No Country For Independent Media

During the peak of the pandemic, Kerala and its chief minister were strikingly different, and they not only showed the way to a pluralist democracy, but also how to conduct the everyday ethics of media freedom. On the dot, at a certain fixed time, be that as it may, Pinarayi Vijayan, looking as fresh as forever, would address a press conference every day without fail, and answer a spate of questions from journalists. Not only were these daily briefings shown live, it was also played live on the social media, so that even journalists like me based in far away Delhi could access it, though language was certainly an issue. But, the intent was there for all to see, something which so terribly and tragically lacks when it comes to the current dispensation which rules Delhi and the prime minister’s office.

Undoubtedly, Kerala is a different kind of state in terms of its history, character, culture and content. Not only does it rank high in universal literacy, it is also a progressive and multi-cultural society, having been influenced since centuries by various cultures and trades across land and sea. Even during the pandemic, it was perhaps the only state which gave clear and categorical data. Hence, it was no coincidence that the number of patients would seem to be rising very high on a daily basis, something starkly absent, for instance, in a state like UP, even while the medical infrastructure in Kerala was perhaps the finest.

Indeed, even as the killer virus inflicted devastating damage in states like UP, Delhi and Gujarat, among other regions, due to the stark lack of oxygen, Kerala was already well-prepared with its own operational oxygen plants. Even till this day, when the pandemic seems to be breathing its last, be it in rural or urban areas, and even in remote forests and in the hills, everyone wears the mask in Kerala – so heightened is the idea of civil society consciousness and moral responsibility.

Indeed, when thousands of migrant workers were out on the streets and highways, helpless, hungry, emaciated and thirsty, Kerala was treating its migrant workers with great respect, providing them food and shelter, and actually calling them ‘guest workers’. So much so, most migrant workers chose to stay back in the state, when the mass exodus of the marginalized became a public spectacle for the world to see.

It is in this context that the ban on Media One struck a jarring note and seemed out of context. Not that this is not a grotesque reminder of similar unhappy trends in bad faith in the rest of the country where only the loyalist, sycophantic and cacophonic media is appreciated, it is also a sign that when it comes to regimes which do not respect democracy and freedom of expression, even a model state like Kerala will not be spared. Look at the case of journalist Siddique Kappan, languishing in prison like a common criminal, still unable to fathom the charges filed against him – even while he was on his way to report the gruesome rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras, her battered and brutalized body hurriedly cremated behind police barricades, while even her heart-broken mother and father not allowed to perform the farewell, funeral rites.

In a recent visit to Kerala, this reporter found the journalist community and the civil society aghast at the ban on Media One, which has established itself as one of the credible and reliable channels in the state. In a context when the independent media, which has refused to sell out, has faced unprecedented difficulties due to the economic distress during the prolonged pandemic and lockdown, this attack on Media One, with all its employees now on a threshold, seemed rather cruel and uncanny. Surely, it reminded all lovers of freedom and democracy about certain pronounced and brazen forms of totalitarian media censorship, as currently practiced in Hong Kong, China, Myanmar, and, now, in Russia.

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It also brought back the fact that his Malayalam channel had to face a similar but short-term ban in 2020. During the communal riots in Delhi that year, Media One, along with some others, had to stop its transmission for two days in what seemed a blackout. Clearly, it was more than transparent that it had come under the scanner of an intolerant regime in Delhi.

It is not surprising, therefore, that across the world, including in the West, the erosion of democratic values and suffocation of dissent in what is called as the largest democracy in the world, has been sharply noticed. Even US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have expressed their deep faith in Indian democracy, with nuanced messages about the dark shadows of despair hovering around it. The New York Times has recently done big investigations on the Pegasus surveillance controversy, pointing fingers at the current dispensation in Delhi, even as it did an arms deal with the earlier government in Tel Aviv. 

The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, based in Sweden, has expressed the fear that, “The world’s largest democracy has turned into an electoral autocracy.” The V-Dem report said:

“Narendra Modi led the BJP to victory in India’s 2014 elections and most of the decline occurred following BJP’s victory and their promotion of a Hindu-nationalist agenda… The Indian government, rarely, if ever, used to exercise censorship as evidenced by its score of 3.5 out of 4 before Modi became prime minister. By 2020, this score is close to 1.5, meaning that censorship efforts are becoming routine and no longer even restricted to sensitive (to the government) issues… The Modi-led government in India has used laws on sedition, defamation, and counterterrorism to silence critics. For example, over 7,000 people have been charged with sedition after the BJP assumed power and most of the accused are critics of the ruling party.”

The America-based Freedom House report has stated: The national government and some state governments used assembly bans, internet blackouts, and live ammunition between December 2019 and March 2020 to quell widespread protests against the CAA and proposals to roll out a citizens’ registration process across the country.”

The Indian government’s response was predictable. The Freedom House report is “misleading, incorrect and misplaced” – was its response. It is in this context that the removal of the ban on Media One by the apex court comes as a moment of hope in bleak times. “What you have merely said in the high court is that the Ministry of Home Affairs has denied security clearance based on intelligence inputs which are sensitive and secretive in nature… Now, their business is shut down. Surely, they are entitled to the particulars. Otherwise, how do they defend themselves? Disclose your files to them… What is the difficulty in disclosing files? It is after all a licence to run a TV channel… Disclose the files,” Justice Chandrachud told Additional Solicitor Generals SV Raju and KM Nataraj, for the government.

