Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"What we have is freedom of purse, not freedom of press" : P. Sainath

The Indian media is a free media, they are free, they are politically free, but they are imprisoned by profit and commerce. No one is shooting you for saying something in India in journalism. But you’re a prisoner of profit. So even if they are politically free, they don’t make use of the political freedom because their first priority is profit. If profit entails loss of freedom they will accept it because anything but profit matters. Now every time they do some crime like “paid news” or anything else and if there is criticism of them, they respond it to by saying “you are attacking press freedom”.

The press doesn't have the freedom to loot and extort me. This is not freedom of press. This is freedom of purse. So whenever they want to make money, they say this is a business - we are on a business, etc. When they are criticized they say no...we want special rights because we are the press, we have freedom of press. When you are defending your privileges, you claim freedom of press. But then you are telling your journalist, this is a business. You go out and do what I tell you to do. 

The hypocrisy of freedom of the press is that freedom doesn’t apply to journalist. That is why AJ Liebling said 70 years ago in the US, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one”, those who own the press have freedom. This freedom is not for the journalist, it is not for the society, it is not for the readers or viewers of these channels. It is for the corporate interests that control them. So it is very interesting when they are defending their position, they defend it on the high moral ground of press freedom. The rest of the time they are operating not as guardians of freedom but as extortionists and profiteers. 

That is the hypocrisy involved and one day that will boomerang very badly on all of us , so this is the thing, .you have free press……it is free, it is not that there are any editors in prison ,there are no prisoners of conscience in the media happening yet. 

But the freedom we have is very limited. It belongs to the bosses, not to the journalists, not to the readers, not to the audience. It is a very limited freedom and the freedom related on your capacity to pay for it. How much money you have and your equation with power. There is also a real freedom of press in India that also has to be said. The fact that is real freedom of press is that there is still a space for dissident voices. I can function in the press, hundreds of people like me also function in the press. So we have a space. There is some freedom even for the journalist and a particular kind of freedom exists. But that space is shrinking. I won’t say that I have no freedom. I have enjoyed lot of freedom as a journalist in India working for different publications but I am saying if I look at how was it twenty years ago and how it is now, then the space overall is shrinking. It is becoming more and more homogenized, corporatized and those who have anti corporate views will find it increasingly difficult to find employment in the media.

What is “paid news”? Paid news is run to pass off an advertisement, a piece of propaganda and advertisement...pass that as news, pretend that it is news, that is “paid news”. Paid news does not disclose to the reader that this information has been paid for.

Suppose you are a quack doctor you are putting out medicine which will cure asthma or tuberculosis. It may be fake. I write the story saying this man has some found cure for asthma. He has done this, he has done this, and he is a genius. You buy this; you will be liberated from asthma. I do not tell them that I have taken three lakh rupees from the advertiser - that is paid news. 

But during elections - paid news becomes twice as dangerous, because it is not only harming the readers' information, it is harming the readers' electoral democratic rights. It is concealing from the reader - if X is standing in an election, X is paying me as a news paper to run positive information on X...According to how much X pays I will run so much positive information on you..The reader will not even know the name of X's opposing candidate in the election unless I mention the candidate to attack him. His name will not appear. 

So it’s what vice president Hameed Ansari calls a double weapon. Paid news destroys the concept of a free and fair and balanced press. That the same time the paid news undermines the very basis of electoral democracy because it prejudices and interferes with the free and fair election. It allows huge use of money power without accountability. 

So in elections paid news becomes even more damaging but it is not only in elections that there is the phenomenon of paid news. There is paid news every day in the news paper and channels. If journalism does not wipe out paid news; paid news will wipe out journalism.

From a wide ranging interview of P Sainath given to V Sivadasan in Pragoti. More Here.

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