Thank god for Jayalalithaa and her privileged band of legislators. In one fell stroke they have ensured that “freedom of press” captures the popular imagination as never before. It’s not just journalists who are protesting against the attack on The Hindu or loyal readers who are flooding the paper with supportive letters and phone calls. The overwhelming response to Wednesday’s statewide human chain was proof that the Tamilian-in-the-street, no matter that he has never read The Hindu or never will, is not ready to wink at such a blatant misuse of legislative perks.
If the puratchi thalaivi failed to anticipate this outburst, it’s easy to see why. Never before, in Tamil Nadu or anywhere in the country, has press freedom been a rallying point for the general public. Journalists pass resolutions at Press Clubs, politicians make some expedient noises and that is the end of any tussle between the media and the powers-that-be.
This was not the first time that the touchy Tamil Nadu assembly had sentenced journalists to imprisonment for “breach of privilege”. They included editors of highly popular publications like Dinakaran and Ananda Vikatan. The murmurs of protest then had been barely audible even within the state. Elsewhere in the country, no one took to the streets to protest against the hounding of Tehelka (including some arrests); rather, there were articles by high-profile editors raising doubts about Tehelka’s modus operandi.
It has been said often enough that Indira Gandhi would have got away with the Emergency if she had called for polls on schedule, in early 1976. Then she would have won easily and earned a huge endorsement for the censorship of the press (along with the suspension of habeas corpus and the imprisonment of the opposition and leading journalists). But she waited till 1977, and the excesses of the sterilization programme did her in. The sad truth is that so far there has been no reason to believe that people really care for a free press. Rather, how many times have we heard people say that they would happily opt for dictatorship (with its promise of press control) if it gave better governance' No wonder that Jayalalithaa, never known for openness to “healthy criticism,” got carried away.
The media may thank her one day if her actions lead to freedom of the press becoming a legitimate political issue in which everyone has a stake.
It is a measure of the extreme timeliness of the book that The Indian Media Business, released last Saturday, will soon be outdated. May be as soon as this month, when the committee headed by FICCI secretary-general, Amit Mitra, submits its report on radio to the Union government.
The committee is expected to recommend sweeping changes to the rules of the game governing FM radio. If the government accepts them then radio station owners may get the revenue-sharing arrangement they’ve been hankering for, we might get to hear news on private FM stations and foreign investors may get a share of the airwaves. The chapter on radio naturally does not include all this. But it starts off with the promise that “The best years of radio are yet to come.”
Vanita Kohli, the young and perky writer, is fully aware that there will have to be “many editions and revisions”. That is the nature of the subject she has chosen to specialize in. The Indian media has been in a constant state of change ever since she first began to cover it, around ten years ago. She expects it to transform even more dramatically in the years to come. And all for the better, she insists. Just the sort of youthful enthusiasm a youth-oriented industry needs.
What is it that Delhi editors and the information and broadcasting minister both want these days' Programmes on DD News. Except that the former wants fresh commissions from DD while the minister wants them to shift their shows on private channels to DD. Result: an impasse.