Freedom in chains
In 1824, the Government of Bengal (which was then in the hands of the East India Company) issued an Ordinance placing strict curbs on the freedom of the press. This gave the government the powers to cancel a newspaper’s licence without any explanation. The Ordinance provoked outrage among the intelligentsia of Calcutta, active in editing and publishing periodicals in English as well as in Bengali. A petition to the government asking it to rescind the Ordinance was drafted by Ram Mohun Roy, who obtained the signatures of some other Indians (including several members of the Tagore family) before sending it off to the authorities.
I had read Ram Mohun’s memorial many years ago, and was prompted to go back to it recently in the wake of a growing spate of attacks on journalists in India today. His words make for sobering reading at a time when the government of independent India has become as hostile to a free press as was its colonial predecessor.
Let us hear Ram Mohun directly. In his memorial to the East India Company, the great liberal urged the British rulers not to be “disposed to adopt the political maxim so often acted upon by Asiatic Princes, that the more a people are kept in darkness, their Rulers will derive the greater advantages from them.” “It is well known”, he continued, “that despotic Governments naturally desire the suppression of any freedom of expression which might tend to expose their acts to the obloquy which ever attends the exercise of tyranny or oppression”.
Ram Mohun hoped that the new rulers would be more open-minded than those who had preceded them. As he put it: “Every good Ruler, who is convinced of the imperfection of human nature... must be conscious of the great liability to error in managing the affairs of a vast empire; and therefore he will be anxious to afford every individual the readiest means of bringing to his notice whatever may require his interference. To secure this important object, the unrestrained Liberty of Publication is the only effectual means that can be employed.”
The free flow of information, argued Ram Mohun here, was imperative for good governance. If a Ruler wished to govern wisely, and well, he should allow, indeed encourage, his subjects to bring to his attention examples of maladministration from different parts of the country, so that his government could correct them. Here, this 19th century liberal strikingly anticipated the arguments of his 20th century successor, Amartya Sen. In his book, Poverty and Famines (1981), Sen argued that famines were far less likely to take place in democracies than in authoritarian regimes, because if food scarcities did arise in any particular district or province, they would be quickly reported in the press, compelling the government to rush supplies to regions which urgently required them. No democracy had experienced the sort of serious mass famine that totalitarian China did in the early 1960s, when lower level party officials were too scared to bring shortages in their districts to the attention of their bosses in Beijing.
The words (and works) of both Ram Mohun Roy and Amartya Sen are compellingly relevant to the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. For, instead of treating a free press as a valuable source of news that can help them contain the pandemic quicker and more effectively, many governments have treated journalists with undisguised hostility. In a recent report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed alarm at the clampdown on the freedom of expression in Asia during the Covid-19 crisis. In India, noted the report, several journalists and at least one doctor had been charged for their public criticism of the authorities’ response to Covid-19. In Mumbai, the police went so far as to pass an order prohibiting “any person inciting mistrust towards government functionaries and their actions taken in order to prevent spread of the Covid-19 virus and thereby causing danger to human health or safety or a disturbance to the public tranquillity.”
Warning that such repression would hinder rather than help effective public policy, the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights remarked: “In these times of great uncertainty, medical professionals, journalists, human rights defenders and the general public must be allowed to express opinions on vitally important topics of public interest, such as the provision of health care and the handling of the health and socio-economic crisis, and the distribution of relief items.”
The report further observed: “This crisis should not be used to restrict dissent or the free flow of information and debate. A diversity of viewpoints will foster greater understanding of the challenges we face and help us better overcome them. It will also help countries to have a vibrant debate on the root causes and good practices needed to overcome the longer-term socio-economic and other impacts. This debate is crucial for countries to build back better after the crisis.”
It is unlikely that these words will be read or heeded in the corridors of power in New Delhi, or in our state capitals either. Indeed, a report released earlier this week by the Delhi based Rights & Risks Analysis Group documents cases of some 55 journalists who have faced harassment and intimidation from the State or from political thugs because of their reporting on the pandemic. These journalists have been arrested, had first information reports filed against them, or been physically assaulted. By going after these particular individuals, the State intends to send out a message to all other journalists; be silent or acquiescent, or else we’ll go after you too.
Of these 55 documented cases, eleven are in Uttar Pradesh (under the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rule), six in Jammu and Kashmir (ruled directly by the Centre), and five in Himachal Pradesh (also ruled by the BJP). However, states ruled by parties other than the BJP are also well represented, with Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha and Maharashtra having four cases each.
These journalists have been charged, booked or arrested under provisions of the Indian Penal Code originally drafted in colonial times, such as Sections 124A (sedition), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, etc.), 182 (false information), 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), 505(2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes) and so on. Ironically, it was under these same provisions that the British raj once jailed such great journalist-patriots as Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.
As this column goes to press on Friday morning, reports come in of a fresh FIR filed by the Uttar Pradesh government, against a journalist of the excellent website, Scroll.in, who had written a series of well-documented reports on the sufferings of the poorer citizens of Varanasi during the lockdown. Varanasi happens to be the prime minister’s constituency, and the naked attempt to suppress the truth about what is happening there chillingly recalls Ram Mohun Roy’s words, that “it is well known that despotic Governments naturally desire the suppression of any freedom of expression”. Indeed, such governments are motivated by the belief that “the more a people are kept in darkness, their Rulers will derive the greater advantages from them.”
Every year, the organization, Reporters Without Borders, compiles a press freedom index. In 2009, India’s rank was 105. A decade later, it has fallen much further, to 142. It is small consolation that some of our neighbours rank even lower (Pakistan at 145, Bangladesh at 151), particularly when other neighbours rank quite a lot higher (Nepal at 112, Sri Lanka at 127).
My personal experience confirms this independent assessment of India’s slide. In the 30 years that I have been writing for newspapers and websites, I have seen the pressures on proprietors and editors steadily increase. Once, proprietors were more nervous about offending important advertisers than powerful politicians; now it is absolutely the reverse. Our prime minister is no friend of the freedom of the press — but nor are most (or even all) chief ministers. For some years now, threatening calls to editors from politicians have become ubiquitous across India. And now intimidatory FIRs against journalists are becoming ubiquitous too.
There remain some brave, independent newspapers and websites active in India, many fearless and tireless journalists too. But overall the situation is bleak. The Indian press is less free, more vulnerable to State intimidation, than at any time since the Emergency. Were Ram Mohun Roy alive today, he would be prompted to write a fresh memorial on the subject to those in power — although it would most likely be met with a resounding silence, or perhaps even with an FIR charging the writer with sedition.