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On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Daily Star, renowned Indian writer, novelist, politician and parliamentarian, Shashi Tharoor, speaks to editor Mahfuz Anam on press freedom in South Asia.

Introducing Shashi Tharoor as an eminent writer, eloquent debater, emerging voice from the region, a role model for youth, a voice of ethics and conscience, the Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam invited him to speak on issues pertaining to the media, democracy, politics, values and more.

“You are a writer of eminence, delving into the world of ethics, morality, but as a politician you have to be practical, make compromises. How do you navigate between writing and politics?” Mahfuz Anam asked, setting the ball rolling on an intense, informative and interesting conversation.

“It is not easy at all,” Shashi Tharoor replied frankly, but explained that when he sees the world, he wants to write, but then he wants to do something, act too. So it overlaps. But, he emphasised, “Politics takes precedence. I have duty to the constituency. But I never forget the writer to me. I am a former minister, one day will be a former MP, but never a former writer.”

He said there were compromises and contradictions, because there was no guarantee that your convictions and that of the party will always be the same. “I am loyal to the party, but I do not allow myself to say things I do not believe. I go silent if I do not believe what the party is advocating. That is the kind of compromise I am willing to make, not beyond that.”

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Coming to the matter of media freedom in the region, Shashi Tharoor said, “Press freedom in South Asia has a number of challenges, but it might not be as bad as a pessimists say. Even in Pakistan when there was military rule, there were courageous journalists. In Bangladesh too, there was the Daily Star and Prothom Alo. In India, while much of the media was accused of being sold out and making compromises, but the truth is still being told. It’s a mixed bag.” The South Asian governments don’t encourage criticism, but there are fearless journalists who stand up, he added.

Press freedom in South Asia has a number of challenges, but it might not be as bad as a pessimists say. Even in Pakistan when there was military rule, there were courageous journalists. In Bangladesh too, there was the Daily Star and Prothom Alo
Shashi Tharoor, Indian writer, novelist, politician and parliamentarian

Tharoor went on to say that the countries in South Asia were democracies, often fragile. And all the governments had a certain level of insecurity. He pointed out that a conceptual element in western journalism was that the press had to be antagonistic. It is the job of the media to question the government. This adversarial culture was built into journalism.

In India now, he went on to say, we have a populist leader who has contempt for media. The advent of social media has been a blessing for a leader like that. He goes directly to the people through the social media. He is the first prime minister since independence who has never held a press conference. He gives interviews to only hand-picked interviewers, the questions and answers are scripted, pure theatre. He does not feel he owes accountability to the media. This is a disappointing and dangerous trend.

Mahfuz Anam then picked up the issue of social media and its impact.

A democratic government has checks and balance, pointed out Mahfuz Anam, but in recent times the executive has been dominating the judiciary and the legislative. Checks and balance has diminished greatly

“This is something that no one can turn back,” Shashi Tharoor responded. “Mr Modi has made it compulsory for all his ministers to have Twitter and Facebook accounts. Mainstream press is secondary in the government’s approach.”

He pointed out there was no editorial control on social media and so anyone could reinforce their narrative as they want.

“In Bangladesh, social media is controlled by a severely restrictive law, the Digital Security Act. Is there anything like that in India?” asked the Daily Star editor.

We have a 19th century act and some more recent rules and this needs updating, responded Tharoor. He said, “In India there is a fairly advanced and sophisticated technological space.” The government struggles to control all that. They have made Twitter shut down several accounts.

A democratic government has checks and balance, pointed out Mahfuz Anam, but in recent times the executive has been dominating the judiciary and the legislative. Checks and balance has diminished greatly.

“As long as there is democratic space in our countries,” responded Tharoor, “and media that is willing to stand up, it need not be that way.” But we are caught up in a dangerous space in our politics, he said. The government feels the people have voted for them, so who is the media?

“The media in India is easily intimidated,” he said, “Stories disappear overnight from respectable media outlets. And many media houses are owned by people with other businesses and so the owners feel threatened, their other businesses are at stake.”

Tharoor said he was disappointed too. He said India didn’t want to antagonise Myanmar. Myanmar has natural gas and also the capacity to be a nuisance. In the past in channeled China’s funds to insurgents and so India didn’t want to jeopardise relations with Myanmar

“Where is democracy going?” asked Mahfuz Anam, raising questions of technology, surveillance, money and populism.

Shashi Tharoor didn’t hesitate to say politics was going in a bad direction. COVID has increased surveillance and the apps being used also give the government the legitimacy to survey and scan faces even of people in innocent protest rallies. Social media was empowering for democracy, but now it was undemocratising.

About parliament, he said that when a government has a decisive majority, it doesn’t bother to listen, so at least the parliament is a space to speak out. But many of the democratic qualities of India has been abridged.

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What about the return of religion-based politics or religion in politics, asked Mahfuz Anam. This was seen in Pakistan, in Myanmar (against the Rohingyas), in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Even in India which was a constitutionally secular country, religion had returned to politics with a vengeance.

Shashi Tharoor said that while Pakistan was founded on the basis of religion, India rejected this tenet, but now this was being questioned. “India was a country that respected all religions equally, but a communal virus is now spreading in Indian politics.”

Coming to the bigger picture of regional politics, Mahfuz Anam said that the whole world is talking about the Asian Century, with China and India rising. As a neighbour, though, Bangladesh has trepidations about tensions between India and China. The arms race will divert resources from poverty alleviation and other areas.

“We want to have peaceful and good relations with China. Our trade with China went up from 200 million dollars to 100 billion dollars. We were willing to ignore our differences and concentrate of prosperity,” said Tharoor, adding that China had abandoned that approach. “It is belligerent, flexing its muscles. It has taken large chunks of Bhutan, killed 20 of our jawans. That is unacceptable. We are united with the government on this head. You should ask the Chinese about these matters.”

About the Rohingya issue, Mahfuz Anam said that India had disappointed Bangladesh by remaining on both sides of the fence, rather than backing Bangladesh.

Tharoor said he was disappointed too. He said India didn’t want to antagonise Myanmar. Myanmar has natural gas and also the capacity to be a nuisance. In the past in channeled China’s funds to insurgents and so India didn’t want to jeopardise relations with Myanmar.

Finally, how does media speak to the power, asked Mahfuz Anam, when we see power defines what is the truth, controls the flow of information.

“We see this in India all the time where criticism in the media is deemed as being issued by people out of touch with reality,” said Shashi Tharoor. He said, “The press is dismissed as biased and sold to the “sickularists” as secularists are termed. News is dismissed as fake and dispensed by “presstitutes”, another word used by a BJP minister. That contempt which is strongly held by the government is used very often too undermine and demand the press. In that atmosphere, how do you speak the truth? You have to basically have strong convictions. It helps if you are willing to run the risks that come with it. Some of the most courageous journalism in India today is being done by digital websites that have no property, have no printing press, employ very few full time staff, use a lot of freelancers and are financed by foundations or subscriptions. They are courageous because they have fewer vulnerabilities. Very often courageous lawyers represent them.”

“The battle is worth waging. I wish you the courage to wage the battle,” he concluded.

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