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Politicians should nurture and not throttle India’s media: Prannoy Roy
NEW DELHI: I am deeply honoured to receive this hugely prestigious award—thank you very, very much. I am proud to stand here on behalf of everyone at NDTV and on behalf of the media in India. India has the most vibrant, questioning and fearless media in the world. It is something we should all be hugely proud of. And one day, as soft power globally becomes more important in winning the hearts and minds of people than the hardware of guns and weaponry, India’s media will play a hugely important global role for our country.
I am most humbled getting this award as it is selected by a foundation filled with the most eminent minds, who made it very clear to me that this is not a political award. That is very important for the independence of any journalist, as I believe strongly in the complete separation of politicians from journalists as much as the judiciary from the state.
The closeness of journalists to politicians is an uncomfortable trend in this profession; politicians are, by nature, charming people, and journalists all across the world have been warned against being ensnared and seduced by the charm and power of politicians as it makes their job—to report objectively—that much harder.
On the broader level of separation, over the last few decades, the relationship between the state and television in India has been through three major changes. And we, at NDTV, have grown and learnt from each of these phases—in fact, our history is intertwined with each of them.
Over three decades ago, it was the phase of ‘control by exclusion’. Television journalists who were not part of the state media—not ’embedded’, so to speak—were simply excluded from the nation—no right to report the news on India, their own country, no right to practise their profession. It was in that phase that NDTV tried to push the envelope by becoming the first non-government organisation to report news on television. Except it had to be international news, nothing about India; so we started ‘The World This Week’.
Once established, and with the support of our viewers, we went on to become the first non-state television media to report news on India—and then the first to launch a 24-hour news channel in India.
Once the stage of ‘control by exclusion’ was over, the second stage was ‘control by intimidation’—the phase in which politicians would phone media and warn us of dire consequences if this or that was not changed. In reality, and to the credit of India’s journalists, nobody listened to these threats. The tactic journalists used was simple—listen, do nothing and then let it die down. I remember a particularly threatening phone call: “You know I am a real supporter of yours, but I can’t do anything if you carry on like this. The others will force me to shut you down. Please stop these reports of yours.”
As always with these phone calls, I did absolutely nothing. We made sure that journalists reporting in the field had no idea of the phone call or the threat. Nothing changed in our reporting. Then, a few hours later, I got a phone call from the same politician to say ‘Thank you so much for changing your reporting!’ I said nothing.
This phase ended about 10 years ago. Politicians then simply gave up trying. No more phone calls. And believe me, those are phone calls we don’t miss!
However, 10 years ago a new phase began, with methods of control more subtle and perhaps more insidious than phone calls. Phase III is about ‘Control using techniques of McCarthyism’. McCarthyism is widely considered to be the darkest period in the recent history of the United States. During this period, put simply, the state apparatus, such as the FBI and the tax authorities [IRS], filed false cases against virtually every well-known journalist and hundreds of influential leaders in Hollywood. It was the period when America saw a ‘red under every bed’. Now, in a trend that started 10 years ago—we in India are beginning to imagine a seditious, anti-national bug under every rug.
This third phase too shall pass as the others did. Until then, all our support and empathy goes out to all our fellow journalists across the country who are being intimidated, beaten and jailed for no crime except their fearless reporting. I feel confident this stage will pass because media in India has again and again fought state control; each time, it has emerged freer and stronger than before the fight.
If there is one message I have for the politicians of all parties and all governments, it is this: Nurture, don’t throttle India’s media, because, for the people of this country, our media is one of our greatest assets.
India’s media will one day soon show CNN and the BBC what genuinely lively and unbiased debate truly is—and without their walled gardens. Watch this space, watch India’s media, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
(Dr Prannoy Roy, who is the co-founder and co-chairperson of NDTV, delivered this speech after being presented with the prestigious Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration, Academics and Management 2015.)