Freedom of press and journalistic ethics – II
Justice Markandey Katju IN THE HINDU
Underdeveloped countries like India are passing through a transitional stage, between a feudal-agricultural society and a modern-industrial society. This is a painful, agonising period. A study of the history of England of the 17th and 18th centuries and of France of the 18th and 19th centuries, shows that for them such periods of transition were full of turbulence, turmoil, revolutions, intellectual ferment, and social churning. It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. India is going through this fire. The barbaric ‘honour killings’ in parts of the country of young men and women of different castes or religion who get married or wish to get married, among other incidents, show how backward we still are — full of casteism and communalism.
India’s national aim must be to get over this transitional period as quickly as possible, reducing the inevitable agony. Our aim must be to make India a modern, powerful, industrial state. Only then will India be able to provide for the welfare of its people and get respect in the world community.
Today, the real world is cruel and harsh. It respects power, not poverty or weakness. When China and Japan were poor nations, their people were derisively labelled ‘yellow’ races by Western nations. Today nobody dares use such terms as they are strong industrial nations. Similarly, if we wish India to get respect in the comity of nations, we must make it highly industrialised and prosperous. For this, our patriotic, modern-minded intelligentsia must wage a powerful cultural struggle, that is, a struggle in the realm of ideas. This cultural struggle must be waged by combating feudal and backward ideas, for example, casteism and communalism, replacing them with modern, scientific ideas among the masses.
The media have an extremely important role to play in this cultural struggle. But are they performing this role?
No doubt, the media sometimes refer to farmer suicides in different States, the price rise, and so on, but these form only a small part of their coverage — maybe 5 to 10 per cent. Most of the coverage is given to cricket, film stars, astrology and disco-dancing.
Sadly, India now has a disconnect between the mass media and mass reality. Here are a few facts from a speech delivered by P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu and Magsaysay award winner, on September 6, 2007 in Parliament House in the Speaker’s Lecture Series.
•The mass reality in India (which has over 70 per cent of its people living in the rural areas), is that rural India is in the midst of the worst agrarian crisis in four decades. Millions of livelihoods in the rural areas have been damaged or destroyed in the last 15 years as a result of this crisis, because of the predatory commercialisation of the countryside and the reduction of all human values to exchange value. As a result, lakhs of farmers have committed suicide and millions of people have migrated, and are migrating, from the rural areas to the cities and towns in search of jobs that are not there. They have moved towards a status that is neither that of a ‘worker’ nor that of a ‘farmer.’ Many of them end up as domestic labourers, or even criminals. We have been pushed towards corporate farming, a process in which farming is taken out of the hands of the farmers and put in the hands of corporates. This process is not being achieved with guns, tanks, bulldozers or lathis. It is done by making farming unviable for the millions of small family farm-holders, due to the high cost of inputs such as seed, fertilizer and power, and uneconomical prices.
•India was ranked fourth in the list of countries with the most number of dollar billionaires, but 126th in human development. This means it is better to be a poor person in Bolivia (the poorest nation in South America) or Guatemala or Gabon rather than in India. Here, some 83.6 crore people (of a total of 110-120 crore) in India survive on less than Rs.20 a day.
•Eight Indian States in India are economically poorer than African states, said a recent Oxford University study. Life expectancy in India is lower than in Bolivia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
•According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, the average monthly per capita expenditure of the Indian farm household is Rs.503. Of that, some 55 per cent is spent on food, 18 per cent on fuel, clothing and footwear, leaving precious little to be spent on education or health.
•A report of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations shows that between 1995-97 and 1999-2001, India added more newly hungry millions than the rest of the world taken together. The average rural family is consuming 100 kg less of food than it was consuming earlier. Indebtedness has doubled in the past decade. Cultivation costs have increased exorbitantly and farming incomes have collapsed, leading to wide-scale suicides by farmers.
•While there were 512 accredited journalists covering the Lakme India Fashion Week event, there were only six journalists to cover farmer suicides in Vidharbha. In that Fashion Week programme, the models were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves at a distance of an hour’s flight from Nagpur in the Vidharbha region. Nobody told that story except one or two journalists, locally.
Is this a responsible way for the Indian media to function? Should the media turn a Nelson’s eye to the harsh economic realities facing over 75 per cent of our people, and concentrate on some ‘Potemkin villages’ where all is glamour and show business? Are not the Indian media behaving much like Queen Marie Antoinette, who famously said that if people had no bread, they should eat cake.
No doubt, sometimes the media mention farmers’ suicides, the rise in the price of essential commodities and so on, but such coverage is at most 5 to 10 per cent of the total. The bulk of the coverage goes to showing cricket, the life of film stars, pop music, fashion parades, astrology…
Some TV channels show cricket day in and day out. Some Roman emperor was reputed to have said: if you cannot give the people bread, give them the circus. This is precisely the approach of the Indian establishment. Keep the people involved in cricket so that they forget their economic and social plight. What is important is not price rise or unemployment or poverty or lack of housing or medicines. What is important is whether India has beaten New Zealand (or better still, Pakistan) in a cricket match, or whether Tendulkar or Yuvraj Singh has scored a century. Is this not sheer escapism?
To my mind, the role of the media in our country today must be to help the people in their struggle against poverty, unemployment and other social evils and to make India a modern, powerful, industrial state.
For this, scientific thinking should be promoted. Science alone is the means to solve this country’s problems. By science I do not mean physics, chemistry and biology alone. I mean the entire scientific outlook, which must be spread widely among our people. Our people must develop rational, logical and questioning minds, and abandon superstition and escapism. For this purpose the media can, and must, play a powerful role.
The nation is passing through a terrible socio-economic crisis. Artists, writers and mediapersons must start acting responsibly and help the people solve their problems. And this they can do by focussing on the real issues — which are basically economic — and not by trying to divert people’s attention to non-issues.
The Urdu poet Faiz wrote: Gulon mein rang bhare bade naubahaar chale/ Chale bhi aao ki gulshan ka kaarobaar chale. Urdu poetry often has an outer, superficial meaning, and an inner real meaning. The real meaning of this sher is that the objective situation in the country is ripe, and patriotic people to come forward to serve the country. (The word ‘gulshan’ ostensibly means garden, but in this sher, it really means the country.)
(Markandey Katju is a Judge of the Supreme Court of India. The first part of this article was published yesterday.)
- Freedom of the press and journalistic ethics (indialawyers.wordpress.com)