Sitting ducks for public ire?

BY B.P. Sanjay| IN Media Freedom | 03/03/2010
The media in the Kannada Prabha case is the victim of a larger threat to creative, artistic and academic discourses. Unfortunately, media institutions are sitting ducks for public ire--genuine or orchestrated,
says B P SANJAY. Photo: Image used by Kannada Prabha with the translation.

The attacks on newspaper offices, destruction of property etc in different parts of Karnataka revolves around the publication of a translation of an essay by Taslima Nasreen in the magazine section of Kannada Prabha, (KP), a daily from the New Indian Express group. The fact that Taslima has denied writing to the newspaper or whether the newspaper violated copyright etc are being reported, amidst larger issues of "fringe" elements’ reaction to writing, movies and works of art. The apology from Kannada Prabha is akin to the Danish newspaper, Politiken’s apology to Muslim organisations recently over the publication of the controversial cartoons.  KP while expressing regret maintains that it has always believed in communal harmony and does not promote communalism:

Oppression of women is prevalent in all societies and religions and this newspaper has consistently highlighted the cause of the oppressed transcending caste and religious lines and it was within that framework that the article had been published. It was a translation of Taslima Nasreen’s essay that has already been published in several media and languages and has been debated. What could have been a subject for intellectual discussion and debate has unfortunately lead to violence and this is regrettable. If it has hurt the Muslim community we regret and appeal that this should not be used to disturb peace and amity.

Reactions to the events following the publication rekindle the ongoing media attention to M.F. Hussain and his right to creative expression amidst news of Qatar conferring upon him their citizenship. Independent of the KP incident, when Hussain was the subject matter of the NDTV weekend show the issue was confined to creative expression and allusions to the judiciary’s view that he was entitled to such expression.

However, following the Kannada Prapha incident, a CNN-IBN panel interjected their heated discussion with references to Article 19 and clauses pertaining to reasonable restrictions etc. The diversity issue and questions of religious tolerance in the Indian context was different from Europe where critiquing religion was acceptable. This was in response to Sagarika Ghose’s reference to the French Government’s decision pertaining to the veil. It is a different matter that media is focusing on this issue through reports, academic essays and book reviews.  Raphael Liogier’s opinion in the Hindu recently presents another perspective. 

We have been systematically treated to five justifications, all hammered home with the aim of getting the full veil banned for good: the feminist, the theological, the humanistic, the securitarian and, finally, the prophylactic. None of these justifications has been convincing. For a start, the vast majority of women concerned have clearly actively chosen to wear the veil, sometimes in the face of opposition from their family. Moreover, many see their veils as a means of expressing independence, even sometimes as a vehicle of feminine empowerment.

It is necessary for us to look at the KP incident dispassionately and perhaps reducing it to an issue of freedom of the press/media is untenable, especially when other voices-political, fringe elements, polarised intellectual debates and concerns are not willing to concede such freedom.  What is   a sub text--"reasonable" restrictions-- is now repeatedly mentioned as the media not having absolute rights under Article 19.  The Nehruvian ideal of freedom of press is now negotiable. The overall impression that somehow the publication of the translated essay was "mischievous" as the Home Minister remarked obfuscates the larger issue of basic rights of a writer to express his/her   views. (It is also hypothetical as to whether Taslima would have remained silent had the attacks not happened)

In the general climate of media bashing that we all live in, such remarks gel well. What we might all miss and regret as we engage in our tryst with democracy is that media is in real danger of reducing itself to voices of the people in power of all hues-political, muscle and money.  The fact that even the cursory concern of the editor’s guild towards the rampaging incident was missing is another aspect of  the Kannada Prabha incident. What we might also be missing is the larger question of the basic dislike towards Taslima who has been a victim of such attacks elsewhere. The media in this case is the victim of a larger threat to creative, artistic and academic discourses.  Unfortunately, media institutions are sitting ducks of public ire--genuine or orchestrated.

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