The Truth in shackles

BY Bhamy V Shenoy| IN Media Freedom | 04/02/2009
The odyssey of a Karnataka journalist, B. V. Seetharam, clearly shows how press freedom in India is a mirage,

There is no doubt that we have a large and expanding market for newspapers.  There is also little doubt that the press is perceived as vibrant, but we assume, wrongly, that India has a press with unbridled freedom. We assume, wrongly again, that India¿s newspapers have full and complete freedom to reveal individual or institutional malfeasance, in politics, business and other spheres of public life.


In the event that the press fails to expose the corrupt practices of politicians or businessmen---like, say, the gigantic Rs 7,000 crore fraud of Satyam Computer Services---we think it is only because the press is not using its freedom, and does not have the courage to stand up against big government, or lucrative companies.


However, the odyssey of a Karnataka journalist, B. V. Seetharam, clearly shows how press freedom in India is a mirage. Seetharam was arrested on Jan 4 in a previous defamation case filed in July 2007. Initially, when the case was filed, Seetharam was listed as an editor and publisher, when in fact his actual designation was the chairman of Chitra Group, publisher of Karavali Ale, and Canara Times. At the time of his recent arrest, the mistake was corrected, and he was taken into custody in handcuffs as a common criminal without a proper warrant order. This is not the first time Seetharam has been punished by imprisonment.  In 2007, he was whisked away to jail, along with his wife, in the middle of the night for publishing a story questioning the propriety of Jain monks to walk around naked in public.


But it is the backdrop of the latest arrest (a few months after the BJP came to power in Karnataka), the timing of the arrest (after he had accused Hindutva forces of attacking his newspaper), and the manner in which he has been handcuffed and chained like a common criminal, and taken from city to city (he is currently under treatment in a Mysore hospital), that should make the world sit up and take notice..


B.V. Seetharam¿s case does not reveal the full story. He had complained to the Press Council of India earlier about harassment by the government The truth is there are plenty of people who do not want negative stories to come out, and are willing to go any distance, and adopt any means to ensure that this does not happen. And there are plenty of people, in power and outside, who are willing to help them in that endeavour. Some may also resort to the "contempt of court" strategy. In fact, a few years back the editor of the Star of Mysore, and this author were the victims of this strategy when Mysore Grahakara Parishat was trying to expose the scandal behind the People¿s Park issue, whereby a developer from a political party managed to wrest valuable public park land for construction of commercial buildings and hotels, by promising to build a library free of cost, thus contravening the Karnataka Open Spaces and Parks Act which forbids the construction of building in such places.


The manner in which a senior journalist like Seetharam is being harassed by the Karnataka government, is also an example of what is wrong with our legal system concerning the press. At the drop of a hat, it is possible for any one, or any political party having problems with a newspaper, to slam some trumped up charges like defamation, or disturbing communal or religious harmony etc. against an editor.



B.V. Seetharam is a sad victim of that. While we may question his methods and targets based on our individual preferences and prejudices, it must be admitted that Seetharam published articles exposing the wrongdoings, among others, of corrupt politicians, incompetent bureaucrats, and dishonest businessmen.


More recently, he had rightly turned his eyes on the growing religion-based communalism on India¿s west coast. What we are witnessing through his arrest is that, in a surcharged milieu, this can be a lonely battle.


In a political system where the use of extra-constitutional muscle power seems to sit comfortably with rule-based democracy, an editor like him is bound to have enemies. Such individuals are harassed by the establishment to send a strong signal to others not to follow that example. Seetharam¿s victimisation is an indication of this.


While the solidarity shown by the press to Seetharam¿s harsh treatment should be admired, we, the public, should wonder why only one section of society has expressed support. Journalist associations in different parts of Karnataka have been holding meetings protesting his arrest, and that too in handcuffs. Even the International Association of Journalists has protested against his arrest.


The essential issue here is the freedom of the press to boldly publish the news without fear and favour. Without such press freedom, democracy will lose out, as  is evident in several such instances in India . Every citizen, irrespective of his/her ideology, should condemn the treatment doled out to B.V. Seetharam. It is high time that we change the antiquated laws of the British Raj to give real freedom to the press.




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