Australia's dubious common ground with India

Press Freedom - Flickr image by Andreas_MB'Respected columnist', began the email. 'In view of the recent press gag and the subsequent developments of harassment and intimidation, you are requested to avoid anything that can complicate the problem for the newspaper. We will prefer these days some off beat and apolitical subjects till the crisis are over. Hope you co-operate.'

Just prior to this email I had, in true Gen Y style, lol’d (internet slang for laughing out loud) at my Indian-journalist-friend after reading that the Government of India had requested that all newspapers on their side of Kashmir 'refrain from the publication of objectionable and seditious material'. Watch your step, I had advised with all the wisdom of my 24 years, lol. Then came the email from the editor of the Kashmir-based English language daily he writes for. This was followed by a visit from local police to the Greater Kashmir printing press during which the inquisitive officers refused to reveal their names, the name of the police station they were from, or the purpose of their evening rendezvous. On 7 November, all copies of the newspaper and its Urdu sister publication, Kashmir Uzma, were seized from vendors in the state capital of Srinagar.

Having lived in Australia (this wide, brown, and of course, democratic land of ours) for most of my life, I had not previously been confronted by a press gag. As I hammered out university newspaper articles championing freedom from this, and justice for that, it did not occur to me to consider what I might do if the government suddenly told me to shut up, or else. Press freedom is something I have always taken for granted. I was, therefore, somewhat surprised to learn that Australia ranked only 28th in the 2008 annual Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index, behind New Zealand (7th), the UK (23rd) and Canada (13th). The report went so far as to describe sentences provided for under Australia’s anti-terror laws as 'simply outrageous'; journalists interviewing a person suspected of terrorism risk up to five years in jail.

Recently there has been a lot of fuss made over the emergence of India as a major world power and what this means for Australia. A stronger partnership, increased economic ties, and a more dynamic and active relationship have been promoted on both sides of the Indian Ocean. It is not just cricket and a shared love of uranium that connects us, either; we are both democracies. India, that self-proclaimed bastion of this form of government, is very proud of the fact that it is one of the few Asian examples of a deeply rooted democratic system. Just ask them about it — they’ll tell you. Australians too seem quietly smug about our liberal democratic status in a region filled with, well, other types of government. The significance of our shared political systems is relatively straight forward. As Walter Cronkite so succinctly put it, 'freedom of the press is not just important to democracy; it is democracy'.

The Government of India has threatened to withdraw any newspaper that violates its latest behavioural recommendations from the list of approved publications for Government advertisements. This scenario should sound eerily familiar to Western Australians who, just this May, witnessed their state government’s blackmailing of the management of The West Australian newspaper. The state’s attorney general threatened to withdraw public advertising from the paper in response to its decidedly judgemental editorial position towards the local government. So it seems that India, which ranks a somewhat embarrassing 118th on RSF’s report, behind the likes of Sierra Leone (114th) and Venezuela (113th), and ourselves here in Australia, have found something else that connects us.

An open media is one of the most powerful guardians of our rights and our freedom. As the Australian Journalists Association Code of Ethics asserts, 'respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists describe society to itself…They inform and animate democracy'. Australia has no one to blame for our RSF ranking other than ourselves. We are one of a very small handful of states that do not have a legal instrument (either a constitutional or statutory bill of rights) that describes the extent of its citizens' freedoms, including freedom of speech, and we have failed to question our decidedly undemocratic media laws, particularly those related to anti-terrorism.

By being cognisant of, and remarking upon, India’s recent conduct in Kashmir (just as Prime Minister Rudd has frequently admonished China for their poor human rights record), Australia might become more conscious of its own position regarding freedom of the press. Perhaps then next year our cricket-loving friend might crack the top 100, and we ourselves might make it to 27th — we can but hope.
Kimberley ClaytonKimberley Layton is Canberra-based freelance writer and a recent honours graduate in International Relations from the Australian National University.





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Existing comments

The Indian Govt is doing the right thing in Kashmir. If they wish to win the next elections in 5-6 months time, they will have to do more.

Chandra | 13 November 2008  

Living in Western Australia, I was completely in favour of the Govt boycott of the West Australian. I felt the articles they were publishing were totally biased and only bad news of the government. Their pressure for an election and support of the opposition did not seem like fair reporting to me. I knew there were good news stories but these were never printed, but instead there was a constant hounding of the Attorney General in particular - he is my local member and I respect his integrity in a difficult situation.
I am normally very supportive of press freedom, but there needs to be a balance and when there is only one newspaper in the state this is difficult.

Marie Wilson | 13 November 2008  

Kimberley statesd: "As the Australian Journalists Association Code of Ethics asserts, 'respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists describe society to itself…They inform and animate democracy'.
I would suggest very strongly that 'respect for truth' is not displayed by our newspapers.
The claim that 'Journalists describe society to itself..' is also a myth. Newspapers are very selective in the bits and pieces they use to 'describe society itself'.
Journalists and newspapers have to earn respect. They do not have it currently.

Ron | 13 November 2008  

Ms Layton, Your article in itself proves what biased reporting is. Whats the issue in GOI safeguarding its sovereinity. I really do not understand why you are so interested in a far flung area. .

Arun | 13 November 2008  

There are cultural factors coming into play in instances of Press and other 'freedom' issues. Indians (I might be biased here, I am an Australian-Indian) are generally free. And they have been handling Islam for the last several hundred years while the West is dealing with Islam only in recent times. There is a lot of history to what Indians do.

Chockalingam | 13 November 2008  

One of the great things about on line journals such as Eureka, is that they do not depend on Government advertising. This it is evident to me, results in independent untarnished reporting. Good stuff.

Steve Carey | 13 November 2008  

Freedom of the press may well flourish better under democracy than under a dictatorship, but it is not democracy in itself. Democracy is a means for replacing regimes without the necessity for bloodshed. The first time that happened seems to have been the accession of King David, but it didn't happen again for a long time after.

Michael Grounds | 13 November 2008  

I wish to support Ron's comment. The media are remarkably selective in their reporting of events - sadly even the ABC can fall into that trap. Democracy does not depend on the Media but it sure does help. My suggestion-Media and Reporters, Sub Editors and Editors lift your game!

Gavin O'Brien | 14 November 2008  

Hi Kimberley. Are you telling me that UAE, Bhutan, Namibia, Jamaica, Ghana, Kuwait, Qatar, etc etc have higher standards of press freedom than India??

I am sure this report must be talking about other parameters, and not freedom of speech. India is a free country (according to Freedom House), whereas many of the countries above ranking of India are actually not free.

Abhay Dang | 22 November 2008  


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