May 3. That was yesterday. Perhaps many of us in the media, in the course of the hurly-burly of our hectic daily routine of meeting deadlines and nosing around for exclusives, forgot that it was World Press Freedom Day.
This year, World Press Freedom Day has been dedicated to the correlation between media freedom and the eradication of poverty – ‘Media and good governance’. The message is that an independent, free and pluralistic media has a crucial role to play in the good governance of democratic societies by ensuring transparency and accountability, promoting participation and rule of law, and contributing to the fight against poverty.
My mind goes back to almost a decade ago, in the mid-90s, when I was heading Business Times in The Times of India. My then boss and good friend, Gautam Adhikari, then Executive Editor of TOI, and currently Editor of DNA, frequently held forth on the crucial role of the media. One never missed the underlining philosophy of his many extempore – and always invigorating – talkathons at the morning Editorial Board meetings: that a successful democracy thrives on four pillars – the Legislature, the Executive, the Judiciary, and the Media.
Those were days when the judiciary had become hyperactive and the successful disposal of many a PIL in the Supreme Court brought out starkly how the two vital legs of our democracy – Legislature and Executive – were at that time showing signs of paralysis. Gautam missed no opportunity to make the plea that the fourth pillar of democracy should lend a helping hand to a proactive judiciary in achieving the missionary objective of a better democracy.
Many of us from that team under Gautam are not sure of the final progress report of our efforts and to what extent we successfully played the role of a democracy’s pillar. The truth is that philosophical shenanigans and practicality are often at variance.
The brutal murder of Daniel Pearl has been the most publicised instance of the threat journalists face in their quest for the truth. However, there are many more who lose their lives and remain unsung heroes. The 2005 IPI (International Press Institute) Review points out that in virtually every region of the world, the media is engaged in a battle to uphold their fundamental right to report news. The fact that 65 journalists were killed in 2005 is a brutal reminder on World Press Freedom Day of the dangers faced by journalists when reporting. “Such deaths are a sad loss to the profession, but they also have a detrimental impact on the public’s access to vital information,” the report observes.
On an average, a journalist was killed every 5.6 days last year, says the IPI report. Iraq, where 23 journalists died, remains the world’s most dangerous country for the media. The most dangerous territory for journalists is the Middle East and North African regions where 26 journalists have died. Although many of the journalists died while reporting from conflict zones, others were killed for their reporting on: government (Belarus, Libya and Sierra Leone), protests (Haiti and Somalia), drug trafficking (Mexico), local corruption (Philippines and Thailand), and illegal drag racing (Russia), the report points out.
In Asia, where 20 journalists and media staffers were killed, nine reporters were murdered in the Philippines alone. At least 65 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since democracy was restored in 1986. Nearer home, in Bangladesh, three journalists were killed because of their investigative reporting. In Nepal, where the media continues to be caught in the middle of a conflict between Maoist rebels and state security forces, two journalists were killed.
Fortunately, the Indian media does not figure in the death roll in the IPI report. One wonders if that is indicative of India being a better, mature democracy, Godhra notwithstanding. Talking of Godhra and Gujarat, just the other day, a former colleague from my Business Times days, who went on to head a leading English daily in Ahmedabad, mentioned how he had to change his mobile phone handset. He was a respected Resident Editor who did not squirm in reporting the truth post-Godhra, Narendra Modi notwithstanding. It seems he was tipped off by intelligence officers that his mobile phone was being tapped. And these very officers suggested he switch to a Nokia Communicator as that was difficult to tap! So, he is today an owner of this hi-fi gadget.
As IPI Director, Johann P Fritz, commented, “World Press Freedom Day is a day to remember that when a journalist is killed, the public risks the loss of valuable information beneficial to society. The authorities must investigate these violent crimes properly and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. There should also be greater awareness of the relationship between the free flow of information and the essential work carried out by journalists.”
Today, media is big business, but journalism is more than just a profession. Unlike most other professions, somewhere along the way, journalism is also a mission with a deeper philosophical goal. It is not the same as making and marketing soaps and automobiles. May the quest for truth continue.