Sunday, September 16, 2007

Expression or Repression?

The other day I was reading about another (yet another, really) public outcry in the Islamic nations against a cartoon depicting Prophet Mohammad. Another cartoonist, who either doesn't understand the religious sentiments that are tied to this act of depicting the Prophet pictorially, or doesn't think that anything is beyond his freedom of expression, has "blasphemed". He was so ignorant, that he went to the extent of using a dog's body to describe the Prophet. Free press? A few people laughing? To be frank, I miss the point really. Especially, when there will be a few readers laughing, but a lot more boiling over.

Free Press in the West

The Western world really give utmost importance to the word "Freedom". I don't know how many of them really understand what it means, but they demand it anyway. Honestly, I believe that you don't know what freedom is, until someone has taken it away from you, be-shackled you. What proportion of the Western world can claim to have been there, I am not certain. The press especially though, lives and breathes on this one word. Why not? It gives them the right to conjure up radical images that people want to see, to stir up controversies that no one cares for but everyone wants to read about. It's all about the money, honey. Even something as inspiring and thought provoking as the press, can get its hands down and dirty just to sell a few more copies.

I am not saying the actions of the press are always bad. Their desperate search for a sizzler, so often does make them open a cupboard and have skeletons fall out - skull, bones and dental remains in tow. Politicians are exposed, cruelties come to light, and so often, justice is delivered. But, that of course, cannot always be true. So, just conjuring up something that sells, seems to be the mantra.

Press In India

When I was at school, we would learn in history about the freedom struggle, and how India attained independence from the British. In those days, the press was an astonishingly great force in the way it spread the message of the leaders of the movement for the nation's citizens to stand up as one against the oppression. Readers would come to know about how the incumbent British would try to squash every uprising, the atrocities doled out, the ideas and thoughts of the great leaders who were leading the movement against the East India Company, and they would be provoked into action themselves. It was the single-most largest non-violent movement for freedom the world has ever seen, and the press had a large role in putting that together.

After independence, the press was still respected to a great extent, as it mirrored the progress of a developing young nation that India was. Bringing forth the rapid changes that the nation was undergoing, to the eyes of the avid reader. But, I, having been reading the newspaper since I was a kid, have seen a huge transformation in the mass media. The papers I started out with were really huge spread-outs with a fresh scent that can only come from a fresh newspaper. The really important news could always be found on the front page, and I would quickly scroll through the politics to get to the last 2 pages - my favourite sports pages. I would turn on the television at 8pm to get this lady with a single rose in her tresses and absurdly loud make-up read out the news to the whole nation, and wrap it up in 20 minutes. That was the dose for the whole day, and on the only channel we had back then!

Whoosh forward to the present day. We have more than 20 national news broadcasters on tv, that dish out news 24 hours a day. The newspaper has bloated into a thicker ream, but smaller in size, and more like a tabloid. It has as many pages dedicated to real nonsense grapevine crap, as to the rest of the news I am used to reading since I was little, and still manage a fistful for classifieds and advertisements. News on the front pages reads - "Superstar walks out of jail on bail", "It's official: Rushdie, Padma to divorce", "Sachin: Caught bad luck, bowled Taufel" and "Munnabhai goes to Gandhi's jail". The sports section is now 4 pages long at least, but 3 of those are dedicated to cricket (non-olympic sport, really just a pastime). Occasionally, we see one Sania Mirza glitz one of the articles. And there is a football section which has news which reads like - "Henry divorces wife and Arsenal", "Ashley gifts Bentley to girlfriend".

News that you can use?

I can now blitz through a newspaper in 10 minutes, because nothing catches my eye. Oh, except for the skimpily clad page 3 damsels of course. I missed them as a kid! Even the televised media isn't too far behind. But, who can blame them? They gotto run all day, everyday, and still get viewers hooked. What do they resort to? I like to liken what they do with what a computer geek does when he/she cant crack a software, or break into a website, or solve a problem in a straighforward way. He/she will "hack" in by any means possible - legal or illegal.

The news reporters seem to do that too now. The latest fad is the "Tehelka" way - hidden cameras and setups to corner unsuspecting victims to divulge vital incarcerating information. Political criminals have been uncovered. The casting couch in the film industry became a matter of public discussion. Saffron-garbed sadhus masquerading as social heroes were unmasked and their exploitation of children and women was exposed. So far, so good.

Now, it seems even this has taken a wild and desperate turn with so many news channels competing for the viewer's roving hand on the remote control. A teacher in Delhi was victimised and somehow revealed as a pimp who brokered kids into prostitution. She was beaten up by parents and sent off to prison for 10 days, before it came to light that there was absolutely no evidence, and that this may just be a sham by the "reporter" - a profound setup.

Bring back my newspaper

I just hope the Indian media doesn't go completely the way of the media in the West. Too often, the British media, for instance, is accused of being "star-struck" and following celebrities around. The news coverage in the US is so biased, that it can never be digested by anyone who ventures in from outside the country. Paparazzis abound in the West. Yet, the freedom of expression does ensure everyone has a voice, and that it can be heard out loud to everyone who wants to hear.

But, shouldn't there be limits to everything? Isn't there something which is off-limits? The Prophet Mohammad for instance. Or Hillary Clinton's low blouse during a speech. I just want my clean old newspaper back. Don't let it be this "one fix for all" thing that delivers news, gossip, and crap all in one single place. Oh and titillaton too for those who need that from their morning newspaper.

I go home to Chennai and find The Hindu on the couch in the morning, and it takes me back to the old days. That's how a newspaper ought to be. Everything has its place. Freedom is only good, when enjoyed by everyone.