Standing up, speaking truth to power, depends entirely to the extent of one’s vulnerabilities to reprisals: Shashi Tharoor
Compiled by Rubaiya Tripty of DOT
Celebrated Indian writer, Member of Parliament and former diplomat Shashi Tharoor recently joined a conversation with The Daily Star on a virtual platform. He spoke on media freedom, regional politics and democracy. Shashi Tharoor expressed confidence on courageous journalists across South Asia who are working boldly in the face of extreme provocations by government. He drew attention to the vulnerabilities a mainstream media faces because of having business interest and in the contrary, how evolution of digital websites intend overcoming those issues. According to him, ”standing up, speaking truth to power, depends entirely to the extent of one’s vulnerabilities to reprisals.” Here we compiled his discussion as regards to press freedom which is contextually meaningful for Bangladesh.
 The truth is our press freedom across South Asia has a number of challenges. On the one hand, it is not as bad as the most pessimistic will describe it to be. They can be minor websites, but the truth is somewhere being told, if you know how to look for it. It is a mixed bag. While it is true that we all in South Asia have governments who would not encourage criticism, it is also true that in the media, there are enough journalists who believe in their mission and have courage.
 Criticism in the media is deemed as being out of touch of the people in reality. The press is hopelessly dismissed as biased, and sold out. I am afraid that contempt is used very often by the government to undermine and dismiss the press. In that atmosphere, how do you speak to the power?
 I think you have to have the courage if you want to run the risks. Some of the most courageous journalism in India is done by digital websites that practically own no property, have no printing press and have only a few employees and use a lot of freelancers, and are often financed by foundations or non-profits or by subscriptions. They are the ones who are the most courageous, because you have very few vulnerabilities, whereas mainstream media invested millions of rupees and also have business interests.
 So, standing up, speaking truth to power, depends entirely to the extent of your vulnerabilities to reprisals. Many of the small independent operations are harassed, have cases and sedition charges filed [against them].
 The reach of social media is something you have to appreciate. I have witnessed the astonishing growth of social media and its ability to transform. We are seeing for example that Mr Modi has made it compulsory for every minister in his cabinet to have a Twitter account, but not made it compulsory for them to hold press conferences.
 There has already been backlash against Twitter’s refusal to shut down certain accounts that issued tweets that the government deemed unacceptable, and the government asked them to shut them down, and Twitter following its own codes, did not shut them down, saying that having reviewed them, the company felt that it wasn’t keeping with its own laws. They might be a private company but they are working in a public space — they have social and political obligations. These are challenging questions that are being debated around the world, but there is no clear answer.
 The parliament gives us space to express our views, which can then have a second life on social media, and so far that has not been stopped. But the difficulty with our democratic institutions in India today, is that it is a sobering matter to realise how easily it can be abridged. We have a fervent nationalism that extols every Indian achievement, real or imagined, such that the mildest protest is labelled anti-national or even seditious.