Earlier, senior advocate Dushyant Dave said that “heavens are not going to fall” if the channel is allowed to broadcast its daily news bulletins. “I am not going to bring the government down… How can a democratically elected government stand before a court and plead ‘national security’. Over 385 journalists are without a job. I have to pay monthly wages to the tune of ₹83 lakh and there are millions of my viewers…” he said, on behalf of Media One.

Hopefully, the end of the ban, therefore, marks a new beginning in the annals of media freedom in India. Or, is it, a signal, of more nightmares lurking in the next lane?

Pegasus and Beyond: Press Freedom at Stake

As a rogue religious fanatic stood outside Jamia Milia Islamia, gun pointed towards students, a Danish Siddiqui stood in his direct range to get the perfect shot. He wanted to document a story from the point closest to action. He told the Guardian once, “I shoot for the common man who wants to see and feel a story from a place where he can’t be present himself.”

Siddiqui is not alone. Often in crisis situations when the world runs away from a threat, journalists run towards it. Such madness. Such risks. Such passion. Consequently, when some don’t live to tell their stories, others take up their cause.

However, in the recent years a pattern has been observed – a rise in right-wing populist nationalism across the globe and an increase in intolerance towards freedom of speech and expression.

The last decade, in particular, has been chilling for the profession. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, to never come out. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Bloomberg News that Khashoggi had left. It can safely be said that Khashoggi’s wife, who was waiting for him right outside, would disagree.

Allegedly, the currently infamous Pegasus spyware had a role to play. NSO (the company that owns the spyware) denies its use even as it says it doesn’t keep a list of targets – current and potential. How does one wrap their head around such conflicting statements?

Worldwide, 937 journalists have been killed in ten years. About 50 were killed in 2020 and 54 held as hostage in the same year. Some are missing. While journalists have been killed in cold blood, arrested for speaking out inconvenient truths and spied upon for decades now (maybe since the start of the trade), let’s not for one second feel that it is a normal order of the world – whatever it is that we are seeing right now, a lot of which is coming from conservative/right-wing populist and hyper-nationalist countries.

In Singapore, as the conservative centre-right party continues to rule, the “Switzerland of the East” has been painted black on the map of World Press Freedom Index. Journalists are sued left, right and centre and defamation suits are the order of the day. The cherry on the cake? Citizen Lab, the academic research lab that focuses on global security, human rights and communication technologies, found Pegasus infections here.

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The international organization protecting the right to freedom of information, Reporters Without Borders, says that this city-state is not far-off from China when it comes to suppression of Press. Self-censorship prevails and government decides what is incorrect in News. Words like democracy, press freedom, independence come to mind but not in a positive way.

Moving on. The United Kingdom, currently governed by the Conservative party, is considering changes to the Official Secrets Act of 1989 that could lead journalists reporting on matters that embarrass the government to be imprisoned for up to 14 years.  

Now, some would say that the core of journalism hinges on holding the government to account. The Home Office told the National that reporters would remain free to do so but it’s not yet clear how. The National Union of Journalists has responded with a staunch opposition, some calling it “actual fascism”.

But fascism comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it looks like a friend. Technology, for instance, has created immense sophistication in our lives. There is so much to be thankful for. But some of it is operating on legal and ethical boundaries of personal freedom and private lives and some of it has crossed those boundaries. Pegasus belongs to the latter category.

After the Pegasus scandal erupted, BBC reported that about 50 countries could be clients to NSO, the firm behind the spyware that can collect some of the most personal and private information of people it snoops upon.

It’s critical here to understand that its commonness does not make it ok for it to be used world over. It should become more alarming. The fact that there is a community killed, mutilated, and treated as dispensable and that it has been handling spyware attacks at the same time because it is so common is not ok. What’s needed is support for it to thrive and not vile programs used by vile governments for vile purposes.

This very community in its varied image (good, bad, and ugly) is a major pillar of any democracy. Snooping, especially, at the level that the Pegasus operates on – the excessive and unaccountable surveillance – is antithetical to the essence of democracy and to the spirit of journalism.

While some governments can use surveillance for national security, at one point it must show prosecutions that show actual breach of this security or an attempt to justify such action. It cannot be a “snoop till eternity and without any basis”.

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However, in India, the Pegasus scandal does not exist in a vacuum. There is a context to overall downgrading of press freedom. In 2020, India had slipped nine points in the press freedom index from 133 in 2016. That’s nine points in four years. Among 180 countries, we now stand at 142.

Our close neighbour Pakistan, which is ruled by a “centrist”, Islamist and populist party, ranks 145. It is also in the list of countries where infections associated with Pegasus operators have been found.

In India, though, the blow on this fourth pillar of democracy and subsequent fall in press freedom ranking is not in a vacuum. The assault on democracy has been duly noted and in the annual democracy index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2020, India slipped two places down.

What looks like a mere journalism problem to the world right now might be a bigger democratic problem and now would be a good time to focus on this deepening crisis of freedom of speech, overreach of power and sustained assault on a major institution defining some of the most influential global powers.

At home, we need the fix the Pegasus issue. Our government must come clean. Did they buy Pegasus? Did they use it? Yes or no, with or without proper authorization? It is confusing for the common man to understand why a government would not do it already but give logically erroneous responses like other countries do it too, it’s an attempt to derail the data protection bill (oddly!), and how our surveillance is never illegal (help us believe it?).

To wrap up, the list of countries with populist governments leaning to the right and allegedly using Pegasus is not as short as some would like. The declining press freedom in most of these nations is concerning. The relationship needs to be examined. But, before we root for an Orwellian world, knowing what’s at stake might only be proper. 1984, anyone?