The media, both print and visual, and the governments in power share a symbiotic relationship and feed off each other. The bonhomie remains as long as an attitude of ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours’ abides, and the government of the day confers favours on media houses in the form of advertisements, all expenses paid for junkets to exotic locations abroad for top-flight journalists and so on, while the media in a quid pro quo deal highlights the achievements of the government, while conveniently turning a Nelson’s eye to its short comings.
But fortunately for the country and the fourth estate as well, this is not the norm and there are sections of the media that prefer to call a spade a spade and maintain the highest standards of journalistic ethics, refusing to kowtow to the government diktats, and this is where the friction begins. The media has long shed its subjective cloak and has been aggressive in critiquing the actions of the government, especially those which are not people friendly and in the eyes of the media, erroneous.
Governments in the past have been pilloried by the media for their acts of omission and commission, but restraints have never been placed on the press and it has been allowed enough elbow room to do its work in peace. This was the norm when the Congress party was in power for decades, and even when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA government ruled the country. Only for a brief period during the infamous emergency, the media was muzzled totally, news critical of the government was censured, and journalists and newspaper owners were hounded and some were even jailed.
The present NDA government at the centre however, appears to be totally averse to criticism of any kind or to the media crossing the Lakshman rekha prescribed by it which allows them very little leeway to express their opinions honestly. Sections of the media that upbraid the government are often branded as being anti-national. It is common knowledge that the advent of the visual media has totally changed the concept of journalism and debates on channels, both English and vernacular, are usually no-holds-barred and conflicting viewpoints are aired on various subjects. But not all views are palatable to the government, and the party spokespersons go the whole hog condemning panelists who flay the government and even tend to shout them down.
But so far, the media has never been under any serious threat, and censorship if any, has been subtle and has not hurt media freedom much. But the government’s decision to order a Hindi news channel NDTV (India) to stay off the air for one full day as a penalty for its reportage on the attack on an army camp by terrorists in Pathankot on the grounds that the coverage endangered lives of security personnel and civilians, has revealed the government’s mindset. Though the penalty has been put on hold at the time of writing and the channel has also approached the courts, an apprehension has set in that the media might be in for trouble unless it is able to guard its flanks and exercise extreme caution before venturing into airing events involving security issues.
The government should however allow the media to self-regulate, and use its wisdom to steer clear of controversies, especially while handling sensitive issues. As far as the government is concerned, it has a lot to gain from a benign fourth estate in the form of wide publicity for its various schemes, and little to benefit from a hostile press that could turn into a thorn in its flesh. But for democracy to thrive in a country like ours, a free press is a sine qua non, and this is something that even the government is fully aware of.