Why you must stand up for Ravi Belagere, even if you don’t know him or don’t like him

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The fragility of India’s media under the control freaks of the modern BJP has attracted critical scrutiny following its surgical strike on NDTV.  But it is high time the national media took closer notice of the Congress dispensation of Siddaramaiah in Karnataka.

In general, no party or politician likes the media except when it suits them (not that we are looking for love), but in particular, the Congress record is dismal, almost abysmal.

It was, after all, Indira Gandhi who introduced press censorship under the Emergency in 1975, and Rajiv Gandhi who moved the Defamation Bill in 1989. And the number of interviews Sonia Gandhi has given can be written on a quarter of a sesame seed.

But under the “socialist” Siddaramaiah’s watch (pun unintended), the relationship of the legislature and the executive with the media has nosedived, with that great pillar of democracy, the judiciary, playing a helpful hand.

Since the Congress came to power in 2013, TV stations have been blacked out; citing court orders, police have imposed gag orders on reporting or telecast of crime incidents; the home minister has gagged the police; the education minister has gagged teachers, etc.

All that pales in front of the pressure on the media from the legislature, with the Speaker of the legislative assembly, K.B. Koliwad, emerging as the central, even polarising, figure in a frontal assault on the media.

# In March, Koliwad announced the formation of a House Committee to frame rules and regulations for the news media to prevent them from sensationalising trivial family disputes, crime, and ghost stories for increasing TRPs (television rating point).

# This week, Koliwad instructed police to arrest the editors of two Kannada tabloids if they failed to surrender, for publishing articles deemed “defamatory” by the House Privileges’ Committee.

Thankfully, MLAs appointed to the House Committee in the first case realised the slippery path on which the Speaker wanted them to walk and backed off after the resultant media furore.

In the second instance, surely there are fumes of conflict in Koliwad, as Speaker, pronouncing a verdict in 2017 on a complaint Koliwad, as MLA, had filed in 2014?

If editors Ravi Belagere and Anil Raju defamed the Speaker and his legislator-colleagues, it is a matter for the courts to decide, on merit, not for the House Privileges Committee, where the game is per se loaded to put the accused on the mat.

But one year in jail for refusing to appear before the Privileges’ Committee?

Was the Committee even aware of Belagere’s physical condition?

A couple of questions deserve answers: What is the Privileges’ Committee’s jurisdiction in taking up an “offence” which took place outside the House? Can every journalistic investigation thus be blocked by an MP or MLA citing “privilege”?

Tabloid editors do not enjoy the best of reputations, and perhaps the reputation of Ravi Belagere, a colourful, controversial, multimedia star, probably our very best wordsmith, comes in the way of journalists rushing to his defence.

But defend, we must.

Not Ravi Belagere, the person, but Ravi Belagere, the Editor. The two are different. You may dislike his publication, dislike its prurient pursuits, dislike its gossip and scandal mongering. You may have heard stories and rumours of his libertine lifestyle, whatever.

None of that matters before the larger principle of justice.

It is no one’s case that the media is beyond scrutiny, accountability or reproach. But what is remarkable in Karnataka is the use of out-of-the-box methods to prevent the message from getting out, or to bring erring media personnel to book.

That, we must stand up against and protest.

That said, it is amazing that Siddaramaiah, a smart, earthy politician, should want to rack up so many enemies in the media in an election year because of the actions of the Speaker. Either he is unaware or unconcerned—both are sad reflections on him.

And to think he has not one but two media advisors, both former journalists.

Equally disappointingly, the BJP, whose leading lights claim to have cut their political teeth in the Emergency, is silent when the media in Karnataka is being asked not just to crawl but to slip under the carpet. It is complicit in this dastardly game.

At the entrance of the Vidhana Soudha, the seat of power in Karnataka, is the slogan “Government’s Work is God’s Work”. When atheists are at work inside its dark corridors and cubicles, it is only journalism which can throw light.

If it is fettered, it is “We, the People” who are losers.

Screenshot: courtesy The Telegraph