Don’t shoot the messenger

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Standing up for free speech and civil liberties should be the media’s priority

Ajit Bhattacharjea

Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

ON FEBRUARY 27, a protest meeting was held in New Delhi by leading civil rights organisations condemning the State for targeting them for criticising actions taken by the government under its anti-Maoist strategy, Operation Green Hunt. Delhi Police had last week, in a 700-page chargesheet filed against top Maoist ideologue Kobad Ghandy, incriminated a number of individuals and legitimate democratic organisations that have been working in the public domain on issues ranging from displacement, rural destitution, caste discrimination, ethnic conflict and custodial deaths.

Though the meeting attracted a battery of news cameramen and reporters, there was a virtual blackout by the visual media and most newspapers on the protest. The question here is not whether the government or the Maoists are right or wrong, but whether the media should silence, embargo or divert attention from the main issue — which in this case was the State’s attempt to smear civil rights organisations.

Mainstream media has always been careful about treading on the toes of authority. As a journalist, I am aware of the reasons. The government has various ways of making its displeasure known and felt. And it’s not comfortable for journalists to find themselves on the wrong side of the government. Directly telling a journalist not to publish a piece of news may not be sophisticated, but the State influences them to go along through other blandishments.

We are in a very difficult point of time in our history with the government cashing in on the fear of terrorism. The State amplifies the siege mentality in the middle class so that it can pass off its draconian measures as necessary tools to deal with this threat. When people are faced with a situation like that, it becomes very difficult to speak out against the government. But we must remember that it is more important to speak out and question the government. Therefore, there must be space for voices of dissent.

The State amplifies the siege mentality in the middle class so that its draconian counter-terror measures are accepted

Unless one indulges in an illegal or violent act, merely holding extreme political views is not a culpable act in any mature democracy. It’s a tightrope many intellectuals walk today. But what do you do in situations of rampant injustice which cannot be remedied in any other way? Indian nationalist and social reform leader Jayaprakash Narayan, who is also my mentor, once said after visiting Naxalite areas that if all the social ills and governmental malpractices were not ended, he, too, would take to violence. It is that kind of a contradiction that people are faced with. Furthermore, the media projects issues of Naxalism as one of violence versus democracy. Now, even Union Home Minister P Chidambaram routinely states that civil rights organisations and intellectuals are helping the Maoists. Middle-class audiences are lulled into holding this view without questioning it.

The idea of violence is itself tricky and difficult to understand because it’s not the middle classes that are affected directly, but the tribals who have been oppressed for centuries. If you look back through history, the tribals had armed themselves even during the British rule because their land and water was being taken. The tragedy is that some Maoist leaders are abusing this disaffection in people caused by years of exploitation to impose their own ideology.

The role of the journalist in such a delicate situation is to engender complex and nuanced thought. But with the media failing to give attention to attempts by the police, at the behest of the government, to muzzle voices of dissent, we are in for disturbing implications for our democratic society.

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