On November 16, the National Press Day, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley refuting the charges of the opposition said that the NDA government was not curbing free speech. With multiple media platforms now available on and off the net, nobody can seriously complain of their free speech being in danger, emphasised Jaitley adding that if Emergency was ever to be re-imposed, it would collapse as technology doesn’t permit press censorship.
Contrary to the views of the Finance Minister, Arun Shourie, a former Union Minister in the Vajpayee government, said that ex-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had a “great sense of remorse” for imposing Emergency but the situation today is ‘graver’ than it was in 1975-77.
With advancements in technology, particularly in the IT sector, it is not possible to impose the 1975-77-type of Emergency. However, technology has also brought sophisticated methods of gagging free speech and freedom of media. Several such attempts were made during the last four-and-a-half years by the NDA government to involve private firms to monitor social media and the internet.
While almost all the governments at the Centre and the States, in varying degrees, try to muzzle free speech or physically intimidate mediapersons, what is fundamentally different under the Modi government is the wider climate of intolerance fostered by the provocative combination of religion and nationalism aided by state.
On July 3, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) secretary-general Christophe Deloire wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that “in the first six months of 2018, at least as many reporters were killed as for the whole of 2017, while hate speech directed toward journalists has increased massively, causing serious concern for their safety.” With the recent killings of two journalists in October — one in Chhattisgarh and another in Jharkhand — seven journalists have been killed so far this year.
Governments both at the Centre and in some States are desperately trying to control media organisations by withholding advertisements, blocking transmission of news channels by pressuring cable operators, stopping professional facilities and worse still, exerting pressure through misuse of investigative and enforcement agencies.
Jaitley further said that the “greatest challenge” to the media in a free society is how it retains its credibility so that it continues to become a maker of public opinion. If we take into account the above circumstances and if retaining credibility by media is the greatest challenge, then the challenge has come from none other but the government.
Other estates of democracy are also equally under grave threat under the present regime. The Planning Commission, established on March 15, 1950, was crucial for planning and development of the country but it had been dissolved and replaced by Niti Aayog, which has no power to implement policies.
The BJP government has also tried to meddle in the appointment and transfer of judges through the National Judicial Appointment Commission (NJAC). However, it failed as a five-member constitution bench of the Supreme Court struck down the NJAC by a majority of 4:1 in 2015. The government, thereafter, has tried to influence the judiciary in many ways. Four senior judges had to address a historic press conference bringing allegations against the then Chief Justice of India. The four judges bluntly said that democracy will fail if the judiciary did not stand up to the political executive.
Annoyed at the assertive role of the judiciary in defending democracy, Jaitley exhorted in the Rajya Sabha on May 11, 2016, that the judiciary had been encroaching on the domain of legislature and executive. “Step by step, brick by brick, the edifice of India’s legislature is being destroyed,” he had lamented.
Shourie has rightly said that we are helplessly watching the systematic decline and weakening of all our institutions. We are now witnessing the collapse of the highest investigating body of the country the CBI. The Reserve Bank of India is under unprecedented pressure to toe the political line of the Modi government as the threat of invoking Section 7 of the RBI Act looms large.
The Right to Information is derived from the right to free speech and opinion enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution. But this right is slowly being put to death. Forget about the promise made by Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections of putting Rs 15 lakh in each family’s bank account by bringing back the black money stashed in foreign banks; even the names of the black money holders collected from tax havens have not been disclosed to the public.
Now the Central Information Commission (CIC) has admonished the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the RBI for not complying with its directive for releasing the list of willful defaulters and former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan’s letter on bad loans. “It is against the RTI Act, the collective intention of Parliament, an affront to democracy, reflecting disrespect to the Supreme Court’s directions in RBI v Jayantilal N Mistry case,” Chief Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu berated.
If we dispassionately consider the present state of free speech, freedom of media, right to information and pivotal institutions in our country, we will see the ominous portent of the beginning of a totalitarian state. The only silver lining amidst the dark clouds is the 2019 parliamentary elections when the people will get an opportunity to reshape and rescue Indian democracy from its present perilous condition.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)