The right to free speech belongs to journalists and not to media owners. If we don’t assert this right soon, we may soon be writing an obituary for Article 19(1)(a), warns AJAZ ASHRAFin
Posted/Updated Monday, Jun 30 18:17:43, 2014

On the morning of June 23, Art 19 (1) (a) was diagnosed to be suffering from what we had long suspected: an acute personality disorder. This Article has always been aware that its role is to guarantee the people of India the right to freedom of speech and expression, including that of the press. True, Art 19 (1) (a) doesn’t have a tongue of its own; rather, it is the doughty sentinel guarding all of us as we express our worries and criticism of government policies. Indeed, the efficacy of Art 19 (1) (a) is dependent on the effectiveness of the press, and vice versa.

On June 23, though, Art 19 (1) (a) had no choice but to behave contrary to its personality. It could not speak because the media decided to remain silent. It had actually begun to look wistfully at us journalists on the previous day, June 22 to be precise, when lawyers Prashant Bhushan and Colin Gonsalves convened a press conference to make public the Comptroller and Auditor General’s severe indictment of Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) and the Central Government. The duo said that the CAG report, to be tabled in Parliament in July, accuses government officials of colluding with RIL to deprive the state exchequer of revenue, and damaging national interests. The gist of the purported CAG report was uploaded the same evening on the website of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), of which Bhushan is a senior leader.

Considering that the 2014 general election had, to an extent, been fought on the issue of illegitimate favours allegedly bestowed on RIL, you would have thought newspapers would find this press conference newsworthy. You would also imagine that they would be grateful for a page one headline remarkably different from the daily staple of “Modi meets so and so”; or “Modi says this and that.” On the morning of June 23, not finding the purported CAG report on page one, you flipped through the newspapers, one by one. You found the report either mentioned cursorily or buried deep in the inside pages of three or four newspapers.

Obviously, the sentinel called Art 19 (1) (a) is rendered redundant in case we don’t wish to speak, or believe a story isn’t worth our time and energy to report. Therefore, the question arises: Was AAP’s disclosure of CAG’s indictment of RIL too routine or ordinary to expend newsprint or TV minutes on it? Was it even less important than pre-monsoon showers, which the media jubilantly reports every summer?

Not being an economist, I turned to those journalists whose bread and butter is the energy sector. They agreed AAP’s disclosure should have been taken note of, seriously, and followed up rigorously. But counter-arguments were also tossed at me: It was said that contrary to their claims, Bhushan and Gonsalves were probably disclosing only a draft or penultimate, as against the final, report. Did anyone check with the CAG whether this report was just a draft or the final version?

But the distinction between a draft and a final report is not one that the media has been anxious to respect in the past. This may partly be because final and draft reports rarely differ remarkably in their content and language. Remember the coal mine allocation scam? It was sparked off because a multi-edition national newspaper chose to make public a CAG ‘pre-final’ report on the allocation on its front page. There was a veritable public outcry, and other media houses entered the race to scoop each other out.

There’s this other matter of detail to consider: the newspaper that first featured the coal mine allocation scam had reported some of the CAG’s disclosures on the RIL-government collusion nearly three weeks before the lawyers held their press conference, that is, on May 29 and May 30. But this scoop the newspaper consigned it to its inside pages. Though it is the editor’s prerogative to weigh the relative importance of stories and decide on their slots, there is undoubtedly a sharp discrepancy in that newspaper’s treatment of the coal scam and CAG’s indictment of RIL.

This discrepancy couldn’t have been because of the change of dispensation at the Centre. It wasn’t under the current NDA government but the previous UPA one that RIL was allegedly favoured. Some argue that the media has become extremely wary of AAP, and are reluctant to provide space to what they deem to be sensational and unfounded accusations this political fledgling levels against the high and mighty. However, this argument cannot apply to the CAG report on RIL for it, in fact, upholds the allegations AAP has been making periodically against the company.

