“Free men must have the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” It is intensely alarming how these words by John Milton in the 17th century directed against the control of church and state on works of art, science, literature and philosophy in the then England rings with great relevance and truth in the contemporary era where major governments continue to exert excruciating control on the press, thereby stifling the media’s free and democratic spirit. With more than 17,000 newspapers, 100,000 magazines, 178 news channels and numerous online news portals, is the Indian media truly free?
India ranks 142 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF); its ranking having dropped two points since the previous year and this is majorly attributed to the nation’s systemic persecution of journalists in Kashmir. RSF terms the government’s control on Kashmir’s media as an ‘appalling Orwellian press-policy.’ Media continues to face the wrath of governments when it raises its voice against the oppressive manipulation of power and in the adverse time of a global pandemic, it is more crucial for the media to pursue truth in its reportage, question the government and be the voice of the public.
Freedom of press is not a fundamental right in accordance to the Indian Constitution and we have highly relied on judicial interpretation of Freedom of press as an essential extension of Freedom of speech and expression to protect the rights of media. We also unfortunately have the brazen, insensitive side of media that is steeped in sensationalism and unflinchingly involved in perpetuating hostilities and unfair, dehumanizing stereotypes. Our concern today is to combat government control and strive for a better, fairer and more reliable journalism and here are some of the ways in which we can strive closer to this ideal.
Creating collective platforms and enhancing fraternity
There is a pressing need for solidarity in the country’s media where both the national and regional media ought to come together to create collective platforms for critical questioning. These platforms may assume the form of periodical press conferences where the media seeks answers from the governments and critiques its regressive steps and abuses of power. This elevates the collective power of media in the nation where popular politics aims to ‘divide and rule’.
A New York Times article titled ‘Under Modi, India’s press is not so free anymore’ reveals that presently strictest restrictions are imposed on foreign journalists in India, especially in areas of conflict and tensions, visas are tightened and even American television channel Bloomberg was unable to acquire a license to function in India. This predicament elucidates that there exist both opportunity and need for Indian journalists to go international. Indian journalistic outlets can forge strong and consistent collaboration with foreign-media to bring out news stories that are sensitive, of national concern and threatened by being potentially thwarted by the government. By ensuring collaboration, sensitive and crucial local stories will receive a wide, reliable coverage and gather the global attention they truly need.
Embracing new forms
With the advent of digital media, lines are blurred and there are myriad opportunities in hand to break from traditional media and embrace new forms that are accommodative of journalism. While blogs run by independent journalists grow in time after well-established repute and credibility, there brim opportunities in the realm of documentaries. Documentary genre supports investigative journalism and when journalists collaborate with documentary filmmakers on their stories, the scope expands with emphatic focus on varied human aspects of the story. International film festivals continue to support documentary projects and there are numerous funding platforms that can be reached through careful and meticulous planning to give a story a truly massive dimension.
Backing by the Press Council of India
When we keenly look at what countries like Norway and Finland which rank as the top two nations in the World Press Freedom Index are doing, there are instructive measures to borrow ideas from. In Norway, the government has recently set up a commission to review the conditions of freedom of speech and to promote ‘broadest possible participation in the public debate’ which implies curbing the spread of fake news, hate speech and measures to enhance the safety of journalists. Kindred steps are also actively taken by the government of Finland. Press Council of India that has been widely termed as ‘namesake’ has recently taken measures to control rapidly spreading fake news and it is important for the council to analyze the condition of journalists in the nation, compare it strategically with countries where free press prospers and devise measures to strengthen freedom and quality in public debate and create a secure environment for journalists by keeping undue government control under check.
A future in freelance journalism
In the changing scape of media, the way new age journalists work is also undergoing a significant alteration. Is there a potential future in freelance journalism? This looms as a major question amidst young journalists and various veteran journalists have affirmed how it can be a lucrative and flexible way of working. In the scenario of downsizing becoming more prevalent in media houses, freelance journalism also seems to be an option of promise. There is a need for regulation in freelance journalism to create a positive sphere for professional contribution. The challenge and need in freelance journalism are to create an atmosphere that is inclusive of young voices. Through this inclusion and flexibility, diverse and crucial stories shall arrive at the forefront.