Archive for January 11th, 2009

Indian media is large & vibrant, but how free is it?

11 January 2009

KPN photo

BHAMY V. SHENOY writes from Houston, Texas: Every newspaper reader in India should be shocked at the way B. V. Seetharam, the publisher and editor of the Kannada daily Karavali Ale, is being repeatedly harassed by a democratically elected  government in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

According to this version, Seetharam was arrested last week in a defamation case filed by Bhoja Shetty, a resident of Udupi district, in July 2007. Shetty alleged that Seetharam tried to “blackmail” him for a financial consideration of Rs 1 lakh [approximately $2,000]. When that did not come, the editor reportedly portrayed him as a “rapist” in his newspaper, resulting in the defamation charge.

The charge is certainly serious, doesn’t show journalism in good light, and deserves to be taken to its logical conclusion.

But it is the backdrop of Seetharam’s arrest (a few months after the BJP came to power in Karnataka); the timing of the arrest (after he had accused Hindutva forces of attacking his newspaper for publishing); and the manner in which he has been handcuffed and chained like a common criminal, and taken from city to city (he is currently lodged in the Mysore jail), that should make the world sit up and take notice.

We assume, wrongly, that India has a free and vibrant press with unbridled freedom.

We assume, again wrongly, that India’s newspapers have the full and unfettered freedom to expose individual or institutional malfeasance, in politics, business and other spheres of public life.

In the event the press fails to expose the corrupt practices of politicians or businessmen—like, say, the gigantic Rs 7,000 fraud of Satyam Computer Services—we think it is only because the press is not using its freedom and does not have the courage to stand against the big government or deep pocketed companies.

That is largely true, of course, but B.V. Seetharam’s plight shows that is not necessarily the full story in the minefield that is Indian democracy.

The truth is there are plenty of people who do not want negative stories to come out, and are willing to go any distance and adopt any means to ensure that. And there are plenty of people, inside and outside the corridors of power, who are willing to help them in that endeavour.

B.V. Seetharam’s case is an example.

While we may question Seetharam’s methods and targets based on our individual preferences and prejudices, it must be admitted that he also published articles exposing the wrong doings of corrupt politicians, incompetent bureaucrats, and dishonest businessmen, among others. More recently, he has turned his eyes on the growing communalism on the west coast.

What we are witnessing through his arrest is that in a surcharged milieu, this can be a lonely battle—and very, very messy.

In a political system where the use of extra-constitutional muscle power seems to sit comfortably well with rule-based democracy, an editor like him is bound to have enemies. Such individuals are harassed by the establishment to send a strong signal to others not to follow his example.

Seetharam’s victimisation is a sign of that.

This is not the first time Seetharam has been punished by taking him into custody. Many may recall the way he was whisked away to jail along with his wife in the middle of the night for publishing a story questioning the propriety of Jain monks to walk around naked in public in 2007.

While the solidarity shown by the press to Seetharam’s harsh treatment should be admired, we, the public, should wonder why only one section of society has expressed disgust at the treatment meted out to him. What is involved is the freedom of the press to boldly publish the news without fear and favour. Without such freedom, democracy will lose out as it has been happening in India.

Every citizen irrespective of his/ her ideology should condemn the treatment doled out to B.V. Seetharam.

Photograph: Journalists take part in a protest against the arrest of B.V. Seetharam in Bangalore on Wednesday. (Karnataka Photo News)

Also read‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind’

Mangalore editor held for ‘inciting’ hate

Pseudonymous author spells finis to Mint editor?

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