Tuesday, May 06, 2014

May 3, and why we must value press freedom

Why is press freedom important? It is important because people everywhere have a right to know what is happening, journalists have a duty to report facts as they are, and readers or viewers have a right to voice their opinions and be heard. It is in many ways an extension of individual freedom. A journalist called me some time ago and asked why there wasn't any semblance of World Press Freedom Day (May 3) being celebrated or talked about in India. For a moment I was nonplussed. I then said that it was indeed true and that very little is being done by news publishing houses here to raise awareness about the crucial role a free press plays in the region’s development.

When the United Nations General Assembly declared May 3 to be World Press Freedom Day, the objective was to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to Freedom of Expression enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  When I received the call from the journalist, I was reading a news report in The Times of India, about the controversial editing of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s interview to Doordarshan. Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar, the report said, had acknowledged that certain portions “were apparently edited”. What was more significant in the report was Sircar drawing attention to “this long traditional linkage between the ministry and the news division which has continued unabated even after Prasar Bharati was born….” He also hinted at the Information & Broadcasting Ministry having failed to give the public broadcaster the autonomy it had sought. The I&B Minister later clarified that there was “arm’s-length distance” between the ministry and PB.

I did not find it (the editing of the tape) particularly surprising, considering that in a recent report, Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit body, had ranked India 140 out of 180 countries surveyed for the freedom it gave the media. We have all of course heard about a leading publishing house withdrawing a book, about the clampdown on social media, about Twitter accounts sought to be blocked, etc. Quite ironical when you think that in today’s world where there are no bars really to communication, you should be actually encouraging young people, regardless of gender and ethnicity, to play a proactive role in advancing press freedom and recognising and finding ways to express its importance.

Press freedom is about so many issues, it is impossible to put it all down in an article. But certainly, the freedom has not been valued or used well. Accuracy, fairness and balance have taken a beating in recent years. Youngsters from journalism schools are finding it difficult to cope up with the pressures on the ground; there is a great deal of attrition. There is not enough 'mentoring' happening. Editors do not find time to spend with young reporters. It is again ironical that when today’s youngsters have good opportunities to train or apprentice, there has not been an appreciable improvement in the quality of journalism. In the mad scramble for news and bytes, ‘checking’, ‘condensing’ and ‘clarifying’ have taken a back seat, as a veteran journalist told me recently.

World Press Freedom Day is also a time to spare a thought about the detention and imprisonment of journalists around the globe, individuals who have been sent to jail simply for doing their jobs. In India, of course, the situation is far, far better. But we must salute journalists who venture into the back of beyond or inhospitable terrain to bring news to the reader or viewer.

The Daily Mirror in Sri Lanka printed a mirror image of its front page on May 3. The only legible sentence on the page read: ‘Only true freedom of the press can turn things the right way around. Celebrating World Press Freedom Day 2014!’ The objective was to raise questions about the state of press freedom in that country. It’s time we raised such questions about ours.


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