not   sacking of the MD? Or the resignation of the  same person?
What are the Independent Directors still doing, without any action. No resignation in shame or  remorse   for allowing this scandal happening?

All that we had  was a very weak and insensible  response from the defence  minister?

There is no point in being  so polite to the conduct of the government  which once made so many claims of maximum governance and minimum government etc.

So, we are becoming  conditioned for a sort of governance in the country, very much similar to what we were already accustomed, namely, following the UPA’s scam style. Once a scam detected you rush to find alibis?

Modi’s glory days are over? Or, falling from its early shine?
This is where public perceptions  come in. By the way, what is perceptions?  You see as a government you can spend a fortune on publicity and events management and Mr.Modi  is lucky on these fronts. He had had a run almost, so to say, in reaching out to the moon. He travelled tirelessly, both inside and out the country.

He had a full share to  convince people that he is a real alternative to the Congress regime. Why, even, he proclaimed that he  is  almost the new avatar, may be except, Mahatma Gandhi, to save India. Fine, fine, People simply accepted and believed Modi. But now, after this  Nirav Modi acts, there is really genuine anxiety, even within the government, we detect. That is the  public perception. Public perception goes beyond reason and even genuine truth and true situations. You can say and explain anything by publicity and reasoning. But the public is a wild beast. It has its own ways.

It is what the ordinary man or woman or any group at any level of the social ladder believe and talk about.
Luckily, we are already in the era of Social Media. The Indian media scene is already changed. With all efforts to control and regulate the media, with the powers of the Prasad Bharati and the government’s many other powers of control and regulation, also in the context of the private capitalism taking over vast chunks of TV broadcast medium, there are still shrill voices of dissent and rebellion and freedom of expression and rights to agitate and protest and carry out procession in the Indian democratic space.

India’s rank in the  corruption index is 81st,very poor indication of what a great democracy should be achieving.
Of course, the BJP is still unmoved and the government is in a dilemma as we can there is silence on the part of senior ministers and the wise men at the RSS or the Magadarshis are also speechless for they all feared Modi so long for all his oratorical skills and his various claims to user in a new dawn.
Already, there is disillusionment across the swathe of the country. In the South already there is disappointment that Modi government promised a lot but the PM is not turning to do something very decisive, be it the farmers distress or the improvement in the governance system, the various institutions of governance, be it the fighting of corruption, the PM didn’t care a bit for establishing Lok Pal or Lokayukta. Or, even ensuring the independence of the CBI or other anti-corruption agencies or individuals. Now, is it a casual coincidence or an irony of sorts or the very spirit of the moment the Government had informed the apex court that it would convene the Lok Pal committee to nominate the highest anti-corruption body?

Anyway, it is good news and let us looks forward for some credible action.  The way the judicial system is being bound by unnecessary delays in approving the names of judges is also a sign that the government has an agenda that is not fully explained  and the public is educated and enlightened.
Can we muzzle public option?

The corruption perception index is damning for Indian’s many claims, the world’s largest democracy, largest economy etc but we are ranked with Maldives and Philippines  with not only corruption but, alas, in press freedoms!

Why? Why no one TV news channel or even the mighty print media houses conduct some  conclave or  huddle?

There is a widespread perception that Indian media industry is very restricted. No media house is confident enough to debate such issues like corruption, press freedom and even such international reports like the Oxfam report on the rising inequality in India   are not debated in the media.

How can we shape public opinion and engage  the public in creating a positive outlook on the major issues of the day?
The public policy making space is shrinking. This has to be reversed.

Otherwise, there is a danger of policy paralysis  as we were confronted with on the eve of the 2014 general elections.
History can repeat itself and it can do so in this instance very soon.

There is palpable fear and anxiety on the part of the Indian media houses among which are some monopolies! Big business tie-ups with the media channels are a danger to media independence. This is an area where much research and analysis is needed and public opinion needs to be cultivated on enlightened lines.
It is  at least small mercy that as it is the media houses like Indian Today and lately, the Chennai-based The Hindu Group are conducting more open-ended conclaves.

