Always pose questions to the powers that be: President tells media

The President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, said that the loudest noise in media should not drown those who disagree. He was delivering the second Ramnath Goenka Lecture organised by the Express Group

PTI Photo
PTI Photo

NH Web Desk

President of India Pranab Mukherjee reinforced the significance of free press in India. He was speaking at the second Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture in New Delhi on Thursday.

Paying tribute to the founder of the Express Group, Ramnath Goenka, the President said that Ramnath Goenka embodied the finest journalistic values: fierce independence, fearlessness and a determination to always stand up to the powerful and fight against the abuse or misuse of power.

Referring to the latest developments in information technology through which everyone with a phone can be a publisher and a broadcaster, a schoolteacher, a mother, a student and a political activist, sifting through all the data, separating facts from what is now described as “fake news,” and ensuring accuracy a so that the public can be better informed has gained utmost importance in journalism.

Here are some excerpts from the President’s speech, wherein he has time and again emphasised on the need for free, fearless and impartial media.

  • It is also worth remembering today that Ramnath ji was a true patriot. When he founded The Indian Express in 1936 it was in response to a need articulated by Mahatma Gandhi for a national newspaper. He fought for the freedom of the country and for freedom of the press. He took on the Establishment – in colonial times and after Independence – to make democracy more secure and zealously guard the right to free speech as is enshrined in our Constitution. The values espoused by Ramnath ji were relevant then, are relevant now and will remain relevant in times to come.

  • Technology has led to a phenomenal growth in the means of communication, bombarding the public with unprecedented volumes of data, information and, not least, opinion. This has had many positive outcomes: foremost, it has broken the shackles of silence imposed on the powerless. The sense of liberation that the Internet and social media especially, allows, has ensured that everyone has a voice and that even small voices in the remotest areas can be heard. There is a whole new information world out there to be tapped by our people across the length and breadth of the country. However, the downside is that the sheer scale and volume of data and information means that much of what is available today remains unfiltered and unmediated. In many cases, even unchecked.

  • When so many people speak in so many voices across mediums, many voices are drowned out in the cacophony that is created: and, in that noise it is difficult to hear or make sense of what is being said. This is where good journalism plays a vital and irreplaceable role: it intervenes. It sifts through all the data, separates facts from what is now described as “fake news”, ensures accuracy and provides context, analysis and opinion so that the public can be better informed and form informed opinions.

  • Discussion, dissension are crucial to public debate for decision-making in a vibrant, healthy democracy such as India’s. There should always be room for the Argumentative Indian but not for the Intolerant Indian. I believe that the bedrock of Indian civilisation has been its pluralism and its social, cultural, linguistic and racial diversity. That’s why we need to be sensitive to dominant narratives, of those who make the loudest noise, drowning out those who disagree. That’s why social media and broadcast news have seen angry, aggressive posturing by state and non-state players literally hounding out contrarian opinions. The need to ask questions of those in power is fundamental for the preservation of our nation and of a truly democratic society. This is a role that the media has traditionally played and must carry on playing.

  • it must be the watchdog, the gatekeeper and the mediator between the leaders and the public. It must raise and create awareness about issues concerning public welfare, hold public or private institutions and their representatives accountable for all their actions or indeed, their inactions. In particular, the media has a duty to give space to the millions who still face the injustices of deprivation, gender discrimination, caste and social bias. I believe the media must safeguard the public interest, and provide a voice to the marginalised in our society. Our people face enormous inequalities which need to be articulated and highlighted continuously – by the media – in order to ensure they are addressed by those who govern.

  • When opinion is deeply divided on issues of public importance, be they related to governance, the law, social change or personal beliefs and conduct, objectivity is at a premium. Facts must never be sacrificed to elevated opinions as truth.

  • There is the ever present danger of ‘paid news’. Ownership of media, concentration of ownership and distribution platforms in a few hands, and the personal beliefs of individual journalists can and do create conflicts of interest. They also reduce the plurality and diversity of the media. Objectivity has to be restored to regain public trust.

  • Even as the youth look to the future, there has been considerable questioning of the past in the public discourse over the last few years. Each generation has the right to look back and reassess the strengths and weaknesses of the past. Let the brave new India draw its own conclusions.

  • However, such inquiry should not be blinkered by biases or resisted with a closed mind. Indian history and centuries’ old civilization is replete with examples of a willingness of the people to, as I have said, `doubt, disagree and dispute intellectually’. This is the bedrock of our nation; our Constitution is a testament to the accommodation of our differences within the framework of an overarching idea of India. What makes us Indians is our spirit of tolerance and accommodation towards each other and those who differ from us. That has been the survival mantra of our civilization over generations.

  • To my mind, while the press will be failing in its duty if it does not pose questions to the powers that be, it will have to simultaneously judge the frivolous from the factual and publicity from reportage. This is a tremendous challenge for the media and one that it must stand up to. It must resist the temptation to take the path of least resistance which is to allow a dominant viewpoint to prevail without questioning it or allowing others the opportunity to question it. Media must learn the art of withstanding pulls and pressures without sacrificing its commitment to free and fair reportage and always remain on guard against conformity.

  • It (media) must always remember that its fundamental task is to stand up and ask questions with honesty and fairness. That’s the sacred compact it has with citizens in a democracy.

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