Monday, April 15, 2013

The other corruption

Anna Hazare is on a 'jantantra' (democracy) yatra these days. A nationwide tour that intends to last 18 months and aims to overthrow the current government. And I'm wondering what this really means. What will blow in after the UPA blows out? Anyway, I agree with Hazare on one point. He talks of a mass movement as the only solution to the rot in our system.

I agree, because part of the corruption is rooted in the masses. Besides, there are two kinds of corruption. One is the sort that gets protested, usually linked to the government – loot of public money and/or natural resources.

The other is the corruption of silence – watching someone else fight but refusing to do anything to help him.

One reason I'm thinking this is TA Rajendran. I hadn’t heard of him until after his death. Rajendran had started a newspaper called 'Nawab', where he exposed all kinds of corruption, until he began to be called 'Nawab Rajendran'. But he was arrested, beaten up, and eventually had to shut down the paper. All his life, he fought against corruption, filing Public Interest Ligitation cases (this was before the RTI act), including some against the former Chief Minister, K. Karunakaran.

And yet, he did not even have a home or a fixed address. It seems that people would write letters to him, with the Kochi court as his address. For all his 'popularity' Rajendran died poor, in 2003. And he was powerless to revive or sustain an independent newspaper.

I bring this up now since there's an ongoing debate about media ethics. The Election Commission of India has made moves towards controlling ‘paid news’ through a Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC). It is supposed to work at both state and district levels, at least during the next polls in Karnataka. Similar committees have been formed in Haryana and Gujarat.

The problem is that corruption is built into our media systems. TV channels and newspapers depend on advertising from governments and private businesses. This ensures profits, small or large, but it also means they cannot survive without advertisements.

The alternative is that citizens pay enough for news editors and journalists to remain independent. I don’t know how many people see news as necessary to the functioning of our society but most Indians don't pay enough for news. Subsidies on newsprint and real estate don't cover the cost of news gathering and distribution. One or two or five rupees does not cover it.

That's why independent papers and websites shut down. People who run them have to pay rent, eat, sleep, commute, send kids to school. It is too much to ask that they work towards truth when society doesn’t seem to value it.

Sometimes I think, corruption is like bullying. A bully hits someone. He (or she) gets away with it. He does it again. Others notice. They also start bullying the smaller kids. Teachers could interfere, but the bullying kids are possibly rich; their fees enable salaries. The victims' parents don’t interfere for fear their child might be penalized or ostracized. So the bullying continues.

One way to fix this is, a large number of parents start protesting. But they must also follow this up by supporting teachers who do intervene, those who stand up for justice. This means putting your money where your mouth is and paying their salaries, if needed.

The same principle applies to media. We cannot have real democracy if people like Nawab Rajendran suffer violence, trying to exposing corruption, while the rest of us subscribe to newspapers filled with advertisements, devoting ourselves to the private lives of film actors.

An edited version was published here.

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