The other day The Wire and The Crosscurrent jointly published an investigative report which alleged grabbing of land by the close family members of the incumbent chief minister of Assam.  They also published certain materials in the report in support of their allegations.

This means the allegations were not wild and farfetched. Once this became public, a few political parties held press conferences addressing the issue and they demanded further actions from the government on the issue. In normal circumstances, such press conferences are aired live by the television channels or otherwise. The print media cover it in the morning newspapers the next day. In this case, the mainstream television channels didn’t air the news at all and there was no trace of this in the morning newspapers the next day.

Now how do we react to this? Did anything like this happen in the history of Assam barring the Emergency? No, never. There was an allegation of corruption against the close family members of the incumbent chief minister. The allegations were yet to be investigated and proved. And nobody was asking the media to implicate the Chief Minister in it. But still, the news was blacked out by the mainstream media. They didn’t publish or air it. This was unprecedented. That is why in the media history of independent Assam, December 8 and 9 would go as black days. The question is–has this happened suddenly? No, it has not happened suddenly. This muzzling of the media started a long time back. It started with the coming of the BJP government at the Centre seven years before. In Assam the day publicly arrived only on the 8th of December. Before that, it was going on unofficially. And there was a thin veneer of media freedom. On December 8, it disappeared completely.

But why has the media done it? By the way, what is the general perception of the media among people? Without any survey, it is unfair to comment on it. But there are strong allegations against a large section of print and electronic media that they often air and print stories without factual basis and verification of sources. There are also allegations of fabrication of stories and blackmailing. Perhaps these are all open secrets.

In the present case, nobody can say that they didn’t air or publish the news because they were yet to verify and authenticate the allegations against the close family member of the chief minister. It was not the case. The simple thing is they blacked it out because they were scared to air and publish something where the names of the chief minister’s close family members were involved. They simply did not have the guts to do it.

Now, what do you make out of it? As in elsewhere in the country, the state of media is not healthy in Assam too. But all this time they had not faced such a situation and they were able to show people that they were maintaining some sort of press freedom. However, the media observers in Assam were clear in their minds that the media in Assam was in a bad state and often it was acting like the mouthpiece of the ruling party and government.

After this incident, all that pretense of media freedom is gone now.  With this incident, the mainstream media in Assam has proved beyond doubt that they have compromised with the basic principle of press freedom. It is true and unfortunate that the development of information technology has drastically affected the media industry all over the world. On top of that, the Coronavirus has ravaged it. It is yet to bounce back to the pre-COVID days. But that does not mean that the fundamental principle of media or for that matter, the notion of press freedom has changed.

The developments around us have sharpened the basic principles of media freedom and intensified them further. There are new challenges on the horizon. To play a purposeful role in society the media must address them. It is also true that for its survival the mainstream media must be more resilient. But this cannot be done at the cost of basic principles of press freedom. The basic principles of press freedom are non-negotiable under any circumstances.

It is now established that the mainstream media could not pass this litmus test on the issue of alleged land scam by the close family member of the incumbent chief minister on December 8 and 9. Then what happens to the media in Assam after this?  This is a crucial question. We knew earlier too that the media in Assam was compromising with the truth. But this incident has made the media completely naked.

There is no veneer now. Everything has come to open. The media in Assam may do all kinds of things to hide it. Yet its nakedness has become glaring and blatant in the eyes of the public. Where do we go from here? The media has taught us that from now onward we should not trust it. I am sure the show will continue, but without any glory and self-respect. By this act, the media in Assam has diminished its credibility and now everybody will look down upon it. As the cliché goes the latest incident was the last nail in the coffin.

Paresh Malakar

Paresh Malakar is a commentator based in Guwahati. He can be reached at: malakarparesh@gmail.com