Freedom of the media is a nation’s most trusted corrective instrument. When this freedom is not used diligently, the media becomes guilty of underperformance. It is an act of omission. The printed word no longer enjoys the monopoly of information sharing and dialogue. The electronic and social media have carved out their respective niches altering the power equations among them. In spite of considerable constraints, our newspapers and magazines, as well as visual media to a lesser extent, have brought out in recent years a number of problematic issues trying to hold the powerful accountable to the people of India. Political parties do play a role in ferreting out unacceptable actions of the government, attacking skewed policies and flagging suspicious deals. The forum for the political parties to pursue such questionable matters is the Parliament (or the state Assemblies), where they can force the governments by the instruments available to them in the legislature. But our recent history clearly records only acrimonious Parliamentary sessions, where important bills with far-reaching consequences are passed without any debate or scrutiny. The inevitable infirmities of the laws thus passed have been aptly highlighted by the Chief Justice of India. How do we expect serious discussion in Parliament about wrong policies and faltering executive action, culminating in a probe or corrective measure, when such demands are consistently and effectively stonewalled by the government?
Media, however, are free to pursue investigations on their own, even if the government doesn’t budge. The infamous Watergate scandal where the US Presidential candidate Richard Nixon was allegedly in the know of his rival Democratic party office being bugged was doggedly pursued by Washington Post and its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The excesses during the Emergency were all subject to post-mortem in several newspapers and books (published of course after it was lifted). People had the privilege of knowing (belatedly) the dynamics of the abuse of power and its imperviousness. We had four Joint Parliamentary Committees in the last 25 years to probe into major scandals, including the Bofors and Harshad Mehta scams. All of them had come out with cardinal findings that eventually helped improve regulatory mechanisms and strengthen checks and balances. Media, wedded to the cause of freedom and probity, works in tandem with political parties, civil society and academics to bring out the truth and frame the guilty.
Executive lapses happen regularly in every state and the Centre, though every issue may not merit national attention. However, we recently had a few major issues warranting a deeper probe. The Pegasus snooping allegations looked like a real tornado in the making. Earlier, the Rafale warplane deal was in public domain for some time, demanding a satisfactory explanation from the government that never came. Some issues are sheltered under the cover of national security, others are taken to courts. That effectively freezes further public debates as they would die a natural death after long spells of silence. The questions about the differential pricing policy of Covid vaccines and the mismanagement with regard to the availability of oxygen, the abject indifference to the plight of migrant workers, alleged indiscriminate invoking of UAPA and sedition laws, death of Stan Swamy in judicial custody and several not-fully explained issues have died prematurely. The media has gone silent, as if those issues are no longer relevant. Repeated instances of sensitive matters and allegations regularly fizzling out do not augur well for our polity. Perhaps some of the allegations might be unfounded. If so, it is in the interest of the government to enquire into them and call the bluff! Should they have a grain of truth, that too should be probed instead of being brushed under the carpet. Repeated instances that force us to conclude that any amount of questioning has no effect on those in power could make a society sterile and cynic.
The media, of course, always loves the latest news. But that is no reason to abandon worthwhile causes halfway without taking them to their logical conclusion. The media behaves like a doctor interested only in diagnosing but not in the cure. It may not offer treatment, but it should cry hoarse till the ailment gets treated. An absence of perseverance can mean that the intent was only to shock.
And where have our academics gone? They have the intellectual wherewithal to study the socio-political and moral backstage of every controversy. What prevents them from undertaking such studies so that the country gets the benefit of truth? The present style of stalling the allegations and scams and making them appear as soap bubbles blown by imps might be a smart strategy of political management but in the long term, it kills the very spirit of democracy that glows with accountability rather than prevarication. These premature burials raise a highly disturbing question: What exactly is the cause of this mutation in the behaviour of our media and intellectuals? What explains the mysterious silence and lack of follow-up among the super sleuths in the media and our restless academics? Obviously it cannot be fatigue or too much work. It cannot be indifference either. It is the altered ecosystem where freedom is under attack in ways, subtle and crass. As long as that ecosystem remains unchecked, ghosts of barren scams and ghouls of unexplained lapses will haunt those who still believe in freedom and constitutional values.
Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam Varsity