Tolerance and intolerance. Two words we are getting to read often nowadays in newspapers in India. So what really has happened to sobriety? Filmmakers, artistes, writers and scientists have returned their national awards to protest “growing intolerance in the country”. Their contention: the government is stifling freedom of expression. The return of the awards and all the talk about intolerance comes at the head of a series of occurrences – Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi being killed, Perumal Muragan having to quit writing altogether, a fatwa issued by a Mumbai-based outfit against A.R. Rahman for scoring music for an Iranian film, a warning issued to actor Rajnikanth for accepting the role of Tipu Sultan, and a bomb attack on the office of Tamil TV channel Puthiya Thalaimurai.
The happenings prompted Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi to say that intolerance is on the rise and there is a "dialogue deficit" between the government and its people. They have also prompted Moody’s (one of the world’s Big Three credit rating agencies) to state that the Indian Government needs to rein in elements that are out to intimidate media and society. And none other than President Pranab Mukherjee appealed to people to preserve India's multiplicity and pluralistic character. Overall, there seems to be a sense of fear, for all those who wish to voice opinion, as journalists, bloggers, tweeters, and those who are active on Facebook or on WhatsApp.
As I was writing this, I received a long, forwarded message on WhatsApp with the opening sentence reading: “this is a very important message if you care about the unity, peace and progress of India”. I was asked to forward it in turn to “every Indian so that the evil face of media is exposed”. “Our media is wolf in sheep's clothes”, the framer of the message seemed convinced. While listing out some of the connections and relationships journalists had with politicians as well as the presence of some cozy clubs, the thrust of the message was: why is the media 'manufacturing' these stories of so-called intolerance. The English language press and English TV channels were continuously “harping about things like 'rising intolerance' and making a big issue of some isolated incidents...”, mainly to scare away potential foreign investors when on the ground common people were leading normal lives, the message read.
Today, the onus is on publishers, editors and journalists, perhaps more than ever before, to adhere to the principles of honesty and truth-telling, to be accurate and fair and balanced and, most importantly, to be sensitive to the pressures of the times. It’s a time also for reflection and to make an honest judgment.
Well, it’s a tough time for journalists everywhere. UNESCO convened events in Paris, London, New York and elsewhere on 2nd November to mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. In the past decade, 700 journalists have been killed for reporting the news: one death every five days. In nine out of ten cases, the killers go unpunished. Less than one in ten cases involving the killing of journalists is ever resolved. It is almost as if there is near complete impunity for the perpetrators of crimes against journalists. Governments, civil society, the media and everyone concerned to uphold the rule of law are being asked by UNESCO to join in the global efforts to end such impunity.
Yet, as we all know, the challenge remains steep. In India, four journalists were killed this year in separate incidents. In 2013, eleven journalists were killed, putting India then at third position (after Syria, Philippines / Iraq) in the International Press Institute’s list, worse than Pakistan which was once billed as the most dangerous country for journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, India today ranks 138 out of 180 countries when it comes to freedom of media and the safety of journalists. What is it that makes journalists so vulnerable? Obviously, the courage to speak out against the corrupt in the establishment. Of course, journalists must continue to be brave and tell the truth no matter what it takes. That’s the hallmark of good journalism, of credibility, its raison d'être. There also needs to be greater unity among journalists. Sadly, the profession has lost some of the respect it had years ago. It is now time to work hard and recover what we have lost.