It was on November 12, 1947 that Mahatma Gandhi was requested to broadcast on All India Radio an address to refugees from Pakistan facing trauma and suffering caused by the partition of India and were housed in a camp in Kurukshetra. It was his second live broadcast over the radio and the first and only live broadcast on All India Radio.
Since 2000 the date has been observed as Public Service Broadcasting Day, for which Suhas Borker deserves commendation for taking the initiative.
Gandhiji first delivered a live broadcast from London through Columbia Radio, addressing Americans in the 1930s. When he went inside the studios and faced the microphone and was asked to speak he innocently asked, “Shall I speak to it?”
Seventeen years later when he used the microphone in the studios of the AIR to address refugees he narrated his experience to newspaper correspondents, describing microphone broadcasting in his speech as “a wondrous thing”, a manifestation of Shakti and of “the miraculous power of God.” This description underlined the enormous impact and significance of the print and electronic media in shaping our destiny.
The live broadcast was a landmark event in the history of broadcasting in the world. An extraordinarily brilliant communicator, editor and writer, Gandhiji wanted to visit the refugees personally, mingle with them and feel their pain and suffering. But due to the pressure of work he could not go there, and was therefore persuaded to address them through the radio.
We all know that as a communicator his impact on masses surpassed the impact of great writers and the radio and print media journalists of that era. Today, when media power is manifested in many shapes and forms, we realise the Shakti which Gandhiji could see in a simple microphone in 1947. The restraint and discipline Gandhiji exercised as a communicator, journalist, editor, correspondent and writer is now needed to use the print, electronic and social media for the public good.
It is less well known that Gandhiji’s first individual satyagraha, which he began before launching the Quit India Movement in 1942, was the only satyagraha launched by him for defending press freedom, which was suppressed by the British with all their might because of the Second World War, in which India had been dragged to participate without regard to its willingness to do so.
Gandhiji wrote extensively about non-violence during that period, writings the British Government censored on the grounds that he did not have the freedom to write and reflect on non-violence when war had begun and India had ‘joined’ the war. Gandhiji protested against the decision and refused to submit to censorship. Therefore, just before starting the individual satyagraha he described press freedom as the foundation of Swaraj, and asked people to suffer and sacrifice for defending this foundation.
As early as 1927 Gandhi wrote, ‘Is it necessary to conduct newspapers at any cost? Is the good that they do so great as to outweigh the evil that mischievous advertisements cause? We have a journalists’ association. Is it not possible through it to cultivate a uniform code of morals among them and to create a public opinion that would make it impossible for a respectable journal to violate the prescribed code?’ Profound thoughts for the twenty-first century media to reflect upon.
It is ironic that as the nation commemorates Public Service Broadcasting Day we witness a severe assault on press freedom, which is the foundation of Swaraj. With rare exceptions the media as an institution is increasingly controlled by the powers that be, and the corporates, and we are confronted with a sinister phenomenon, shaped by fake news, paid news, the ’embedded media’, alternative facts and screaming and shouting substituting for reasoned discussion.
The satyagraha Gandhiji launched in 1941 to defend press freedom assumes critical relevance today, at a time when India occupies the 138th position in a well regarded freedom of press index, on a descending scale of 180 countries. India is also one of the 14 countries worldwide where impunity for violence against the press is considered to be ‘entrenched’, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The exemplary role played by Mahatma Gandhi as a brilliant communicator and the high benchmark he set for constructive use of the media for awakening people’s consciousness for the cause of non-violence, freedom, liberation, empowerment, and above all for positive social change, is of abiding relevance for our troubled times.
A few days after the government decided to commemorate November 12 as Public Service Broadcasting Day, then President K.R. Narayanan admiringly referred to the move in his speech on the role of the media in preparing people to cope with natural disasters. He very thoughtfully invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s first live radio broadcast in 1947, saying, “In the 21st century in a well wired and connected world, Gandhiji would have expected us to render better service to people by using the miraculous powers of space technology, information technology, electronic media and many other channels for faster communication”.
Today the publicness of the media is diminishing because of increasing control by large corporations. It is important to restore and defend press freedom by learning lessons from Gandhi’s life and work, and to use the media for public causes and in the public interest.