Book excerpt: Former Vice President M Hamid Ansari on the importance of free media in a democracy

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Boobli George Verghese was a journalist of eminence. To his contemporaries, he was more; a concerned citizen and a man of conscience who firmly believed that journalism at its best involved a
ferocious scrutiny of power. He lived and worked in post-independent India. He witnessed and at times participated in the crafting of a modern Indian State on a vision considered unique by the world – of building on the existential reality of a plural society, a democratic polity with a secular state structure. He crafted a place for himself in the world of the media and also had time to reflect
upon the role of the Indian media in changing times. He was perceptive enough to observe that

as India’s multitudinous but hitherto dormant diversities come to life, identities are asserted and jostle for a place in the sun. Issues of majority and minority, centre and periphery, great and little traditions, rural and urban values, tradition and modernity and all of Naipaul’s million mutinies have to be negotiated and managed. This management of diversity within multiple transitions is a delicate and complex process aggravated by inexorable population growth.

The media informs, educates even entertains. In a democracy, it plays an important role in the formation, projection and dissemination of public opinion. It is, or should be, a guardian of public interest, an honest witness to events, a tool to hold government accountable to the people.

It is meant to be a bridge between the people and the government by facilitating dialogue for the formulation and implementation of State policies in accordance with the wishes of the people.

A free, fair, honest and objective media is a potent instrument for enhancing transparency and accountability on all sides. Freedom of the media is thus one of the most important ingredients of democracy and reflects the character of the State.

For the media to play its designated role, it must be impartial and unprejudiced in coverage of news and views connected with all segments of society. It must not be subservient to vested interests, nor be distorted by them. If it has a specific orientation, it must say so candidly.

Some months ago I had occasion to recall what a journalist of another generation had said on the role of the press in different societies. I seek your indulgence to recall it here:

The role of the press in a democracy is different from that in a totalitarian state. Democracy is government by law; [a] totalitarian state is government by authority; in the former decisions are arrived at by discussion, and in the latter by dictation; in the former the press acts as a check on authority, in the latter it is the handmaid of authority; in the former the press makes the people think, in the latter to obey without question; in the former the press necessarily [has] to be free, as without [a] free press there is no free discussion, in the latter the press supports authority.

This provides the rationale for journalism in a democracy. The Constitution and its Preamble make evident the nature of our democracy. It is dedicated to the attainment of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for the People of India. Its various functions based on these principles are valid and essential, more so in a modern society whose size and numbers need means of communication other than direct face to face ones. This is sustained by law.

The Supreme Court has held the fundamental freedom under Article 19(1)(a) can be reasonably restricted only for the purposes mentioned in Articles 19(2) and the restriction must be justified on the anvil of necessity and not the quirks and of convenience or expediency.

Open criticism of Government policies and operations is not a ground for restricting expression. We must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.

Yet, it has not been smooth sailing. Our democratic State structure dedicated to the pursuit of a development model premised on justice, equality and fraternity is in reality, as Rajni Kothari put it, ‘characterised by the politicisation of a fragmented social structure through a wide dispersal and
permeation of political forms, values and ideologies’.

Others have spoken of institutional decay and cancerous growth within them. One observer of the national scene has resorted to a line from the poet WB Yeats to describe the situation: ‘the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ This passionate intensity often goes beyond the lines of democratic behaviour.

Lost in the process is Ambedkar’s focus on public conscience and the observance of constitutional morality. There has been some debate of late about this latter term but, as a former judge of the Supreme Court has observed, it comes under three aspects: equality, liberty and dignity. This general malaise across all sections of society has its media version.

The World Press Freedom Index for 2018 based on a set of known parameters including media independence, transparency and violence against media persons has given India a ranking of 138 in a total of 180 countries. It was 136 a year earlier and 105 in 2009. Similarly, the Freedom of Press report of the Freedom House categorises India as ‘party free’ with an overall score of 43 (out of 100).

As in other walks of life, journalism functions in time and space. A former editor of the The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, wrote last year about contemporary challenges to journalism and about the need for journalism to regain the trust of its readers by rethinking its methods and reconfiguring its relationship with the new kaleidoscope of other voices.

The stakes for truth have never been higher he observed. In a revealing chapter entitled ‘Do You love Your Country?’ he sheds some useful light on the approach that Western democracies are tending to take on matters of press freedom. These techniques and practices have been replicated in our own country with our own versions of ‘manufacturing consent.

Over the years, our media has grown in size and coverage. Despite its impressive numbers and diversity, phenomena like cross-media ownership, paid news and fake news, as also the declining role of editors and their editorial freedom, do raise questions about its objectivity and credibility.

Besides these, an unstated major premise is the pervasive national mood of strident nationalism.
How has this come about? What are its dimensions and implications? We need to begin with a terminological clarification. Humans are social creatures and live in societies as citizens in nations in the international system. They owe allegiance to it by legal and emotional bonds which they seek to strengthen. These bonds in normal discourse are depicted as those of patriotism and nationalism; the terms often used interchangeably. Yet the two do differ in meaning and content, as pointed out by the essayist George Orwell whose descriptions bears citation in full:

By ‘nationalism’ I mean . . . the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

More recently, some European leaders have described nationalism as ‘ideological poison’ and as ‘betrayal of patriotism’. For this reason, informed opinion is now suggesting the need for striking a balance.

An essay in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs highlights this approach:

Benign forms of popular nationalism follow from political inclusion. They cannot be imposed by ideological policing from above, nor by attempting to educate citizens about what they should regard as their true interests. In order to promote better forms of nationalism, leaders will have to become
better nationalists, and learn to look out for the interests of all their people.

Strident nationalism, on the other hand, has no hesitation in transcending and transgressing individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It therefore has to be guarded against and its ideological premises contested.

Excerpted with permission from Challenges to A Liberal Polity: Human Rights, Citizenship and Identity, M Hamid Ansari, Penguin.

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