As the nation gears up to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, there cannot be a more appropriate occasion to remember him as the greatest communicator of the 20th century, a responsible journalist and an ethical editor par excellence and a staunch votary of the freedom of speech and expression.
In his autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Bapu, who edited and published several journals, said, “In the very first month of Indian Opinion, I realised that the sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy.
"If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within. If this lice of reasoning is correct, how many of the journals in the world would stand the test? But who would stop those that are useless? The useful and the useless must, like good and evil generally, go on together, and man must make his choice." (p. 211)
His views remain as relevant today. With his simple lifestyle and communication skills, Gandhi brought himself at par with his audience—the larger Indian masses.
His silence also spoke volumes. At a time, when there was hardly any electronic or social media and English print media was confined to the literate few, one clarion call from Gandhi brought the whole subcontinent to a standstill.
It is this credibility of the messenger that we need to imbibe and inculcate when the Fourth Estate the world over is facing a crisis of credibility.
A strong votary of free speech, free press and the independence of the institution of the Editor, Gandhi vehemently opposed unwarranted restrictions on the media.
“The editor of a daily newspaper when he begins writing his leading article does not weigh his words in golden scales. He may be betrayed into a hasty word. Must he pay for it even though he did it obviously in good faith without malice and in the public interest? These libel actions are calculated to demoralise Indian Journalism and make public criticism over-cautious and timid. I am no lover of irresponsible or unjustifiably strong criticism. But the caution to be beneficial must come from within and not superimposed from without,” he said in Young India (August 7, 1924).
In the face of growing opposition, the British brought in the Press Act of 1910, which sought to impose a heavy security deposit to open a printing press, and thereby muzzle the freedom of speech and expression of the Indians.
However, Gandhi not only used the power of his pen against the same but also accepted the charges of sedition and contempt of court as a mark of protest and went behind the bars. He never undermined the values of journalism even as he led his crusade against the alien rule.
Not many people know that his stint with journalism began in London as a student of Bar at Law, when he wrote several articles on diet, customs, festivals, etc., for a magazine by the name Vegetarian.
Again, in this era of Twitter, one would be surprised to know that the communication strategist in Gandhi not only gave long speeches and spoke in different Indian languages to connect with the people but also effectively used every tool possible to take his message to specific and targeted audiences even in a few words, if need be.
For example, in a cabled message to the people of the United States in 1930 as he launched his civil disobedience movement against British rule in 1930, he just said, “I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might.”
In fact, Gandhi used the power of media to become a voice of the voiceless, promote morals and values, empower women and reform the society. He refused to accept advertisements and laid down strict standards of journalism, again so relevant when questions are being raised on the objectivity and credibility of Indian media today.
Perhaps no other person has used the power of non-verbal communication the way Gandhi did. His clothing, his padyatras, his satyagrahas, his charkha, his walking stick and even his silence have communicated so powerfully his immortal messages.
In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to state that Gandhi, the Journalist predates Gandhi, the Mahatma. His journalism played a critical role in shaping the freedom fighter and social reformer in him eventually as the Mahatma. He is not only the Father of the Nation but also the father of development journalism in the country.
As we celebrate 150 years of his birth, the need of the hour is to remind media persons, scholars, academicians and students of their sacred duty to the profession, society and the nation at large and inspire them to preserve and protect the independence and credibility of the Fourth Estate, which is so critical for our survival as a democracy.