[MJR] Media has to protect freedom of expression and thought

22 May,2012

Ranjona Banerji

By Ranjona Banerji


The knee-jerk government response to the Ambedkar cartoon controversy – banning cartoons from text books – got a very strong response from Sunday’s newspapers. The need to protect freedom of speech, why cartoons frighten those in power, the personal attacks faced by cartoonists were covered by The Times of India, Indian Express and Hindustan Times in special features and detailed stories.


Many also carried cartoons which have caused trouble in the past and tried to examine just why cartoons are seen as dangerous.


Indian Express had a comprehensive interview with historian Mushir-ul-Hasan who has just written a book on Parsee Punch, a cartoon magazine brought out by Parsis in colonial India. The British in India at the time either had a good sense of humour or the good sense to realise that going after cartoons was hardly likely to end subversive thinking.


The media has to come out and protect freedom of expression and thought – because in any battle against it, it will be the first casualty. The threat does not come just from those in power but also from pressure groups in civil society. Unfortunately in India, the first response by the government is to cave in to the demands of those whose “sentiments are hurt” rather than stand up for the Constitution.


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After running through the IPL as the scourge of human civilisation, TV channels found something else to amuse themselves. Not, of course, the Indian economy, which seems perilously close to bad times ahead – there is after all little scope for a melodramatic studio-based jatra based on a falling rupee and rising inflation. Much better instead to concentrate on parties (not political ones, but the others where people gather to eat, drink and make merry and thus promote unconscionable evils), why the BCCI has insulted Kapil Dev by not giving him lots of money (and then providing the answer – because Dev hooked off to the rebel league ICL) and for all I know whether the sun will rise tomorrow or not.


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It is always interesting to see journalists take the moral high ground when it comes to other people eating and drinking. Everyone knows that there are journalists who will do anything for a free meal and many attend press conferences only for the free drinks at the end. Even those who are not quite so greedy enjoy a drink or two at the end (or the middle) of a long and stressful working day. So why this moralistic posturing when it comes to others? Just to appeal to a puritanical audience or has alcohol dimmed their memories of their own excesses?


In fine contrast, of course, the glamour sections of newspapers and glamour segments on news channels only serve to glorify the “having fun” lifestyle and employ almost no critical faculties at all.


Just because the general public doesn’t know what you get up to in your spare time does not mean that you have to give in quite so much to hypocrisy.


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Now that the Lokpal Bill has been put off till the next session, one can predict an all out publicity campaign by the Anna Hazare brigade – that’s easy. However, it is also possible to predict that while the movement may not fizzle out, the media coverage will.

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