Also, we have to commend that in India media freedom, however weak, is better as there are not extremist acts and also the core constituency of the middle level professional classes, executives, academics and even small businessmen all come to constitute a more committed public opinion on the basic issues of the day. We have to get a more wider section of people, better educated and better placed in society that take an active interest in the future of our democratic system.

Public opinion is again a sensitive issue.
You can’t ignore public opinion, can you?
Public opinion is built over various layers of the society and the classes.

Why, even the upper classes, why even the most powerful billionaire classes, the very top few whom are all known faces and also wield so much arbitrary power and are  around the PM. This is a class in themselves! Read the latest Oxfam report on the Indian billionaire class  is wielding enormous power, arbitrary at that.

Of course this should worry only the more thinking sections to understand further on what constitutes the “lopsided polices”, as the Oxfam puts it, that has led to the crony capitalism’s many distortions. This  type of Capitalism needs more in-depth study and analysis. In fact, the role of the new type of arbitrary power wielding economist system that goes by many names in other countries, as oligarchies or authoritarianism etc need more critical study by more competent thinkers.

This government can’t claim to be a friend of the poor and the vulnerable, the vulnerable castes and communities. Their combinations have their own perceptions and judgements.
The public opinion of the vulnerable weaker sections is surely might work against this government. Only a  serious analysis of the castes and their various combinations, the vote-banks of  other social groups, in some of the larger states like UP, Bihar and Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are going to be an untamed beast as we see it now.

So, there can be many surprises in the 2019 general elections with more youth voters lend to new dynamics as we had already seen in Gujarat and very likely in the other states.
So, in one word, Indian democracy is becoming more open and more  transparent to give any repetition we have been seeking for.

Second, Indians are an agitated lot!
What is happening to countries as different as the USA and India?

They are all unhappy, disturbed and  so it goes! Americans are worried about their health, economy, trust in government, Hate crimes, Crimes, Wars and Conflicts, Terrorist attacks. High taxes, unemployment and low wages climate change and environment.
Now, what about ourselves, Indians?

Crowd with people on the street in Warsaw rush hoursIn India, agitations, the government statistics say, were as low as 3,106 in 2011. Now in 2016, it has shot up to 6,587! Student agitations? From 6005 in 2011 to 10,205 in 2016.

Govt. employees’ agitations? The ones who got the fat 7th Pay Commission wages? They agitated 14,218 times in 20111.Now,in 2016 their agitations  seemed to have doubled to 23,708. As an aside we can say it pays to be a government servant and agitate periodically!

What about political parties?

How can they lag behind other category of agitators? Political parties resorted to agitations some astounding 22,708 times in 2011.Luckily for the common man, the government servants beat the politicians only agitating, this time ,some 29,400 times in 2016!

Of course the unreported, almost ignored lots, the farmers, the labourers and students, farmers resort to agitations and also commit suicides, perhaps the media is so tired of the farmers, those farmers, and suicides are not reported either in the print or on the TV channels.

But then it is a democracy, every citizen is a free citizen.
So, please feel free to come to the streets and agitate!

Popular agitations are much preferred to no agitations. Otherwise you would see the Chinese style army tanks to come on the streets to crush the students, as it happened in Peking in 1989.

Americans have reasons to be  worried. They are a violent nation or a violent society, where every citizen carries guns, not one but a big number in their shelves.

Our fellow Indian returnees narrate how the gun-buying and gun totting culture has led to such brutal killings, the latest is one of the very many shooting sprees in the American cities!
May be the worries of fellow Americans are bound to rise with each day this violence -prone society also draws more of foreigners, as their citizens.

May be the biggest number of foreigners now on the American soil would be only Indians and Indians have cause to worry along with their fellow American counter-parts!

God forbid that Indians don’t import the American culture in violent culture. Let the worries to remain within the American borders. Let Indians learn more of the good American culture, openness, a sense of freedom and doing things in big ventures.