As an Indian American, I have had the privilege of living in the two largest democracies in the world. One of those democracies – the United States of America – came into being in part because of the free press. The other – India – has the reputation of being the most vibrant and free press in the developing world.
Since its establishment as a free-standing nation, however, the free press in India has grown substantially and contributed significantly to the evolution of the Indian democracy. Sadly, in recent times, the freedom of India’s free press has been threatened.
In September of this year, well known journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh and television reporter Santana Bhowmik were killed in separate incidents. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York based NGO, over the past twenty-five years, there have been “41 instances” in which Indian journalists have been murdered ‘in direct reprisal for his or her work.”
Combine this violence upon journalists with a raid on the homes and offices of the founders of NDTV, India’s oldest television news station by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation in June of this year for “an alleged loss” incurred by a private bank and there is considerable cause for concern regarding the freedom of the press in India. The New York Times highlighted this in an editorial on the raid which began “Press freedom in India suffered a fresh blow on Monday…”
Freedom House, an organization that evaluates countries in terms of their freedom of the press, rated India’s press status as only “partially free” in 2016 and gave it a score of “40” with “0” being the best and “100” being the “worst”. The key developments and reasons for this assessment included:
The killing of at least two journalists in connection with their work
A Supreme Court ruling to retain criminal defamation, despite calls for decriminalization Journalists in Chhattisgarh facing tremendous pressure with some relocating due to concerns for their safety Heavy-handed restrictions on the press in the states of Jammu and Kashmir with newspapers being shut down and a clamp down on mobile internet services
In sum, the news about the freedom of India’s free press is not good. Maybe that’s not so bad one might think. Is freedom of the press such a big deal!
Absolutely! In fact, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the free press to a vibrant and vital democracy.
Let me elaborate on why the free press is so essential by using a quote from the Newseum, a wonderful museum in Washington, D.C. In the Newseum, is the following etched statement:
The Free Press is a cornerstone of democracy. People have the need to know. Journalists have the right to tell. Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the right to be fair. News is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft of history. A Free Press, at its very best, reveals the truth.
Anurag Roy, Indian architect, expresses a similar sentiment, writing for ImportantIndia, he asserts:
The duty of a free press is to raise voice against any social ill or wrong. It has been said that internal vigilance is the price of liberty…The press and the digital media works day and night to deliver accurate news at the speed of light. The people of the country are kept informed of what is happening in the country. Thus, freedom of press and media is the necessary pre-condition to the fulfillment of democratic ideologies.
The Constitution of India makes no specific reference to freedom of the press. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, on the other hand, guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression. There is a general consensus that this Article includes freedom of the press.
There is also an emerging consensus that over the past few years the freedom of the press has been hamstrung. This is neither consistent with the Constitution nor healthy for the Indian democracy.
The citizens of India gave the United States and the world a lesson in democracy by turning out in record numbers to vote in the national elections of 2014. As we move toward 2018, it is time for the current administration in India to give another lesson in democracy by taking all of the steps necessary to ensure the freedom of the free press in India.
Given the current status, there is much work that needs to be done to ensure that freedom. But, it is work that is critical to enable India to be not only the largest democracy in the world but also a role model and exemplar for other democracies to emulate.
India remains a vibrant democracy, in large part because of the resilience of its questioning press. The free press is critical to the future of India and its citizens. We should praise the free press, not to bury it. There are others who want to do the opposite. Journalists should not stop asking the hard questions and writing the tough stories. Journalists have responsibility to seek and report the truth. We need the journalists now more than ever. The overriding responsibility of the media is to separate the facts from fiction and is to hold governments and leaders to the same standards.
(Frank Islam is an Entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)