Renowned journalist Jonathan Foster summed up a journalist’s role as an advocate for social change beautifully when he said that his job is not just to listen to what someone says: “It’s raining outside” and what another says, “It’s dry outside” and just repeat the comments; rather, they must look outside the window to determine and present the “truth” with their words and work.
When the truth is suppressed somewhere, the media stands as the fourth pillar of democracy to separate the facts from the fluff. While all citizens of the country are entitled to enjoy the right to freedom of speech and expression, the press has long exercised this right with a sense of cardinal responsibility to announce meaningful social change.
Historically, India’s independence movement has remained closely tied to freedom of the press, with the two reinforcing each other. The more the press showed resilience and courage in denouncing colonial oppression, the more the struggle for freedom succeeded in challenging the British.
The role of the media during the Indian freedom movement
Most of the leaders of the Indian National Congress were avid writers themselves, and many were credited with running journals and newspapers that fueled a sense of nationalism through the written words.
For example, while trying to exert public pressure to stop the notorious 1905 Partition Plan of Bengal, KK Mitra and Surendranath Banerjee wrote regular columns in newspapers such as Bengal, Hitabadi and Sanjibaniunderscoring the true intentions of foreign leaders to simply divide Bengal, a hotbed of nationalist fervor, along religious lines and sow communal discord.
Similarly, the representative of the Radical Congress, Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote extensively in his diaries Kesari and mahratta, spreading revolutionary ideas to collectively strengthen India’s struggle against colonial miseries. One of his editorials read “God did not bestow upon foreigners the concession inscribed on a copper plate of the kingdom of Hindustan… Do not circumscribe your vision like a frog in the well.” The power of the pen boosted the self-confidence of the masses to fight against a powerful Imperial nation, but it also landed Tilak in prison for sedition.
Likewise, the weekly Yugantar and its editors Bhupendranath Dutta and Barindra Kumar Ghosh were at the forefront of praising revolutionary sentiment among Indians. One of their articles still resonates in our minds, when it said “The cure always belongs to the people. The 30 crore people of India must raise their hands 60 crore to stop this curse of oppression. Force must be stopped by force.”
Critical media: resistance is the only truth
But even before the struggle for freedom acquired concrete form, the press and literature played a key role in revealing the true nature of the oppressive regime of the British.
Newspaper editorials regularly covered in-depth criticism of British economic imperialism in India. Dadabhai Naoroji then spoke about the flight of wealth from India, the newspaper Payam-e-Azadi brought to light the divide-and-rule policies used by the colonial masters to break up the growing unity.
The media during the freedom movement therefore stood firm against colonial impositions and showed how resilience always pays off. Journalism functioned as a mirror for society and an expose for British rule which was ready to do anything to curb India’s growing quest for freedom.
Underground newspapers, magazines and radio stations have also made an immense contribution to maintaining the revolutionary character of the struggle. Whenever the state came down hard on those who visibly opposed its brutality, underground journalists kept the momentum going.
For example, a 22-year-old student, Usha Mehta, led the Radio Congress in 1942 during the Quit India movement, when many of our traditional rulers had been locked up in prisons. “This is Congress Radio calling 42.34 meters from somewhere in India,” Mehta said from a ghost transmitter.
She became a literal voice of resistance against the colonial powers, her radio regularly broadcasting Gandhiji’s speeches which did not let the morale of the masses go astray. She dodged the iron rod of the British for over three months, moving from Bombay to Jamshedpur to Chaittagong. His patriotic fervor fueled the rebellion’s zeal, which eventually forced the government to release many leaders from prison.
The government changes, not the fate of journalists
While the socio-political climate may be drastically changed today, the quest to seek out and present the truth is a passion journalists have inherited from their ancestors.
Renowned journalist Rana Ayyub made her mark reporting on the 2002 Gujarat communal riots in her book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Concealment in 2016. Ayyub’s field investigation reports showed how the state government failed to respond in time to stop the violence that left more than 1,000 people dead, the majority of whom were Muslims.
Ayyub continues to be critical of the current BJP government, making her highly unpopular among certain sections of social media and an easy target for trolls. Studies show that Ayyub is one of the most abused Indian journalists on Twitter. Regular rape and death threats on social media now shape the mundane experience of journalists like Ayyub.
While the current government can easily be found complicit in various cases against journalists, the Congress-led UPA was no different. Cartoonist-journalist Aseem Trivedi’s laudable contributions to Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement led to his arrest and charges of sedition. However, one noticeable difference is in the reception of journalists after their release. While in India today Bilkis Bano rapists are garlanded outside the prison, it is very hard to imagine a Mohammad Zubair riding on the shoulders of his supporters in victory.
When journalists fought as Covid warriors
Journalists’ duty to “look out the window” and assess complex realities has also been exemplified by the stellar role journalists have played during the COVID-19 pandemic. From reports of the ‘true’ death toll, to oxygen shortages, to migrant labor crisis and locked ends, the press has spared no effort to bolster the floods of information on the mismanagement of the pandemic.
Los Angeles Times reported in October 2020 that many Indian journalists, who were covering “uncomfortable questions” about the government’s handling of the COVID disaster, had suffered the wrath of the crackdown. Such was the case of a freelance journalist, Jagat Bains, whose story of two dozen migrant workers holed up in slums in Himachal Pradesh without food or water for days successfully spurred the authorities into action.
But the truth often comes at a price, and for Bains, it has come in the form of criminal cases brought against him. In fact, a report by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group think tank found that between March and October of that year, 55 journalists were persecuted for their COVID-related coverage. The central government has even approached the Supreme Court for orders prohibiting the media from publishing Corona-related articles without verifying the government’s “true factual position”.
Along with sharing revelations, famed journalist Faye D’souza has also used her immense social media presence to share COVID resources for patients and their family members. His Instagram and Twitter accounts regularly posted verified leads for medical supplies, hospital beds, mental health helplines, and more. ‘ a social worker when the need arises.
Journalists as “Filters”: Separating Fact from Fluff
In the digital age, fact-checking has become a distinct sub-area of media responsibility. A key example of this is the case of AltNews co-founder Muhammad Zubair, who has run a fact-checking website since 2017 that has reported extensively on hate speech and misinformation.
Zubair is the one who first broadcast the Haridwar Dharam Sansad event which called for genocide against the Muslim minority and his story led to the arrest of Yati Narsinghanand. He was also instrumental in uncovering the infamous Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals apps which were used to ‘auction’ Muslim girls online as well as exposing derogatory remarks by Nupur Sharma targeting the Prophet Muhammad (PSL).
While this passionate pursuit among journalists is slowly but surely a boost for social change, it has not gone unopposed. Repression, by both state and non-state actors, has regularly undermined these leaps forward. “Prestitutes”, “anti-nationals”, “tukde tukde gangs” were badged on those who dared to dissent. From criminal investigations to online doxing and abuse, from death threats to jail time, Pro-Changers have faced multiple forms of incarceration across the country and around the world.
Nevertheless, a free and fair press has continued to function as the mortar that holds the bricks of a democratic nation together despite many challenges. This week, as the United Nations commemorates International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalistslet us remember that today’s press has inherited the great valor, courage, bravery and resilience of our freedom warriors and it is this eternal spirit that will live on.