Don’t constrict space for dissent

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Geetartha Pathak

Being critical of the government in India is now costly. The establishment has innovated new gagging tools to silence dissenting voices. It is now putting pressure on the managements of journalists who criticise the government to take action against them, is blocking transmission signals to broadcast programmes unsavory to the powers that be, blocking advertisement, arresting and raiding the houses of journalists, writers, poets, lawyers, academicians and activists.

Some State governments too are resorting to coercion on some news channels critical of the government by covertly asking the cable and DTH operators not to beam their signals for weeks. The Centre recently pressured the management of Hindi channel ABP News to sack two of its senior editors who were critical of the government in their news programmes. They first denied the channel advertisements and then got the transmission signals blocked.

The supporters of the ruling dispensations are trolling independent journalists who write against the party and government. In November 2016, a one-day ban on NDTV’s Hindi channel was put on hold by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry after wide condemnation and the Supreme Court stepping in.

government
Indian activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) New Democracy shout slogans during a protest against the arrest of poet and activist Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, on August 29, 2018.

Serious Situation
Tuesday’s nationwide arrests and house raids of five activists, academicians, lawyers and journalists invoking terror charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) with no official statement by the police and any concrete accusations so far in the public domain have indicated that the ruling dispensation is afraid of free and fearless speech. They think unfettered voices and free media may reveal the true colours of the NDA regime, which may ruin their electoral prospects.

Reacting to the arrests, writer Arundhati Roy said that the situation in the country could become “more serious” than it was at the time of the Emergency in the mid-1970s. She also said, “Anybody who speaks up for justice or against Hindu majoritarianism is being made into a criminal”.

Advani’s Fear
Surprisingly, Lal Krishna Advani, now a member of the BJP’s Margdarshak Mandal, said way back in 2015 that he feared that an emergency-like situation could arise again. Speaking ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, the veteran BJP leader said that “forces that can crush democracy” are stronger. Interestingly the apprehension of Arundhati Roy and Advani – two veterans from complete opposite poles — meets at a common point.

Although historian and writer Ramchandra Guha is a critic of the NDA regime, he had earlier objected when some people said that they are now experiencing undeclared Emergency. He said that he lived through the Emergency and that was much worse. He said this while answering a question at the first edition of ‘The Wire Dialogues’ in July last. However, Tuesday’s raids made Guha change his opinion and he said — “This is absolutely chilling. This is being done not only to intimidate and silence those detained but also those who could potentially come to their legal rescue.”

Other Countries
India is not the only country where freedom of speech and freedom of media are at stake. The Committee to Protect Journalists in its report on Freedom of Press 2017 says that press freedom globally has declined to its lowest levels in 13 years, thanks both to new threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies, and crackdowns on independent media in authoritarian countries like Russia and China.

Turkey, Ethiopia, Venezuela, Russia, China and some other countries where the media is facing repression have a repressive policy pattern. Press freedom analysts have found five trends: first is the use of the criminal justice system to prosecute journalists for terrorism, insulting public officials, or crimes against the State; second, threats and physical attacks on journalists and media outlets; third, government interference with editorial independence and pressure on media organisations to fire critical journalists; fourth, the government takeover or closure of private media companies; and fifth, fines, restrictions on distribution and closure of critical television stations.

Blocking Internet
A sixth trend emerging is blocking of online news websites or internet access. Some of these trends are clearly visible in our country. Press freedom relies on the safety of journalists and their sources. For media freedom to thrive, journalists need the freedom to report and access information in the public interest and we need political representatives who facilitate this freedom, even when they receive criticism.

The United States’ media is facing direct verbal attacks from President Donald Trump in spite of the US having laws on media freedom. The rhetoric that Trump and his administration have used to disparage and discredit the media, before and after the 2016 election, is of grave concern. Words of political leaders have ramifications beyond the immediate news cycle.

It appears that members of the public and other local authority or political figures have felt emboldened by the media strategy of the current administration. Resultantly, journalists have found themselves subject to increasing abuse, harassment, and threats, particularly online.

Notwithstanding tremendous pressure and nefarious media strategy of the Trump administration, the US media has so far boldly resisted Trump’s attacks. However, in India that strength is not visible in a section of mainstream media. We had seen that strength during the Emergency when the print media stood ground and fought back.

Hope the Indian media will draw more strength to face the hostile establishment from the loud dissenting voices of the people, which is becoming louder and louder.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)