NEW DELHI: It was a large, and hence reassuring turn out at the Press Club of India in support of press freedom. The issue, of course was narrowed almost entirely to the CBI raids on NDTV with former Indian Express editor Arun Shourie perhaps, being the only one to speak of the larger issue of the state versus media, and what scribes today could do to resist what he felt, would become far more aggressive efforts to curtail the media.
NDTVs Prannoy Roy appeared to be the master of ceremonies, although all media organisations including the normally reticent Editors Guild, Press Club of India, Indian Women Press Corps, and the most consistent Delhi Union of Journalists had supported the meeting. NDTV staff were there in full strength, again unusual for such a meeting that the channel has not really participated in before. Roy is rarely seen in the premises of the Press Club, or in protests and marches for smaller banner—although no less important—media.
However, reassuring becomes an important word as often circumstances throw up unusual linchpins for such protests and struggles. And if the attack on NDTV can draw support of the kind seen so be it. And as Shourie said, it is not the time for differences and nor the time to buy peace by giving space to government Ministers and functionaries in the belief that this will ease pressure on the concerned media house. It will not, he warned as the intention of the government will not change, and as it comes under increasing pressure from sections of the population it will get more aggressive in its dealings with the media.
But it was very disconcerting to see the complete marginalisation of women journalists in this patriarchal line up of speakers selected for the occasion. Struggles cannot be fought by half the population, as should be evident to those who call themselves journalists and report the news which one would like to believe rests on facts. All meetings by concerned citizens, students and other sections today spend time in ensuring that there are women speakers to break the male shackles on discussions on strategy, security, communalism, militarization—-all seen as “male” issues by the establishment but where several well known women professionals have done commendable work. Yes there was a token woman at one end of the Press Club table, and was given the task of giving a vote of thanks!
At this media meet there was not even basic effort to ensure that senior women journalists spoke as well for press freedom. IWPC supported the meeting but none of the women members were invited to speak. Everyone crowded in to take the chair, be it NDTVs Prannoy Roy who could have asked one of his many women colleagues, or even his wife, to speak on the issue, or Press Club of India that has several women editors as members, or the Editors Guild that has a woman treasurer. Interestingly, the Delhi Union of Journalists that has been in the forefront of freedom for the media was not invited to speak at all.
We as young reporters in journalism had to fight for our space. First to get a job, where I found myself as the first woman reporter in The Pioneer in the 1980’s with others following only later. And where there were no toilets for women, as there were no women. Then to cover the crime beat that all newspapers were not keen to assign women to. And then to move into the Bureau and cover hard politics, where women were always discouraged, often shifted to the feature pages of the Sunday magazines as the male bosses felt more comfortable with that arrangement.
It was an uphill struggle for most of us to one, convince the editors that we could do a better job covering politics that meant the political parties, the Ministries, conflict such as Punjab, Assam, Kashmir during the 1980’s onwards . And indeed looking back one feels that we worked harder than our male colleagues to gain a foothold in this essentially male preserve. I do remember that if a woman hesitated to accept an assignment she immediately became the butt of caustic comments. “Oh you have a date,” “you want to go to the parlour” kind of remarks that we learnt to tackle with a thick skin and a rude “shut up.” A factual mistake too invited sarcasm and criticism, while for men these were hardly commented upon.
At Press Club yesterday I realised not much has changed. There were several women editors in the audience, as well as senior anchors from NDTV, but not one had been invited on to the platform in what was a carefully structured meeting. I also realised that all editors in chief of the main newspapers and television channels are men. Women, if they even make it that far, stop at resident editors, assistant editors and so on. The top post is with the man, as again those who pay for the channel and do business with it cannot tolerate women no matter how professional at the top of political, financial news. Yes of course women can head fashion magazines, housekeeping journals, even the feature sections of the major newspapers but certainly not become editors -in -chief. Of not just the big player media houses, but also of the smaller media newspapers or outlets.
When women journalists formed the Womens Press Club, I resisted. And remember many conversations with the office bearers from time to time, where I passionately spoke of how we had spent our growing years in the profession fighting for our space, and for the recognition and acknowledgement that we were not women journalists but journalists. Like actors, lawyers, doctors our profession is not determined by our gender, but by our work. But perhaps I now understand why the women journalists felt the need to pull away, as perhaps this space gives them a sense of equality and with it freedom.
Many of the speakers referred to the Emergency when the press was censored by the government, and journalists like Kuldip Nayar sent to jail. Black days indeed. But there was again little reference to the new reasons between 1974 and 2017 that have curtailed the media and taken away our freedom. The political-corporate-media nexus that has cripplied functioning as well. The contract labour system, where hundreds of journalists are fired in one stroke by television channels and big media houses. The government is party to these mass lay offs but remains silent, as do the journalists for fear of falling foul of managements, not getting the money owed to them, and being seen as too irreverent by potential employers who also, after all, come from the same side of the fence.
There has not been a word from the big owners about the individual journalists challenging the might of the state, at great risk to their personal security. In Chhatisgarh, in the North East, in Kashmir, in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere where many have been killed, many attacked and threatened, and many others implicated in court cases. They have been the first casualties, and continue to be the targets even today. There is a long list, with the stringers and free lancers being hit the hardest as they are seen as the most vulnerable too.
The government today has acted within this framework. It knows of the differences and the weaknesses within. After all most of the working editors of newspapers and television channels chose to stay away and not attend the meeting. One did send a message, but his channel is in violation of basic media ethics like many others.
So while one extends full support to NDTV in the current battle—one hopes there will be no samjhauta in the backroom as has happened in the past—it is necessary to point out that the fight cannot be strong and sustainable unless the strategy is comprehensive, and respect is given where respect is due. In that, the stage is not occupied by those who have held positions but is managed on the basis of inclusiveness and without absurd, corporate and politically controlled patriarchal hierarchy.There should be no differences, and there will not be when it comes to battling a government for press freedom, but at the same time the media should become free from within as well.