A few day back, I was watching British actor Benedict Cumberbatch raise some very critical questions to the audience as he strived to perfect the mannerisms of Julian Assange, Founder of WikiLeaks, in the recently released Hollywood flick ‘The Fifth Estate’. There was nothing spectacular about the movie except Cumberbatch’s exceptional acting, when he earnestly portrays Assange and says, “If you want to know the truth... no one is going to tell you the truth. They’re only going to tell you their version. So, if you want the truth, you have to seek it out for yourself. In fact, that’s where the real power lies in your willingness to look beyond this story. Any story.”
‘The Fifth Estate’ might have bombed at the box-office, but what is disheartening to see is the current state of The Fourth Estate. It has not only bombed, but is suffering its worst fate, thanks to all the offices. The most recent blow comes in the form of The World Press Freedom Index 2014. And the Oscars go to India, amongst others.
The latest global report by the Paris-based organisation Reporters Without Borders reveals a shocking insight into Asia’s Fourth Estate and its state of Press Freedom. India’s 140th rank is a sham, a slap on the face of the biggest democracy in the world. When a nation with a population of 1.27 billion, where the registered number of newspapers is more than 70,000, gets a rank as low as this, it is an alarming signal of a sinking democracy living a huge facade, freedom that has fallen into shambles and is curbed, and the games of power-play being so one-sided that it is nothing but a state of anarchy.
The unprecedented wave of contempt and violence against journalists in India is palpable, and the eight killings that happened in 2013 are a chilling reminder of a lurking fascist force threatening this democracy. India, that prides itself as a secular nation, is prey to gruesome politics and bloodshed when it comes to freedom of the press. After the war-struck Syria, India was allegedly the second most dangerous country for journalists, as reported by a media safety group. The killings of journalists spawned across Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and the North-East, adding to the woes of 2012 when India’s ranking was no better. Journalists of Dainik Ganadoot were stabbed and shot in the disturbed, chaotic, riot-stricken regions of Tripura, where three journalists, including an Editor and proof-reader, were stabbed by two masked men, unleashing a serious blow to press liberty and freedom of opinion. This scarring incident is emblematic of the vicious sentiment that press is subjected to, in today’s testing times.
Though the neighboring nations of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and China are no better with respective rankings of 158th , 165th and 175th, India’s downturn in the liberty of press is utterly shocking owing to the fact that we still call ourselves a “democracy” and are ostensibly not dictated by any political dogma. It is no open secret that Indian newspapers, television channels, etc., are politically aligned to various parties, inclining themselves towards a particular political stance. However, this does not dictate the rest of the press that might not be a right wing or a left wing. Why should their wings be clipped? It is extremely disappointing and disgraceful when the biggest body of watchdog and rightful vigilante falls prey to state and non-state agents of disruption who are crippling the largest democracy in the world and controlling the exercise of free press which is considered under citizen’s rights. Armed rebels, security forces, political and federal authorities are agents of strict censorship against media personnel and the situation is deteriorating with every passing day.
And when East is being the best, what can deter the West? The US has gone down significantly in the rankings and has fallen 13 places since last year under El Salvador and Romania at the 46th position. The systematic, abusive stand-point of the US Government against its questionable interpretation of security needs, leaks and whistleblowers have resulted in such a decline and the hunt of Julian Assange, the trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the more recent pursuit of former CIA, ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden is a strong message to all citizens and netizens who have indulged in the precarious act of making secret information available to public.
Free Press in the US is a controversial and sensitive issue today. On the one hand, this Fourth Estate agent is playing a huge role in shaping the history of the US, where it is constantly scrutinised by internal and external audiences, security forces, politicians, law-makers and other federal and judicial authorities. When Rupert Mudroch faced the heat in 2011 due to the alleged involvement of News Corporation in regular tapping and violating security measures, the world got to see a face of media that was outrageous and appalling and calling for change. The “other” side of the looking glass had WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange, who went public with thousands of documents that was of national importance.
Today, there is a staunch dichotomy that exists in the way the authorities and the press functions. As the Fourth Estate is now extended into its fifth form, liberty of press also extends into how much information can actually be divulged to the media, readers and what should be upheld. What sparked the controversy afresh last year was former US Intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s revelation to The New York Times that Australian Intelligence had spied on the Indonesian President, his wife and some close-held politicians to gain vast amount of data and information. The US’ incessant pursuit of Snowden and other whistleblowers have sent ripples of doubt and suppression in the press entangling all stakeholders in a debate that questions the entire entity and institution of Free Press.
India, too, is not untouched by the issue of whistleblowers in the lieu of Free Press. Legal documents were leaked that contained confidential information on the Bofors Case by WikiLeaks. When social giants Google and Facebook came out with their reports, it was stated that India ranked among one of the top countries with the most amount of removal requests from the Government’s side. The boundaries of Free Press are blurring, with the advent of social media that is replacing traditional press, which in turn increases censorship concerns. With blogs and web news portals acting as agents of information, with Press becoming an easy prey to violence and restriction, will this be the dawn of a new era where Anonymous masked vigilantes take it upon themselves to carry off a public service? The biggest democratic nation in the world is marching towards a change and the “Good, Bad, Ugly” evaluation is nothing, but a matter of time to tell.