BY SWAPAN DASGUPTA
Earlier this month, along with two other journalists, I attended a conference on Media Freedom convened by the Foreign Ministers of Canada and the United Kingdom. It was a non-official delegation and was in no way representative of the diversity of India’s media — and I don’t think anyone claimed it was. There were other members of India’s press corps who were there as panellists for the different sessions. No member of our delegation was listed as a speaker and we attended the sessions as observers, although a member of our delegation felt sufficiently agitated to intervene from the audience during a session where the politics of India was among the themes of discussion.
No, India wasn’t even remotely among the key concerns of the organisers. At best it was a footnote in both the sessions and some of the smaller fringe meetings. However, even as a footnote the references weren’t always flattering. I was hugely amused by the manner in which an earnest young journalist, full of righteous indignation over injustices to the media, alluded to the distortions that moulded the democratic system in India. This was at a fringe session hosted by BBC News.
It is tempting to get shirty over the indignant tone that permeated the whole two-day event. There were in fact too few actual journalists — the editors, the news editors and beat reporters — at the conference. The event seemed to be dominated by a blend of Foreign Office officials, diplomats and officials from African countries and NGOs that live off the human rights industry. This was hardly surprising given that the star attraction of the conference was the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, now the British Government’s special envoy on media freedom. Like most of the fashionable set, she sheds tears for the Rohingyas and hates President Trump — who probably despises her in equal measure. Also a moving force of the event was the Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist, whose tweet last year on the persecution of a blogger prompted Saudi Arabia to cut off diplomatic ties with Canada.
At the conference, the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt — a candidate in the race to succeed Theresa May next week — announced the establishment of an 18 million Pound fund to uphold media freedom. By the standards of a cash-strapped British Government that is a fair amount of money. Most of it will probably be spent on what is quaintly called advocacy, which basically means bankrolling London-based NGOs that are angry over something or the other. Another chunk will go in “training” journalists, or rather influencing the media content in countries where democracy is viewed as an unaffordable luxury. Since India now features on the red alert zone of a dubious Index of Media Freedom, we can expect some of this money to be channelled into conferences in agreeable resorts. In any case, there is next year’s conference in Canada to look forward to.
All governments — in both free and unfree countries —blow up money in ventures that look and sound noble but yield little tangible results. It is tempting to include this event at a disused print factory in the London Docklands in this long list. However, it is not so simple. On the face of it, the event was meant to showcase the concern of two Anglophone democracies over erosion of media freedom, harassment and persecution of journalists and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. A subtext of the conference was the general disdain of the liberal Establishment for President Trump’s unceasing hostility towards the mainstream media. Also included in the list of pet hates was Putin’s Russia, a state that is accused of manipulating electoral outcomes in the UK through strategically directed social media interventions. Incidentally, the representatives of the Russian media, notably RT and Sputnik News, were denied accreditation to the event.
That was the unexceptionable part of the conference. I don’t think even the most illiberal of democracies will endorse the murder of a Saudi journalist — of course he was a little more than a mere news gatherer — or the imprisonment of two Reuters staff members in Myanmar. Equally, everyone will balk at the murder of bloggers, journalists and writers, including in India, by either fanatical groups or shadowy secret service operatives. A free media, even if it showers us with shrill studio discussions and irritatingly sensational Breaking News, is a part of democratic existence.
If that had been the sole items on the agenda, I would have come home happy at the conference takeaway — a non-disposable water bottle proclaiming the indispensability of media freedom.
Unfortunately, this was an agenda-driven conference in many ways. It wasn’t merely about a free press but also about the political correctness that free press should uphold. It was a conference aimed at keeping activists engaged with the government machineries of the UK and Canada. NGOs can be very useful weapons in the hands of Western powers against countries that have national interests to defend. They can be subtle pressure points. Their degree of effectiveness depends on the vulnerability of the countries. Russia doesn’t give a toss; nor does China. Unfortunately, we in India get worked up over Time magazine and Economist interventions during the elections. These endorsements and rejections don’t influence India’s voters but they do prey on the minds of fund managers, financial analysts and even some investors.
But why blame the foreign correspondents who inhabit the 2 km radius around Khan Market? They take their cue from Indian publications in English that misread the public mood and then blame their own incomprehension on either the false consciousness of the people or WhatsApp-inspired disinformation. Then they claim that media freedom in India has been seriously compromised by their own growing irrelevance.