The protest on September 6 against the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh drew the largest crowd of journalists that Delhi’s Press Club of India has seen in recent times. The audience was troubled and tormented; anxiety and horror gripped most; the solidarity of journalists seemed impossible to break.

Just about every speaker thought that there was a concerted attempt to muzzle the media, to snatch from it the freedom to write and speak, to redesign journalism as a mouthpiece of the powerful. It is time for journalists to rally against the continuous subversion of independent journalism, they said.

This was more or less the sentiment expressed at the Press Club of India three months ago as well. We were there in June to protest against the Modi government’s raids on the home of the proprietors of NDTV channel. Then too, the audience comprised more or less the same set of journalists who came together to protest against the murder of Lankesh.

Three months from now, we might be back at the Press Club to protest yet another instance of the suppression of the media. What will we do then – repeat the same words spoken on September 6? Just how many times will we repeat those words to know nothing ever changes the universe in which the media operates?

Revisiting a protest

It would perhaps be instructive to recall what different speakers said in June against the raids on NDTV. TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai said, “I believe in the present atmosphere, silence is not an option.” Former Rajya Sabha MP and journalist HK Dua cautioned, “This is a wake-up call, we have to be vigilant and cautious of such attacks.”

The grand old man of journalism, Kuldip Nayar, suggested, “All of us have to ensure we don’t allow anybody to muzzle free speech.” The irrepressible Arun Shourie pointed out, “We have only three protections: our solidarity, the court, the protection of our own readers and viewers.” Eminent Supreme Court lawyer Fali Nariman commented, “Freedom after speech is what freedom of speech is all about.” Wise words his.

Lankesh’s murder palpably demonstrates that freedom after speech remains elusive, and whether we speak against the fear stalking us, the attempt to muzzle the media has become even more sinister and concerted. So then, are our protests merely a device to heal our wounded collective conscience? Or do we aim to transform the universe in which we practise our profession?

The universe of journalism cannot be altered until we recognise the different points of pressure working on the media. The relationship between the media and the state is adversarial. The ruling party controlling most of the levers of the state seeks to bulldoze the media into trumpeting its actions in order to retain popular support.

The need to rally support becomes acute when the ruling party seeks to reconfigure the ideological basis of the state. This generates friction between the ruling party and the media, universally perceived to be the watchdog of democracy. This is precisely why the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought to silence democracy’s watchdog during the Emergency. She chafed against the Constitutional limits that stood in her way of commanding absolute power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too demonstrates this symptom, apart from attempting to redefine the Indian state as a Hindu state.

Pressure tactics

The ruling dispensation has two instruments – of fear and blandishments – to secure the media’s consent and endorsement for its policies and actions. The instrument of fear entails inflicting costs on the media, whether through raids or the filing of spurious court cases against them or by disrupting its smooth functioning. It often also involves denying government advertisements to recalcitrant elements in the media and signalling to private entities to follow suit. Then again, media owners operating in other sectors of the economy forever fear that the government could hurt their other business interests.

Conversely, those who are willing to toe the government’s line are pampered and provided access to the corridors of power. They live outside the zone of fear and are favoured with lucrative government advertisements. Those who have business interests other than the media can hope to gain contracts and win concessions.

Decades ago, the late American journalist AJ Liebling memorably wrote in The New Yorker, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” His profound observation is as true of the Indian media, particularly in the decades following the liberalisation of the economy in 1991. The press is as free as its owners wish. It is as circumscribed as its owners are willing to accept.

Fearless journalism

Gauri Lankesh was shot dead, as is unanimously recognised, for her fearless journalism. She was fearless because she owned the newspaper in which she wrote. This is not to belittle her efforts. But had she been working in a media outlet not owned by her, one wonders whether her fearlessness would have found expression. She would have likely been booted out very early in her career.

This would have been her fate because of the sweeping transformation in the media structure over the last three decades. Journalists are now hired on mostly renewable contracts of a year’s duration. On top of the heap is the editor, drawing salaries unthinkable a decade ago.

A chain of vulnerability is created – from departmental heads to the lowly reporter or sub-editor. Since anyone can be thrown out, at best, on a month’s notice, their livelihood interests supersede such ideals as the right to freedom of expression. It limits the possibility of journalists becoming conscionable dissenters, of defying orders from their bosses, who, in turn, take orders from owners wishing to toe a particular line or having a list of personalities against whom nothing incidentally inimical can be written or telecast.

They get away because there are no intermediary bodies between the owner and the journalist, as, increasingly, there is none between the state and the individual. We have all been atomised, doomed to fight our battles alone. Earlier there were strong intermediary bodies – trade unions, professional bodies and community organisations – to protect the individual against the state gone mad. We now stand naked and helpless before it.

Likewise, unions of journalists are moribund or have become ineffectual in providing protection to them against the whimsy of self-serving media owners. For instance who was to blame when newspapers pulled out a story that furnished details of BJP president Amit Shah’s assets from the affidavit he submitted when he filed his nomination papers for the Rajya Sabha elections last month? The editors, their subordinates or the owners?

Again, it is a little bewildering why media owners rarely attend protests of journalists, given that, to invoke Liebling, the right to free press belongs to them. The fact is that their editorial decisions are their pathways to profits or, to put it another way, their escape routes to evade the state’s capacity to inflict losses on them.

It is, therefore, for journalists to ask: after protests against the murder of Gauri Lankesh, what next? Should another journalist be killed in cold blood or beaten, or another media outlet raided, will journalists gather yet again to deliver speeches they already delivered in the past? It almost seems that the curbs on the freedom of the press have come to acquire an everyday nature. Even tragedies can become monotonous. In that eventuality, protests will fail to draw the kind of crowd the Press Club of India did on September 6.

A new architecture for journalism

Ultimately, we journalists need an intermediary body between us and the state, and between us and media owners. The incessant talk of journalists uniting against the state despite their ideological differences will have no meaning until we unite against those media owners who have hijacked the right to free press, mauling it in the process. It cannot be just a union waging a battle for salaries and working conditions. Its principal task, in our post-modern era, must be to check the erosion of the rights of journalists by both the state and media owners.

Veteran journalists can show the way to create a new architecture for journalism. So the next time a journalist is hit, is it too much to expect newspapers to leave a page blank and explain that this has been done in protest, or for TV channels and news websites to display blank screens for a few hours? Just as the state believes it can alter media behaviour because of its capacity to inflict losses on media owners, we journalists cannot have the state respect our rights until we acquire the ability to inflict losses on it too.