By Kuldip Nayar
THIS is not the first time that an editor in India has been sacked unceremoniously. Nor will it be the last time.
But the case of M.J. Akbar, who was until recently the editor of The Asian Age, raises certain fundamental questions. Does the owner have the right to dismiss his editor whenever he wants or however he wants?
Akbar was on his way to office a few mornings ago as usual, when he heard on his mobile a staff member telling him that his name had been removed from the print line. He went to office, picked up his papers and walked out. There were no second thoughts by the owner, nor any letter of explanation — much less an apology. I believe the owner, a senior Congressman from Hyderabad, was under pressure from party president Sonia Gandhi to get rid of Akbar who, according to 10 Janpath, was vehemently opposed to her.
This reminds me of the days before the emergency. I was then working with The Indian Express. Ramnath Goenka, its proprietor, would tell me that he had been told again and again by several top Congress leaders to sack me. At that time, he was in a mood to take on Mrs Indira Gandhi and hence the question of my removal did not arise.
The Editors’ Guild of India took up Akbar’s case at my initiative recently. There was hardly any speaker who did not express regret over his fate. A committee has been constituted to look into not only the proprietor-editor relationship but also the misuse of power by journalists who allegedly take money for using or not using a news item.
Talking generally, other editors have also been fired in the past. Frank Moraes, Khushwant Singh, George Verghese, Pran Chopra, S. Mulgaokar, H.K. Dua and Vinod Mehta have all been victims of political pressure. If I recall correctly, the only two editors out of these who joined issue with the proprietor were: Pran, directly against The Statesman, and Verghese through the Press Council of India. One had to compromise with the management and, in the other’s case the government dissolved the Press Council.
The message it sent out was that an editor was a disposable commodity. He accordingly trimmed his sails. After the emergency, things became worse for editors because when proprietors found that they had caved in before the government, they (the proprietors) thought that the editors only needed pressure which, when applied, would make them surrender abjectly.
Proprietors and the government came closer because the government found it could deal with them more easily since they had other interests. Editors increasingly were reduced to the position of liaison people between the government and the proprietor. Proprietors were now seen at government VIP receptions, banquets and such other places which had previously been the exclusive domain of editors.
The profile of the proprietors also changed. The new generation returning from abroad was sophisticated and socially ambitious. I remember C.R. Irani, managing director of The Statesman, asking me, “Why don’t ministers call me instead of you because I can do much more than the editor?”
Yet Akbar’s case raises important questions. The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Jawaharlal Nehru even had legislation enacted to ensure that working journalists were not fired at the proprietors’ will. He thought that journalists while pursuing their jobs could hurt people in the establishment and they, in turn, could punish journalists through their proprietors. In a way, he insulated those working in the pursuit of reporting and commenting. This practice has, however, been circumvented by the scheme of contracts which proprietors have introduced.
The question is that if the freedom of expression is to be used as a weapon by the proprietors through journalists over whose heads the contract hangs like the sword of Damocles, what happens to the freedom of the press which the constitution framers had guaranteed? They could not have imagined a time when the piper would call the tune. If this is so, then the time has come to reconsider the original constitutional guarantee.
Since neither the rulers nor the proprietors have respect for the sanctity of press freedom, the nation faces a challenge which a democratic society has to take up in the interest of its polity that has a free press as one of the pillars on which the structure stands. In fact, this principle was defeated by Mrs Indira Gandhi when she first talked about ‘commitment’ and then imposed the emergency to gag the press.
The scenario, after her departure, has become grimmer. Except for a small interlude when the Janata government was in power, the nexus between the proprietor and the government has become more intense.
Still worse for the fourth estate was the influence of the corporate sector. Freedom of the press began to have another meaning: the corporate sector was more important than the government. Now it calls the shots. What sells is the corporate sector’s principle of peddling goods for maximum profit and the same thing has been duplicated by the press. Where journalism was a profession at one time, it has now been reduced to an industry. Newspapers are a product, just like soap or talcum powder. No idealism is involved, no social obligation is respected. It is just what sells that counts.
The result is that the press as the propagator of ideas — TV networks are worse — is more or less dead. The media is now simply a vehicle for title tattle. Stars in film and on the cricket field are the media’s icons and one can see them splashed all over newspapers with nauseatingly repeated appearances on TV screens.
The casualty in this whole process has been the credibility of the media. People believe less and less in the printed word and what they see on screen. They are confused and lost. One thing is sure: the media has lost credibility which it cannot get back. People do not trust it any more. Its right to advocate the aspirations of the common man has been forfeited. If the flame of press freedom were to ever burn again, many Akbars would come back.
Kuldip Nayar is a leading journalist based in Delhi.