The litmus test of a thriving democracy is the unrestrained freedom of speech that exists in the society concerned. That freedom obviously includes the freedom enjoyed by the media. Yet it is noticeable that even States wedded to the ideals of democracy have a propensity to monitor and regulate the media. This tendency becomes pronounced whenever a threat is perceived. In a crisis, the first victims of the State are the freedom of speech and the freedom of the media. The aftermath of the terrorist attack in Mumbai is an illustration of the point being made. There has been a sudden hue and cry over the way the media, especially the electronic one, covered the event as it unfolded. The charges of irresponsibility and provocative reporting have been thrown around, and there was a move afoot to actually regulate media coverage. It was suggested that through a new law, television channels, when they are covering a terrorist attack, war or similar events, would have to submit footage to the government and secure official clearance. According to reports, the prime minister has issued an assurance that editorial freedom will not be touched. Yet the existence of the tendency on the part of the State to gag the media cannot be denied.
One of the principal strengths of Indian democracy is the existence of the free and vibrant media. The media report and write on subjects of their own choice and do so in the manner of their own choosing. On very few occasions has this liberty of the media been questioned or curtailed. The most notorious of these was, of course, the Emergency, when democracy was suspended and the press was muzzled. Those months remain India’s shame. Those who are admirers of Indira Gandhi, the sole perpetrator of the Emergency, would do well to remember the permanent stain that those 18 months put on Indian democracy. They should perhaps keep their admiration in their closets.
The Indian media should make it explicit that there was nothing to be ashamed of in the manner in which the events in Mumbai was covered. True to tradition, the media were bold and free. If they made mistakes, the errors were their own, not something imposed on them by an external agency like the State. The Indian media as a whole is emphatically not an arm of the Indian State. It cherishes its independence and autonomy. If anything, the Indian media should be bolder and go about doing its business according to its own standards and choice. Its role should be distanced from, and critical of, the State, its interests and perspective. And this detachment and criticism should prevail even when the media is handling matters involving India’s national security. The Indian media retains the right to be critical of the Indian State. Any law infringing on that right, and attempting to regulate the Indian media, is nothing less than an attempt to bring back the anti-democratic days of the Emergency. The fourth estate is ever vigilant about the State’s intentions.