Why The Fourth Pillar?
Why is an independent press the fourth pillar of democracy? Is it not the fourth pillar of autocracy? Is it not the fourth pillar of dictatorship? Is it not the fourth pillar of a communist government? What will happen to democracy if there is no free press?
It is time to give a very serious thought to these questions in any democracy, but more so in India. The conduct of more than one state governments in the last decade has flung this question in the face of too much arrogance, autocracy, plutocracy, party politics and community of fixers.
Now the answer to the questions: the free press is the fourth pillar of democracy because the other three may form a nexus for good or temporarily according to political expediency. Democracy sits on a throne which has four strong pillars: Legislature, Executive, Judiciary and Free Press. If one of these pillars falls down, democracy suffers. While the legislature exercises self-oversight through public debates in the House and has to seek the mandate of the voters every five years, the executive is watched closely by the legislature and is subject to judicial scrutiny for all its acts. However, the judiciary largely goes about its responsibilities without any such oversight or supervision; it survives the dissolution of both the legislature and the executive. There is a subtle way of keeping a hawk’s eye on the working of the judiciary. But the press is independent to scrutinize every organ of democracy (the other three pillars). It is for this reason that a free press is called the fourth pillar of democracy.
While every organ of democracy has been contaminated to varied degrees in India, as also in many other advance countries, television has infected the press and lowered its prestige irrevocably. Viewers have no other option but to switch off the television rather than consume intense negativity wrapped in TV news and debates full of lies and malignant agenda. The famed “independence of the press” stands compromised today. News has become big business and filthy news becomes huge commercial success. The integrity of journalists is so low that many of them have become metaphors for corruption and doubtful integrity. The result is that the strongest Fourth Pillar has collapsed at the altar of political business, forfeiting public trust in its independence or objectivity or non-partisan reporting. Journalists can’t be blamed as no one is free or independent but subservient to his/her employer and depends on them for the job. In the early years of democracy in India, the editors used to dictate terms to the employers and were not pliable, but today they can be fired any time if they refuse to obey and do the news as demanded by the owners.
There are many subjects that are included in the State List under the Constitution of India, where the executive authority vests in the state government. Police is one of them and instances are aplenty of misuse of the police in intimidating, harassing, coercing or arresting journalists for showing the spine.
The free press is more or less a dead idea in democratic India. If an occasional or accidental independent and free journalist continues to be threatened and harmed, the public is bound to rebel. The people of India don’t tolerate autocratic behaviour of officers or the ministers of any rank.. Attempts to silence are going to prove counterproductive.
Such conflicts regularly arise in one part or the other in India since democratic values are routinely violated by autocratic politicians and bureaucrat advisors. While the people seek justice, the political parties can ill afford to dispense justice. They are always selective. The police are not independent but function under the state government. If the police are unable to do justice to a citizen, the victim has the fundamental right to seek justice from the court. But here lies the catch: the judicial process is tardy and costly for the common man who is deterred from going to the court against the establishment.
In the end though, the people punish such acts severely humbling the arrogant autocrats. Rise and decline of standards of public morality is a reality of democracy which survives on numbers. If the dishonest win more numbers they come to rule and make laws which they never follow but use them to harass the voters. If honest people win the mandate, they are targeted, abused, maligned, vilified and attacked to destabilise the government. A decadent, moribund, spineless press/media comes to their help by indulging in false news, fake narratives and hate campaigns.