N P Chekkutty
In normal circumstances, journalists are not people in the limelight– they are supposed to be the first witnesses to history in the making. Their role is as observers of incidents and purveyors of what goes on in the public sphere. And they discharge their duties as representatives of the citizens, generally enjoying the public confidence. That explains the key role of media in a democratic polity, as representatives of the various segments of people and as a forum where a dispassionate debate of public issues can take place. Like the Red Cross personnel on a war front, media-persons are expected to do their job without hindrance of harassment, keeping away from the sound and fury of public life.
Not that there are no exceptions. I remember the days of Emergency, during 1975-77, when as a student activist I had to demonstrate against the curtailment of democratic rights and suppression of press freedom in the country. It was a time when the entire media was subjected to a severe regime of press censorship, some editors like Kuldeep Nayar of Indian Express were put in jail and many newspapers and journals were closed down. Later on, in 1983 when I first joined Indian Express as a trainee sub-editor, the news desk was still reverberating with stories and memories– often peppered with a few doses of whiskey and a little self propulsion, perhaps– of that dark period in our history: It was a period of terrible memories when news persons became the targets of vindictive policies of a powerful executive, mere victims of the whims and fancies of the bureaucracy and police. This was an experience common to most journalists all over India, those days.
Those were the days of Indira Gandhi and Vidyacharan Shukla, the powerful I&B Minister in Delhi, who died recently leaving behind the bitter memories of what he did to destroy a throbbing media in the country. Lal Krishna Advani, who later occupied his chair in the Morarji Desai Government that came to power in 1977, teased the Indian media that they were merely asked to bend and they readily crawled.
That was not a joke, but a sad reality of our media history. Except for a few bold souls like Kuldeep Nayar and Nikhil Chakravarty, who as editor of Mainstream Weekly decided to fold it up in protest, and newspaper owners like Ramnath Goenka of Indian Express, most media-persons and media organizations had taken a subservient line under government pressure. Survival was a much graver concern than being truthful to one’s calling and objectivity and fairness in one’s reporting of news and information to the public.
But the lessons of Emergency had been well taken– it dawned upon everyone that making the media a victim in our narrow political interests was wrong, and counter-productive. It was suicidal and would really hurt the nation and its real and deeper interests. So, ever since, we had very rare instances of the Government machinery taking conscious and deliberate actions to curb the media, though there were many instances where media-persons and media organizations were harassed, their advertising cut, journalists put in jail and even murdered. Some of these incidents took the form of a mad hounding, like the series of cases foisted upon Indian Express in the days of Rajiv Gandhi in late 1980s when Arun Shourie took upon his government and the NDA Government in the 1990s relentlessly pursuing Tehelka.com after some of their expose that put egg on the face of the government. Still, the kind of punitive actions that the British colonial administration did take on the Indian nationalist press had never been resorted to—like closure of a newspaper through executive orders, seizure of its printing presses, arrest of editors, etc. In fact, the Indian administration had always remained within a laxmanrekha and never tried to trespass it in its impatience with the media and their antics, even when it put them into considerable difficulties.
But, it seems, it is no longer so.
There are mounting indications that the government wants to curb the Indian media, both print and electronic and online. Every action of the media is being seen as overstepping its role in a democratic system and now there are talks about bringing in new institutions and legislation for control of the media organizations and also to put new controls on who should be a journalist and who should not; as if the government has a right to dictate what the citizens should think and read and what they should not. It looks and feels dangerously like a totalitarian state in the making.
It is in these circumstances that the show-cause notice issued to the Thejas Daily, a Malayalam newspaper published from Calicut and four other centres in Kerala, the other day by Government authorities becomes a matter of grave public concern. The notice, dated September 13, 2013, was issued by the Additional District Magistrates of Calicut and Trivandrum, under provisions of the Press and Registration of Books Act 1867, says that “it has come to the notice [of the government] that the newspaper is publishing news items, articles and editorials seriously affecting the national interests and national unity” and demands the printer & publisher of the newspaper to show cause why action shall not be taken against the newspaper under the provisions of the said act and its declaration with the Registrar of Newspapers India (RNI) be cancelled and its publication stopped.
It is not clear what has prompted the Government to issue such a notice and the notice does not specify which article, or editorial or news items had given rise to the impression that it has indulged in “compromising the national interests or national unity” through its columns to invite such drastic steps as cancellation of its registration. Since the notice does not give any instance of such writings, it becomes quite impossible to make a proper rebuttal of the charges raised. The newspaper, in its reply, has denied all such allegations and demanded the Government to make any specific charges it may have so that a proper reply could be given based on facts.
It is not difficult to see why sections in the Government or the ruling classes are not happy with a newspaper like Thejas. It is a newcomer to the media scene, a kind of untouchable forcing itself into the august realms of this elite profession. The newspaper was launched on 26 January 2006, and its vision statement declares that it would remain a newspaper for the marginalized sections in Indian society, and it would demand equality before law, social justice, and empowerment of those segments at the receiving end-like minorities, Dalits, Advasis and other oppressed groups. In fact, in the seven years of its existence, the newspaper has been successful in building up a mass base in these sections and its reporters, writers and journalists are generally drawn from their ranks.
I was associated with the Thejas newspaper ever since its inception in 2006, serving first as its executive editor, and then, since May 2012, as its editor. As a person with some experience in Indian journalism, I can say with a sense of confidence that those gentlemen in the Government who have drawn up this weird charge-sheet without even a shred of evidence against the newspaper do not know what they are talking about. What is national interest, in their view? Does it include the interests of those who plunder this country of its resources, does it include the interests of those who seek to divide our country on the basis f parochial and religious sentiments? It would appear this is what they meant by national interest —because some time ago there was a circular issued by a Central Government authority that the newspaper had opposed India’s friendly policies to the United States, that it has supported the “extremists and Maoists” in the struggles in the name of land in various parts of India, and that it was a part of a pan-Islamic media effort. The first two points need not make any Government jittery and the third, is a palpably false claim because this newspaper has people who represent a true cross section of Kerala society, with its staff and journalists drawn from all communities and with a good representation for women and Dalits, etc.
But the present moves to harass the newspaper is nothing new- it started three years ago, with a sudden withdrawal of Government advertising to Thejas from May 16, 2010 during the final year of LDF Government in Kerala. Despite repeated requests, they refused to restore the ads and the newspaper filed a case in the Kerala High Court—alleging discriminatory practices against it. The Oommen Chandy Government, which came to power in May 2011, restored the ads later on condition the case be withdrawn, but it stopped it again after a few months. There have never been any reason given why such patently illegal actions at arm-twisting of a small and fledgling newspaper– except hints that there were “secret police reports” against the newspaper. In view of this, as editor of the newspaper, this writer met the Home Ministers of Kerala and Central Government, in the past one year, requesting them to conduct a fair and impartial inquiry into these secret charges, so that its fair name could be cleared. But unfortunately it has never happened, and what has come up at the end is this notice asking why its publication shall not be stopped altogether.
It is interesting to note the irony of it all: It was exactly 100 years ago the Dewan of Travancore banished one of the greatest editors in Malayalam, Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai, from his native land, after closing down his newspaper. And what better way for a “democratic government” to remember this incident than muzzling another newspaper on its centenary, using the same colonial laws that the British left with us?
Who said we Indians did not have a sense of history?
(N P Chekkutty, editor of Thejas Daily, Calicut worked as chief reporter of Indian Express, Calicut; director of news at Kairali TV, Cochin, and bureau chief of Madhyamam, New Delhi.)
[Via Jenny Rowena]