No wonder, then, on June 23, Art 19 (1) (a) was diagnosed  as suffering from a personality disorder, the roots of which can be traced to its confusion over who and what it has to protect, and who are the people conspiring against it. For decades, it was a sentinel guarding Indians against the attempts of their state to control their minds, and dissuade them from voicing their disenchantment and anger.

In reaction, the state, now and then, endeavoured to challenge the free spirit intrinsic to Art 19 (1) (a). For instance, in the year the Indian Republic was born, “reasonable restrictions” were imposed to curb its propensity to express certain ideas. Then, more infamously, during the Emergency, Art 19 (1) (a) was sought to be silenced, or rather permitted to speak only to provide consent to the authoritarian tendencies of the Indian state. This was tantamount to imposing another personality on Art 19 (1) (a), for extinguishing its right to express dissent is equivalent to subjecting a person to a sex-change process.

Periodic attempts to curb free speech have prompted the judiciary to define and expand the scope of Art 19 (1) (a) to include the right to a free press. In Romesh Thapar v State of Madras, the Supreme Court observed in 1950, “Freedom of speech and of the press lie at the foundation of all democratic organisations, for without free political discussion no public education, so essential for the proper functioning of the process of popular government, is possible.” Indeed, it’s because of the judiciary and valiant efforts of free-speech crusaders that Art 19 (1) (a) staved off the challenges and emerged from innumerable court battles absolutely certain about its role.

Its certitude, though, is now on the wane. Indeed, as the gross under-reporting of AAP’s disclosures on the CAG and RIL show, Art 19 (1) (a) has an enemy other than the state to countenance. That enemy’s name is Big Business, sometimes benignly known as “ the corporate world”. It is as sophisticated as it is wily.  It doesn’t, unlike the state, threaten to throw those who speak under the protection of Art (19) (1) (a) in prison, or dig deep into their past to entangle them in income tax evasion cases.

But Big Business has a weapon as deadly as the thermobaric weapon, the American-invented bomb which, when dropped, sucks out oxygen from, say, tunnels, caves or bunkers and kills those hiding in them. All media owners respect this weapon of Big Business. The name of this weapon is Money. In case any of them has the temerity to uphold Art 19 (1) (a) by running stories perceived to be critical of Big Business, it pulls out advertisement insertions worth crores of rupees. The media outlet denied such revenue soon veers around to the conclusion: Art 19 (1) (a) helps to boost esteem, but rarely quenches the thirst for profits.

This strategy is smart because Big Business doesn’t have to get its hands dirty by muzzling Art 19 (1) (a); media owners do the job for it. Or rather, they assign it to the editor, our veritable field commander in the newsroom. Thus, stories are killed on the pretext that these don’t measure up to the highest journalistic standards, or aren’t even important to readers; or stories are killed by being buried so deep in the columns of newspapers that few notice them. This makes the breed extremely vulnerable – they must either fall in line or resign to court anonymity and unemployment.

Indeed, media owners look upon Art 19 (1) (a) as a bargaining chip, or reduce its role to that of a friendly militant who directs his or her rage selectively. To Big Business, media-owners offer both a promise and a threat: “We won’t publish stories against you as long as you advertise with us.” Think paid news, private treaties, and puff pieces.

But every strategy ultimately becomes passé. Taking its cue from media barons, Big Business has decided to enter their business. It feels it is better to own and directly control media than to bankroll the owners through advertisements and other methods. Perhaps this is why Reliance assumed direct control over Network 18. This is perhaps also the reason why tycoons are buying stakes in the media – they can lobby for their other interests and promote a political party or government in return for favourable policies.

Perhaps the time has come for journalists to band together and declare that the right to freedom of speech and expression is theirs, not that of the media owners. They should do it fast, before Art 19 (1) (a) one day decides to commit suicide. Were that to happen, we will be left singing a dirge for our democracy.

The author is a Delhi-based journalist and can be reached at [email protected]


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