The Freedom of Press has been one of the most sought-after modern civil rights since the 19th century. The role played by the press during the Struggle for Independence is something that needs not be reinstated again. Whether it was politicizing the public opinion or the institutional role of opposition, the work of the press had been commendable. The very motto of the Indian press during the late 19th and 20th century was ‘Oppose, Oppose and Oppose’.
“If you give power into the hands of people without questioning it, they will draw out blood from you”– Marina Abramovic
The institution of democracy rests upon tenets of responsibility and accountability. A democratically elected government is responsible as well accountable to the people. A system of checks and balances has been enacted through periodic elections where the people have the power to replace it if it fails to act in accordance with these principles. But that can happen only if a public consensus is created regarding the win-wins and failures of those in power.
So the question which one is posed with: Who is going to perform this mammoth task of mobilizing public opinion by offering an in-depth analysis of the working of the government? The answer seems quite simple: Press.
Journalism at that time (19th and 20th century) was considered to be an act of philanthropy. It was not merely a business enterprise motivated by TRP ratings. The publication of newspapers was regarded as a National Service. Such was the rigor with which the press operated. Surendranath Banerjee, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Motilal Ghosh, G.K. Gokhale were some of the journalists who fiercely criticized and aroused anti-imperialist sentiments against the Colonial Regime through their writings and publications in papers such as Bengalee, Kesari, Amrit Bazar Patrika, and Sudharak.
Expressing dissent has never been an easy task. Dissent is bound to generate consequences, often ugly ones. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1870 had prohibited the publication of any such writings that would “excite feelings of disaffection to the Government established by law in India” and those convicted had to face transportation for life or imprisonment up to 3 years.
The road to journalism has never been a smooth one, especially for those coming from an ethical stock. Even today, journalists and media houses are targeted for being critical of those in power. The recent raids on the offices of media groups such as Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar in Uttar Pradesh reinstate the insecurities that exist among the ruling party. Both the media houses had recently put out reports critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
That’s not the only kind of danger that looms over them. Their job requires them to go out in dangerous, often conflict-ridden, or remote areas to bring out those feeble and faint voices which often get lost in the boisterousness of the world’s superficiality. Danish Siddiqui, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, was one such who recently lost his life while covering the Afghan-Taliban conflict.
At the same time, we have journalists and media houses mongering hate from their perfectly lit and comfortable offices and paying lip service to the government. The frivolous debates held on petty issues on National Television are something to be taken note of. Disfigured data, half-truths, and distracting people from actual issues can have serious ramifications in the long run. The political polarization facilitated by these opinion-molding forums can have debilitating effects on fragile young minds and add to the existing prejudices. After all, the road to democracy is the same road that leads to dictatorship.
Ethical Journalism is the need of the hour. We need more people like Gauri Lankesh and Danish Siddiqui who can bring out the truth in the face of the oppressors. The motto which was taken up by the press during the Freedom Struggle — Oppose, Oppose, Oppose — should become a clarion call for journalists all over the world.
Butool Zehra is a student pursuing History from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Reda Aamna