Freedom Comes With Responsibility
Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam
Of late we have seen media leaders concerned over the state’s alleged bid to curb media freedom. Overt and covert attempts by the state to control media amounts to the negation of right to free speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution.
This guarantee is reflected in Article 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that says the right to freedom of expression, including the general right to seek, receive and impart ideas and information of all kinds is a basic human right that nobody can be denied. Media represents this freedom of expression.
Journalism and media operations do not work on an altruistic basis but are sustained by a business model. The huge expenses of running a media house can bankrupt some of the richest people if the business model is not correct. Undermining the business is as good or as bad as throttling the right to free speech and expression. Media persons have complained that government has been steadily nibbling away at media’s business foundations.
Journalists and media owners suspect that the consistent and repeated exposures by media of corruption in high places, one after another, is behind the state’s sneaky moves to curb the media. This sounds like a plausible cause for government to undermine media through devious means. This much is understandable.
However, people running media houses have to know that day in and day out they are sitting in judgment over others, which means over everyone, including government ministers and bureaucrats (but never against banks, advertisers and some businessmen).
Media is a business, but it is not a business like any other. All other businesses are treated as business only, but media is treated as a public platform, a public trust in the sense of being a watchdog of common interest, and thus a moral authority that can stand up to the state’s authority.
Today there is a growing feeling among people that corporate media is a thinly disguised front for corporate interests with little concern for lending voice to the voiceless. People have seen journalists, particularly from TV, trying to blackmail both rich and middle-class persons. We have seen some of the big names in journalism (given to irksome pontification and passing moral judgment) being involved in power pedling.
The privilege of being the moral Fourth Estate entails some serious responsibility even though most of the classical media barons and press tycoons have been villainous characters with few moral qualms. Even the prestigious Times of London was in the business of blackmail in its early decades. After a century or so of respectability it passed on to Rupert Murdoch whose attitude to business is anything but moral.
For media to stand up to the power of the state it has to be seen as credible, moral and on the side of the citizenry in its power struggle against the state, which is nothing but the citizenry’s constant struggle to protect its dignity vis-à-vis the all-powerful state. Here the media (except social media) have yet to prove their credentials.
As Muslims we have found media quite often responsive to our difficulties. But as often they have helped create those difficulties. Example: no sooner than a bomb goes off somewhere (including in some mosque, dargah or in Samjhauta Express, where Muslims alone are killed and maimed), within moments the media go off on a tangent parroting police stories of all kinds of “Muslim” terrorist organisations. This continues for a couple of days. These are TV’s main stories for those days and are splashed all across the front pages of “national” newspapers. When the courts acquit the accused and censor the police for waywardness and irresponsibility (stopping well short of really punishing them) the media keep silent. Forget about the same play that was given of their “involvement” in the crime, even two-inch single-column mentions buried deep inside insignificant pages are rare.
As a Muslim organisation we have reminded some newspapers of their responsibility to publish the stories of specific cases of acquittal, but in vain. Urdu newspapers have regularly carried such news, but “national” newspapers seldom take the trouble. There have been some noble exceptions, and we duly acknowledge them. We wonder whether the reporters are mere police stenographers.
We have also noticed that the media are actor-centric, not event or issue-centric. We have not seen much reporting on, or analysis of the 37 anti-Muslim riots in Akhilesh Yadav’s UP in the “national” media. Is it how media expect to be credible? Would the media have treated the issue with such grand indifference if the victims were from other communities in even one or two riots. It is not human suffering, or Indian citizens’ suffering that matters for media, but only a particular group’s suffering.
We have another instance that comes readily to mind. The All India Milli Council ran a nationwide campaign against corruption in 1997, and many of us went all over the country carrying the message in a yatra. The yatra ended in Delhi with a huge rally. The “national media” ignored it. However, it went on a news binge when Anna Hazare started his noble movement on the same issue.
Public perceptions about media, their wheeling dealing, their paid news and advertorials are only a little less negative than about politicos. The media should set their own house in order. Common people like us will always be on their side as they are closer to the citizenry’s sympathies than the state. g