– Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ*
23 February 2018
A few days ago a twenty-seven year old poor Adivasi youth was lynched by a mob in the Palakkad District of Kerala for apparently robbing some Rs 200/- worth of foodstuffs; sadistically some others were busy taking selfies at the site, even as the youth was being thrashed to death. India is still trying to come to grips with the Rs.12000 crore Punjab National Bank (PNB) scam in collusion with Nirav Modi. Transparency International has just released its ‘Corruption Perception Index 2017’; India has fallen two notches below from 79th to 81st position out of the 180 countries ranked. India was also singled out as one of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region as one of the “worst offenders” for graft, the denial of freedom of the press and for the murder of some journalists. Corruption, we are aware is today totally mainstreamed in the country today besides the Nirav Modi, there are among many others those of Jay Shah(the son of Amit Shah) and the Rafale deal scam.
According to another recent report, just one percent of the country owns 73% of the wealth. Crony capitalism helps the few rich to become richer, at the expense of the poor. Vast sections of the people especially the farmers, and the casual labourers continue to live on the fringes of society. The dalits, the tribals, women, children, the minorities and other vulnerable groups are not only marginalized but are consistently attacked for their beliefs, for they eat, see, read and wear. The ruling political dispensation is doing all they can, to change fundamental values like ‘secular’ and ‘socialism’ which are enshrined in our Constitution and to replace these with their ‘Hindutva’ ideology. The Judiciary at different levels toe the line of their political bosses. Justice and equality have taken a back-seat in an environment where political patronage provides immunity and impunity to powerful vested interests. Millions are denied their human rights. India has never had it so bad on so many different fronts.
The media is unquestionably regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy, provided it freely and fearlessly exercises the responsibility entrusted to it. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream media in India seem to have abdicated their role and responsibility. By and large, the media is either muzzled or throttled. Those who take a visible stand like Gauri Lankesh, are killed. Some media, blatantly promote the communal ‘Hindutva’ agenda. That a major section of the so-called ‘mainstream media’ in India today is corporatized,co-opted, compromised, corrupted and communalized is without a shade of doubt. But thanks to the advent of social media (particularly some excellent online portals) many of them stand exposed.
In in the wake of what is happening in the country today and the fact that there is much to be desired from secular mainstream media, what are the challenges faced by the Indian Catholic Press today? Can one expect it to play a prophetic role today? A good question to be reflected upon in this month of February which is traditionally been observed as the ‘Catholic Press Month’. The origins of this month can be traced back to the 1950’s in the United States. The objectives for this observance include highlighting the role of the Catholic Press in communicating the teachings and stand of the Catholic Church on crucial matters which affect society today; to uphold and communicate non-negotiable Catholic values like truth, justice, liberty, peace; to provide a forum to express views/ opinions on important issues.
Few in the Catholic Church in India would be aware of this special month. There could be a wide range of reasons for this; the Indian Catholic Press is a ‘limited’ edition with a rather low circulation and confined mainly to Catholic circles; the Catholic Press (both in the vernacular and in English) has hardly played an impacting role both within Church and in wider society. True there are some outstanding Church/Catholic-owned weeklies, monthlies and other periodicals which have certainly made their mark regionally or nationally. Some of them have been consistent in taking a stand for truth and justice and have even risked putting their heads on the chopping block. We have some Catholic lay journalists who are doing an excellent job through online portals; there are some others, who have found their niche in mainstream media. These however are extremely few and can easily be counted.
On 4 December 1963 Pope Paul VI promulgated Inter Mirifica (Decree on the Media of Social Communications) which states, “First, a good press should be fostered. To instill a fully Christian spirit into readers, a truly Catholic press should be set up and encouraged. Such a press-whether immediately fostered and directed by ecclesiastical authorities or by Catholic laymen-should be edited with the clear purpose of forming, supporting and advancing public opinion in accord with natural law and Catholic teaching and precepts. It should disseminate and properly explain news concerning the life of the Church. Moreover, the faithful ought to be advised of the necessity both to spread and read the Catholic press to formulate Christian judgments for themselves on all events (#4)
Though written almost fifty-five years ago, ‘Inter Mirifica’ still serves as the key directional document for Catholic Communications today. Already at that time, the scope of the document included all forms of existing media besides the press, like the TV and the radio; today with the advent of social media, Church social communications necessarily includes that, as is evident in the recent messages for the World Day of Social Communications issued annually by the Holy Father, including the recent one which focuses on ‘truth versus fake news’. Then in January 2004,the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) published their path-breaking statement “Called to be a Communicating Church” – as the outcome of the CBCI General Body Meeting held in Trichur. There is much in theory, but in practice the Indian Catholic Press, has still a long way to go.
The recent CBCI meeting held in Bengaluru (2-9, February) issued a significant statement on the understanding of authentic nationalism and Constitutional secularism; this has been reproduced ‘in verbatim’, by some of our Catholic Press. But that is not enough. Will successive issues of their publications invite diverse opinions on the statement, very especially in the light of what is happening in the country today? This would imply taking an unequivocal stand on sensitive issues. Similarly, the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace held their National Convention in Ranchi (17-19 February) on the theme, ‘Challenges to Secular Democracy in India Today’; what emerged was the “Ranchi Declaration for Justice and Peace” which surely provides a way forward for all. Can our Catholic Press highlight in the coming months some of the key issues addressed by the FORUM?
A prophet is one who announces the ‘good news’ but is also courageous in denouncing all that is wrong both in society and in Church (Jesus denounced the Pharisees, the scribes of his time; Pope Francis does not fight shy of doing so too!) A prophet is never removed from the context and the concerns of the people; s/he does all s/he can to conscientise those who heap heavy burdens on others; above all s/he is resolute in her/his commitment whatever the consequences. The Indian Catholic Press is called today to play this prophetic role! Will they wake up to this challenge?
Note from Isaac:
"No activist or reporter should have to fear for their lives when speaking out against corruption. Given current crackdowns on both civil society and the media worldwide, we need to do more to protect those who speak up."
Very well said but where is the protection for whistle-blowers in India in spite of a law being in place? The same is the fate of bloggers in Bangladesh.
*(Fr Cedric Prakash sj is a human rights activist. He is currently based in Lebanon, engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )