Action needed to safeguard press freedom

By Brij Bhardwaj. Dated: 7/8/2019 4:40:46 PM

Is the relationship between media and the official agencies undergoing a change with new policies in pipeline. For instance the role of official agencies in the Press Information Bureau is undergoing a change. Gone are the days when officials of the bureau briefed the media on regular basis about the important decisions of the Cabinet and new initiatives announced by the Government. Information officers attached to different Ministries acted as spokesman for the ministries and provided all information required for writing a story and fixed meetings with officials concerned.
Now all briefings are done by Ministers concerned including some political decisions. The officials concerned act as spectators and provide the premises where briefings are held. Old times when entry into government offices was open for all accredited correspondents, now prior appointments are required which are given very reluctantly. There are other changes to restrict media access like absence of media persons during official visits by Prime Minister and President to foreign countries.
This has turned PIB into a clearing house for issuing official hand outs and not acting as an organisation to distribute information about the working of the Government and help in educating media about various schemes and projects. Another change to be made soon will be to set up a monitoring cell with declared purpose of monitoring fake news distributed through social media or other means. This department will be staffed by not only officials but persons recruited from outside. There is thinking that findings of such group may lead to penalties being imposed.
As such the media persons will not only have to deal with the common law of the country which in the past checked any attempt to defame or undertake any writing which may disturb peace but also new laws. One hopes while implementing all these schemes Government will ensure that freedom of Press as guaranteed by the Constitution of India will not be violated. AS it is many State Governments do not miss any opportunity to take action against media for drawing a cartoon or circulating a message attacking the rulers.
The plea that media should be left to be monitored by professional organisations or bodies like Press Council of India has obviously not found favour with the party in power. As it is a large part of media is today accused of toeing the official line with new regulation in place such tendencies will be encouraged. It may create problems for independent media, but the major loss will be of the Government. As it will be closing the window through which it is able to monitor situation on the ground.
In addition signals are coming from RSS, the intellectual arm of the Government which recently honoured the media group which declared some citizens as anti-national. This included all those who criticised Government on Kashmir issue, Balakot air strike. On the other hand groups which attacked Kashmiri students in the wake of Pulwama attack were honoured. Such functions were attended by top leaders of RSS.
With opposition parties in limbo, media organisations will have to fight the battle for their freedom on their own. For one who saw major media houses submitting without a whimper during emergency, I wonder how it will behave this time. Agreed there is no emergency, courts are still functional and atleast half a dozen states are governed by opposition parties.
Media freedom is precious and in present times when large capital is required to run print media or electronic channel, economic pressure can be equally effective. This has been used in recent times selectively. I hope dangers spoken by me will not become real, but vigilance is necessary on the part of media and we have many examples before us from different parts of world where freedom of media has become a causality before dictatorship become a reality.
(Brij Bhardwaj is a veteran journalist and commentator)



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