In the World Press Freedom Index of 2020, India fell by two places and now stands at the 142nd position.
Freedom of press is an integral part of freedom of speech. Space for dissent is what keeps the fire ignited in a democracy. However, how free are we today to speak the unspoken? What is the price many are being forced to pay for speaking up?
I was 14 when a ‘sting operation’ by two investigative journalists exposed a well-known medical institution in Rajasthan that was practising female infanticide. Since then, the pursuit of truth in journalism has always inspired me to join the profession – where the right words have the power to shatter even the strongest lies.
But the aspiring journalist of today is being made very aware that there is a price to pay when unwanted truths tumble out. I always thought there was a line that would not be crossed but, as I inch closer to my dream of becoming a journalist, I see this line getting blurred. I had no idea how expensive the truth could be in today’s world. I had no idea I could be expected to trade my life for it.
I was 20 when Gauri Lankesh was assassinated. That was 2017. I wanted to keep fighting; to fight against autocracy and fight against the exploitation of power.
Over the last few years, much has happened. The last few months in particular have been a whirlwind for India – from the protests against the citizenship law to police brutality, the Kashmir lockdown and the coronavirus lockdown, a series of arrests of activists and journalists and the deadly Delhi riots – the news industry has barely had a minute to breathe.
But with every reinforced silence, the fight in me is becoming weaker. Is there a shortcoming in my passion? Is my determination not strong enough? Where criticism of governments is a sign of good journalism, the arrest of such journalists who are trying to bring out the truth is the sign of a failing democracy. Journalists are being separated from their work and fear of repercussions is being injected into them.
So when Gauri Lankesh was assassinated or when Masrat Zahra was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, I’m sure many young people dreaming of joining the ranks of the fourth estate shuddered.
In conversation with a few friends who studied journalism, I found that several have seen a withering of their spirit when it come to continuing down this path. Talking of how there is no security, some have begun to think of turning to filmmaking or advertising – which they say are growing sectors, adding that ideas can still hide within art.
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But what about raw truth, the language that is spoken in journalism? Language that does not need interpretation?
Well, if the powers that be do not like it, they will come down on it hard – as has been witnessed in recent months. Health journalist Vidya Krishnan was recently harassed, threatened and humiliated online for calling out the lapses in the way India has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Journalists Gowhar Geelani and Peerzada Ashiq, who were also arrested for “unlawful activities”, along with Zahra, have consistently shown a light on atrocities in Kashmir over the years.
Now, in the latest, UP police has issued a questionable FIR against Supriya Sharma, the executive editor of Scroll.in, over a report on Domari, a village adopted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his parliamentary constituency.
All of this is playing a part in creating a fear of sorts in many among those who want to be journalists – I’m also sure it has lit a fire in the belly of many others.
There is also a lack of protection – seen manifesting in many ways. For example, many of those on the ground covering the pandemic were not given access to proper gear. Recently, an on-ground journalist, Ronojoy Roy, died of what was suspected to be coronavirus and he is not the only one. Several more have tested positive.
Additionally, barring a few media houses, including several independent ones and fact-checking websites, many of India’s mainstream media groups have taken it upon themselves to now sell untruths and half-truths to their audiences. Some of these said groups somehow imagine themselves to be flagbearers of journalism. Somewhere, they too probably shudder at the price they may have to pay for speaking the truth.
As a result, many journalists unwilling to abandon their belief system take up freelancing instead of joining a media house. In an interview with RSF (Reporters Without Borders) during the launch of Press Freedom Index this year, Rana Ayyub said that after she left Tehelka in 2013, she was unemployed for years because media houses would not “touch her for her truth”.
It’s hard not to imagine why many are feeling disillusioned about joining a profession where one is hounded for following its basic tenet: speaking truth to power. For a well-functioning democracy, the free flow of information is important. What brings us any closer to having a transparent working of the system is journalism.
The fight in me has become dimmer. But revolutionary spirit is much like a phoenix– it can always be reignited.
My fellow aspiring journalists, here’s a quote by my favourite journalist Ravish Kumar – one which never fails to inspire me.
“Not all battles are fought for victory. Some battles are fought to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield.”
Rushalee Goswami is a student of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and aspires to speak truth to power.
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