Things must be really bad when we have Lalu Prasad Yadav standing up for freedom of expression.
“People (drew) my cartoons, (but) I have never objected … Something very bad has taken place in West Bengal,” Lalu-ji told the media as the Mamtoon affair refused to die down in Kolkata.
West Bengal always bristles at being compared to neighbouring Bihar, but in this case Mamata might be able to save some face. Unlike Bihar, at least West Bengal has not been given a complete failing grade when it comes to freedom of expression.“The press does not enjoy freedom at present (in Bihar)” said Markandey Katju, the Chairman of the Press Council of India. “I have been told that people don’t muster the courage to write against the Bihar government or its officials.”
The spotlight might be on Didi for tilting at cartoons but in the war on freedom of expression she has plenty of chief ministerial company as Sagarika Ghose pointed out on Face the Nation last night. They only vary in their tactics.
Puppet on a string. In Nitish Kumar’s new Bihar, the dark joke is he is not just the Chief Minister, he is the Editor-in-Chief. In an expose in Open Magazine, Dhirendra K Jha tells the story of the Dr Raihan Ghani, the Chief Editor of an Urdu daily whose column about how Nitish Kumar turned his wife’s funeral into a political event annoyed the CM. Ghani was quickly demoted, his name replaced in the printline, and his column stopped. He quit the paper. The daily which had got Rs 1 lakh in advertisements from the state government that year, got Rs 24 lakh the next year. “Operating from such a position of strength, the Nitish Kumar government seems to be using its ad budget as a way to transform newspapers into courtiers,” writes Jha. (For the full extent of Bihar’s gag orders read the full Open story here.)
The goon squad. When Nakkheeran, a Tamil bi-weekly magazine, dared to described AIADMK supreme Jayalalithaa as a “beef-eating” person capable of taking on anybody, it was obviously looking to provoke. But instead of hauling the magazine to court, AIADMK’s cadres stormed into its office, threw stones, damaged cars, hurled shoes and burned copies. Over in Orissa, the Media Unity for Freedom of Press has been sounding the alarm for awhile about attacks on journalists who dare to criticise Naveen Patnaik. Rajat Ranjan Das of Sambad, the most circulated daily in Orissa, was allegedly attacked by SK Babu, a buddy of the CM, and his gang last February and tossed onto the road, bleeding with head injuries. Katju’s Press Council of India also issued a show cause to Prithivraj Chauhan over attacks on journalists in Maharashtra. He claimed that in the last two-and-a-half years 213 journalists were attacked by political workers and anti-social elements.
Any lawsuit that fits. Bikash Swain, publisher of another daily in Odisha, was picked up by the police while on his way to collect medicine and food for his sick father. He was booked on charges of cheating and forgery but the paper’s editor said the real crime was the paper’s reports on police encounters. “Media persons are being implicated in cooked up cases and tortured to ruin their credibility and to intimidate their community,” writes the OrissaMatters blog. A defamation case was filed against The Hindu for defaming Amma by purportedly repeating the Nakkheeran article while reporting on it. In 2011 Jayalalithaa also issued legal notices against three media outfits (including a DMK-owned one) for “frivolous and defamatory reports” linking her to a tainted businessman. Over in West Bengal, in the cartoon fracas, the police quickly slapped on the outraging a woman’s modesty and the IT Act onto Ambikesh Mahapatra’s list of sins so they could keep him in custody overnight.
Wink wink nudge nudge. Even when the CMs themselves are not unleashing the dogs of war, they can condone the attacks on freedom of expression with a dismissive wink. After the lawyers beat up journalists in Bangalore, the Broadcast Editors Association expressed “shock” at Karnataka CM DV Sadananda Gowda “justifying” the incident. “The media, too, needs to introspect about the style of its functioning,” he said blithely. When a Bengali newschannel’s journalist was beaten up, allegedly by Trinamool Congress workers, for trying to film them ransacking a CPM party office, Mamata dismissed it as “a cooked-up incident.” In Kashmir when police beat up photojournalists, Omar Abdullah’s ingenious solution was the journalists should wear distinctive clothing so the cops could tell them apart.
Ban it. A satirical play about an extravagant Queen Maya who is obsessed with sandals was quickly banned in Lucknow although its director claimed it had nothing to do with Mayawati. The Lucknow District Magistrate pulled the plug on it but Mayawati couldn’t have been too thrilled with a storyline involving an elephant swallowing the sandals along with all the kingdom’s jewels, and a purgative that excretes documents about Queen Maya’s ill-gotten wealth. And while none has gone to the extent of asking for an outright ban on Facebook, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, last in the news for helping keep Salman Rushdie out of the Jaipur Literature Festival, wants social networking sites to set up servers in India so the government can put the screws on them quicker.
Silence, the CM is not talking. A time-honoured way to show the media its place is by cutting off access. Narendra Modi, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati are masters of that art. They rarely give interviews and are accountable to no one but themselves. When the Guardian ran a long profile of Mayawati, it published her CV. Under What she says, it wrote “Very little, as she gives almost no media interviews.” Modi did make himself available to Time and The Brookings Institute for their recent stories but that was all part of the grand makeover plan writes Hartosh Singh Bal in Open. Modi, he writes, is happy to talk to US publications and think-tanks that will accept his claims at face value. “My surmise is Narendra Modi is afraid to grant such an interview (to an informed Indian journalist), because what are seen as his strengths are the ones most easily exposed under scrutiny,” writes Bal. (Read the full article to see why Bal thinks Modi is afraid of the Indian media.)
Yet each of these leaders have at some point or the other taken up the cause of freedom of expression. Jayalalithaa has lectured Karunanidhi about being unaware of the freedom of expression in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. Modi has lashed out at the UPA and Kapil Sibal for trying to “snatch” the freedom of expression by policing the Internet and social media. Mamata’s rep in the Rajya Sabha, Derek O’Brien finally surfaced in the wake of the cartoon debacle to say “the freedom of the press is non-negotiable.”
It is “non-negotiable” as long as the press is attacking your opposition or singing your praise. In reality freedom of expression has become our Gandhi topi – a fashion accessory that is worn for show but has little meaning in real life. All the CMs, irrespective of political colour, mouth it but when they feel the pinch, all of them are happy to flout it. Mamata Banerjee is not unique here. She has just taken it to new depths by taking such umbrage to so little. All Mamata has done is given the rest of the gang some cover. "At least we don't go after cartoons," they can all claim sanctimoniously.
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Updated Date: Apr 17, 2012 16:46:58 IST