The Fetish of Media Freedom

Justice Markandey Katju-

So-called ‘liberals’, opposition politicians, and many eminent persons and media persons accuse the Modi government of crushing media freedom (by various ways e.g. getting ‘inconvenient’ journalists dismissed by putting pressure on the media owners, stopping government advertisements, etc).

Justice Markandey Katju

Soon after the house and offices of Prannoy Roy, the owner of the TV channel NDTV, were raided by the CBI in June 2017 a largely attended meeting was held in the Press Club of India which was addressed by Fali Nariman, the eminent Supreme Court lawyer, Arun Shourie, former journalist and former Union Minister, and others. They all waxed eloquent on media freedom and the need to protect it.

In my opinion, these people who speak for media freedom have no depth in their thinking, and they treat media freedom as a holy cow and a fetish. They overlook the fact that media freedom is not an end in itself but only a means to an end. The end must be to benefit society. So, if media freedom benefits society, if it helps in raising the standard of living of the people and giving them decent lives, if it helps in creating a social order in which people are happy and prosperous, it should certainly be supported. But if it does the contrary, if it harms society, it should be suppressed. Media freedom is not a holy cow. It can be both a good thing and a bad thing.

When I became Chairman of the Press Council of India in 2011, I gave an interview to Karan Thapar on his show Devil’s Advocate (which can be seen on YouTube titled ‘ Media deliberately dividing the people: PCI chief ‘) in which I explained my viewpoint.

Historically, the media (which was then only the print media, and that too not as regular newspapers but as leaflets, pamphlets, etc) arose in Western Europe (particularly in England and France) in the 17th and 18th centuries as an organ of the people against feudal oppression.

At that time all the organs of power were in the hands of the feudal authorities (kings, aristocrats etc ). Hence the people had to create new organs which would represent their interests. One of the powerful organs which the people created was the media, which represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the feudal organs of power which wanted to preserve the status quo. Great writers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Junius (whose real name we still do not know) combated religious bigotry and feudal oppression and were of great help in transforming feudal Europe to modern Europe.

In India too at one time, we had great journalists like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ganesh Shanker Vidyarthi, Nikhil Chakravarty, etc. who opposed social evils. Even today we have great journalists like P.Sainath who almost single-handedly exposed the farmers’ suicides in India, something which other journalists ignored. I have also respect for Siddhartha Varadarajan, Karan Thapar etc. who have consistently opposed communalism, and for which they had to pay a price.

However, these are only exceptions. What about the rest of the media? What were they doing in the period before Modi came to power in 2014? Were they helping the people in their struggle for better lives?

It must be regrettably said that during the pre-Modi period the media (with some rare exceptions, as I have mentioned) was playing a largely anti-people role. As I mentioned in my interview with Karan Thapar, the Indian media, even before Modi came to power, largely worked in an anti-people manner in three ways – ( 1 ) by diverting the people’s attention from the real issues which are socio-economic ( e.g. massive poverty, record unemployment, appalling child malnourishment, widespread farmers distress, almost non-existent healthcare and good education, etc for the Indian masses ) to non-issues or trivialities like lives of film stars, fashion parades, cricket ( which is one of the opium’s of the Indian masses ), petty politics ( which has sunk in India to a very low level ) etc. It was behaving like the Roman Emperors who said that if you cannot give the people bread, give them circuses. ( 2 ) by spreading communalism and helping divide the people, ( e.g. by demonizing Muslims and depicting them as terrorists ) and ( 3 ) by spreading superstitions and unscientific thinking like astrology. And what about paid news, planted news, Radia tapes etc? These were going on before Modi became PM.

So, the relative freedom which the Indian media enjoyed in the pre-Modi period was not used for benefiting the Indian people but largely for harming them. Why then are media persons ( and so-called ‘intellectuals’ like Fali Nariman and Arun Shourie ) lamenting over suppression of freedom of the media by Modi’s government when even before Modi came to power media freedom was being used ( or rather abused ) by the Indian media in a manner detrimental to the people’s welfare ? Does such media deserve freedom and protection?

Recently several TV channels showed for hours on end Priyanka Gandhi’s visit to Mirzapur to show sympathy for the families of those killed in clashes over a land dispute. Did her visit, which was obviously a political stunt aimed at injecting some oxygen into a dying political party, deserve such detailed coverage?

Is Priyanka Gandhi such a great leader or thinker to require highlighting of her visit? She had herself described herself as a ‘ barsaati medhak ‘ (a frog who emerges during the rains i.e. during elections).

In my opinion, this episode reflects not so much on Priyanka Gandhi as on our media, which thrives on trivialism and sensationalism (‘masala’). Huge problems are facing the country, but our media focuses on nonsense like Priyanka Gandhi’s visit.


[Justice Markandey Katju is former Judge, Supreme Court of India and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own]

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