Denying People Information

Freedom of press is the principle to be upheld at any cost
Representational Photo
Representational Photo

'The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state. Every freeman has an undeniable right to lay what he pleases before the public: to forbid this is to destroy the freedom of the press.' – 'Free speech must be kept free even in wartime, even when passions are high because that is when the people need to hear both sides of the argument, not just what the government wishes to tell them.'

These lines written at two different times, in eighteen and early twentieth centuries came to my mind on reading a front-page editorial titled 'stop state squeeze' published in this newspaper on Friday. The starting quoted lines are from the writings by William Blackstone English jurist, judge and Tory politician and later ones are from an essay by Zechariah Chafee, a Harvard law professor and author of the famed book 'Free Speech in the United States'. 

Newspapers ordinarily do not publish editorials on front pages; these occur when a subject or development is considered more significant than a routine matter- and calls a public debate at great length.

Encapsulating, how the newspapers and journalists during most trying times have endeavoured hard to live up to the noble objective of consolidating the 'fourth estate', one of the pillars of democracy, the editorial draws our attention towards the perils the institution of journalism in itself is confronted with in the state.

In a state like Jammu and Kashmir more particularly in Kashmir valley where there is hardly a corporate or big business house media spending, it is the government business in the form advertisements that provide economic support to the newspapers.

Nonetheless, it is two-way traffic in as much as; if on one side advertisement gives business to the papers on the other it enables the government to fulfil its administrative, legal and constitutional obligations of sharing the government information with the general masses.

The funds provided under the head in the state budget is the taxpayer's money and not some individual's kitty. It is meant for buying space in the papers for widely publicising tender and recruitment notices, promoting, propagating development schemes and carrying out public awareness campaigns, and not intended for promoting an individual or political party in power.

The whole objective behind giving full publicity to tender, recruitment notices and developmental projects is to bring transparency and accountability in the working of the government. 

In the third week of February, the government stopped advertisements to two leading English dailies, Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader. Greater Kashmir publishes from both the summer and winter capitals of the state; it is the largest circulated newspapers in the state and over two and half million visits every day the online edition of the paper.

So far the government has not assigned any reason for stopping the advertisements to the paper; it has not even responded to the concerns raised by the Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG) against the arbitrary action. Instead, the Department of Information has stopped sending advertisements to Daily Kashmir Uzma, a leader Urdu paper and sister publication of Greater Kashmir.

So far the government has not assigned any reason for subjectively as well as capriciously discriminating the paper by denying the ads about public information to it. In stopping the paper publicising the government business, those in top echelons have been denying needed  info related to the government to hundreds of thousands of people in the state- it can be said without fear of contradiction these newspapers are the only significant source of information about the government business in the remotest parts of the state.

The editorial had rightly pointed out that the newspapers as an alert watchdog had objectively upheld the cause of democracy, emerged as a champion for strengthening the justice system and human rights.

Moreover by not toeing the line of any party and pointing out fault lines in the policies of the government in most grim situations it has nothing to remorse about, as we saw some journalist distressed later on over their role in having contributed to the Emergency in India in 1975.

About the role of his newspaper Blitz in the imposition of the Emergency in India, the doyen of Indian journalism R.K. Karanjia in an interview in 1978 told a journalist, "We of Blitz suffer from a guilt complex about Sanjay Gandhi. If only we had exposed the Maruti racket and evolution of Sanjay into a terror he became, we could have stopped this ugly development. We had all the material with us. If you look into files of Blitz, we did raise the issue of Maruti a couple of times, but we allowed ourselves to be silenced by the persuasive rejoinders sent to us by Sanjay."

In appraising the policies of the governments in office honestlyand bring out harsher realities about the functioning of the institutions ofthe governance to the fore the journalists mostly help in strengthening peoplesbelief in democracy. Founder editor of monthly Seminar Romesh Thapar whosejournal during Emergency had to close down for six months rightly observes, "Ibelieve that as a journalists it is your duty to play a certain role.Otherwise, you should not be a journalist. You can be a businessman or apolitician" Had not in 1975, an important section of journalist crawled, Indiandemocracy would not have got the ugly blot of the Emergency on it.

True, Jammu and Kashmir was not officially brought under the Emergency. Nonetheless, ripple effects were felt in banning the Jammat-e-Islamia Jammu and Kashmir and some odd press bill.   Forty-two years after the 21, month-long emergency some of the ugly legacies of this nightmarish period still exits, and one of them is using the government advertisements as weapons for making the press to crawl on the dotted lines.

R.   Madhavan Nair, infirm but indefatigable Editor of The Tribune during Emergency in an article wrote, "In Chandigarh, the Tribune paid its price in the shape of a denial of government advertisements and other kinds of harassments, including change of editor in favour of one more pliable from government's point of view. Regardless, the trustees provided me with one year's extension when my retirement was due.

But, I had the pleasure of seeing my tormentors ousted from power before I retired." Similar views about the government using advertisement for choking the freedom of expression during the Emergency were expressed by many important editors of the seventies including C. R. Irani then editor of the Statesman.

Such policies towards the press in the past have notprovided any dividends to the State; instead, these have provedcounter-productive. Let me reiterate what I said at the start of this column'freedom of the press is the main edifice for a democratic society. Let usuphold it.' 

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