On the eve of Emergency, journalists discuss the threat to free press. Trade unions, for most, seem to be the answer.
It was supposed to be a discussion on whether the press is being muzzled. There was a two-pronged “peg” (since it was a discussion by the journalists for the journalists): the 40th anniversary of the Emergency and the recent alleged murders of journalists in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. It was also supposed to feature Kuldip Nayar as one of the panelists.
Unfortunately, neither of the two happened.
Nayar didn’t turn up – he got stuck in an All India Radio recording – and the discussion turned out to be more about whether trade unions are the panacea to all problems journalists face. When Hartosh Singh Bal, Political Editor of The Caravan, suggested that the lack of a legal framework to govern media ownership was perhaps a greater threat to independent journalism than the lack of unions, it irked most people in the conference room of the Press Club of India. “Unions are imperative for our voices to be heard,” people present in the audience asserted agitatedly.
The session kicked off with Rajdeep Sardesai, Consulting Editor with the India Today group, who began by taking a jibe at journalists who “attack each other”. “There is no solidarity among journalists,” Sardesai complained. The problem, he said, was “journalism for TRPs” – “nautanki and tamasha every night”. The irony of his “attacking-each-other” sermon was hard to miss. Sardesai, predictably, stuck to Indian journalism’s bro code of not taking names.
Sardesai, however, pulled no punches when it came to the current dispensation. “No journalist questioned the Prime Minister on who gave him the right to call us news traders; instead people chose to indulge in ‘selfie journalism’,” he roared. (Selfie with a certain other Modi is, of course, acceptable.)
Sardesai contended that media freedom is worse than ever. During the Emergency, we at least knew who the enemy was; now the enemy is a ‘hydra-headed monster’,” said Sardesai.
To no one’s surprise, Sardesai’s hydra-headed monster included “abusive Twitter trolls”. “Much as I want to see the glass half-full and not half-empty, I see darkness ahead,” declared a grim Sardesai as a closing note.
Next to speak was NDTV’s Ravish – who, typical of him, avoided any kind of histrionics. “We have to make the public believe in us all over again, make people understand that an independent media is key to a robust democracy,” he stated.
KG Suresh, Senior Consulting Editor, DD News, said any fears of the Emergency returning were unwarranted. “We have evolved as a democracy since 1975, and there are citizen-friendly provisions like the Right to Information Act, which no government would dare to do away with,” he claimed.
Advocating the need of unions, he said there was a need for an overhaul of the system. “Several reporters and stringers in smaller town have told me that paid news is their ‘pet news’; we need to evolve a system of social security for journalists involving state governments and trade unions should be part of the negotiation process,” he suggested.
Journalist Om Thanvi said while a full-blown Emergency again seemed unlikely, it has made its way through the back door. “The social media is a free space but I see journalists are apprehensive of using that personal space to express their views freely; there is some sort of fear,” he said.
Bal, who was the last to speak, started by saying he was “sometimes amazed” at Delhi journalists’ concerns of safety. “The danger in smaller towns to journalists is much more real and personal,” he said. Bal, who didn’t seem particularly kicked about the idea of going back to the unions, said a more practical way ahead was for journalists to be more aware of laws that protected working journalists. He reasoned that a much simpler way forward is to have a few journalists come together and help other journalists get legal recourse in the case of unfair dismissals. “If 10 journalists go to court, managements will hesitate before firing the 11th one without reason and if there is legal safeguard, why not use it,” he contended.
“The unions got phased out because they failed us,” said Bal, much to the displeasure of the audience. He also argued about the need of cross-media ownership rules. “Accountability should start from the top; currently anyone can own a media house in India,” said Bal.
When the house was thrown open to the audience, journalists present objected to Bal’s stance on unions, some politely and some belligerently. “Helping a few journalists get legal help cannot change the system; only unions can challenge the system,” said a gentleman. Similar comments echoing the same sentiment followed.
The Press Club of India President, Rahul Jalali, said the club had contacted around 50 local press clubs in the country and the idea was to put together an alliance of press clubs across the country. Endorsing the idea, Sardesai said such an alliance would facilitate immediate reporting of incidents of journalists being threatened to authorities concerned.
That the day was about trade unions should not have been surprising considering it began with a two-minute silence to mourn the death of perhaps the most hard-hitting Left voice on edit pages, Praful Bidwai. But to think that trade unions will lead to a freer media is perhaps a little utopian, considering several of its most vociferous advocates, regulars at the Press Club, gave the first half of the discussion a miss in favour of a long lunch in the club’s highly-subsidised canteen.
This article has been republished from Newslaundry.com.