By Shantanu Guha Ray
On 16 February, journalists in Delhi, for a change, carried banners and wore black armbands in a solidarity march to highlight the vagaries of their profession and protest against the assault on reporters inside the Patiala House Court premises.
But many of those who attended remain divided on their claim that the media was under serious threat in India.
Teenagers were heard complaining they were rattled by violence outside the courts where lawyers carried sticks instead of client-briefs, behaved like goons.
Some squarely blamed the ruling BJP-led NDA coalition, claiming — without offering statistics — that such attacks were on the rise ever since the right wing party swept to power.
There were veterans, regular on TV shows, who said they were genuinely afraid to ask questions, and write copies.
There were celebrity TV anchors, exhorting their viewers not to watch other anchors but only themselves because they cared for the freedom of media and marched together whereas the “other anchors” were actually “rabble-rousers”.
Bearing the burnt of such attacks was an anchor who missed the march, the darts stopping only after some raised an alert that the anchor was busy attending to his ailing father.
It was apparent that there was intense rivalry among journalists about who’s agreeing the media is under attack and who is not. Sadly, it was not about whether the media was genuinely under attack in one of the world’s largest democracies.
The argument - expectedly - played out on the social networks, splitting the media wide open. Some editors ridiculed those who marched, asking them since when were journalists concerned about state of the nation.
The din on Twitter continued for a little over 48 hours, triggering television debates where some said the situation was “grave” and some blamed journalists for over-reacting. One studio guest even reminded viewers how editors in 1996 had walked right up to the country’s President after a veteran politician slapped a reporter for invading his privacy.
The guest, a former bureaucrat, had a point.
Journalists in India have always loved to upgrade themselves like airline seats by describing their work as mainstream and argued against drawing the definitive Thin Red Line, a Lakshman Rekha, to define what is morally right and wrong for a reporter.
Editors must take it upon themselves to explain that journalists must report without fear and favour. And that attacks go hand in hand with fame. Those reporting in big metros should have been told that they are much better off than their colleagues in the countryside who are more vulnerable to the dangers of the profession, often lacking a very basic protection.
At the rally, some of the reporters complained that they were being 'trolled' on social media if they took a certain position about a national development. But isn’t that obvious?
If at all, it is their counterparts in the countryside who should actually complain. In the troubled northeastern states, reporters routinely face harassment at the hands of security forces; there are regular reports of journalists being tortured in Chattisgarh, home of some of India’s most feared Maoist rebels. Even in Mumbai, crime reporters have lost lives to underworld bullets.
Lost in the din of Tuesday's rally was some serious analysis of the state of the media in India and whether or not it faces any threat from the state. The answer is a big No. Ever since the nation walked out of a dreaded Emergency imposed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the late 70s, the media in India has never been under fire.
Consider this one. Ever since the BJP-led NDA swept to power, no channel has reported closure of a show because of government pressure, nor any newspaper or portal has downed shutters due to government intervention.
Twitter and Facebook continue to be critical about the government (as it should be) and the Prime Minister is frequently made the butt of ridicule, even by many celebrated editors. In short, reporters have not been out of jobs because of the government. What has stopped is unlimited access to ministries and bureaucracy, which often resulted in journalists filing front-page scoops, and also helped some peddling of information to corporates at a high cost. Of late, almost all ministers routinely interact with the media on all occasions, both formally and informally.
Journalists should take such isolated attacks on their profession as a challenge, find new ways to penetrate the 'iron curtain' and get their daily dose of news, rather getting worried about a few erratic cops and thuggish lawyers. Else, soft news will replace hard news on the front page, the profession of journalism will lose all seriousness.