Rama Chandra Panda is currently working as the Advisor to the Department of Agriculture, Government of Odisha. A septuagenarian leader, age sits light on his shoulders. He was a practising lawyer. He had begun his career in public life as a student leader. He launched a farmers’ movement opposing pollution in 1971 and was imprisoned with 400 farmers and students in Ganjam. He had appeared at his examination within the four walls of the Berhampur Central Jail. He is widely acclaimed for launching the Rushikulya-Mahanadi link movement for the first time from 2000 to 2014. As Deputy Speaker of the State Assembly in 2000-2004, he delivered some landmark rulings. As a moralist to the core, he resigned from the post of Deputy Speaker when Opposition raised questions over a five-minute delay in arrival in the House. This exemplary conduct of Panda has immensely contributed to the ethical tradition for men in public life. A prolific writer, a noted columnist, Panda is also a votary of freedom of Press who holds the freedom of speech and expression sacrosanct for a vibrant democracy in the country.
In an interview to The Pioneer, Panda spoke to Sugyan Choudhury ahead of the 68th National Press Day to be celebrated on November 16, 2023.
You were in past a journalist for two decades for the Odia daily ‘The Samaja’. How do you conceive the role of media in a democracy?
Jefferson, who was President of USA, once declared, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Jawaharlal Nehru echoed similar views as he said, “I would rather have a completely free press, with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom, than a suppressed or regulated press.” Therefore, freedom of press is fundamental to sustain democracy and freedom for which the freedom fighters activated journalist activities even at the cost of suffering torture under British Government.
How effective was press during freedom struggle?
During British India, many English papers were supporters of the colonial government. To counter such a scenario, a foreign-born Indian, BG Horniman and his friends took charge of publication of a newspaper, “Bombay Chronicle”, in the year 1913 to expose increasing torture of imperial government but were forcibly deported to England. He had formed a “Bharatiya Press Sangh” to unite pressmen which still exists. Similarly, another historic personality, Augustus Hickey published his newspaper “Bengal Gazette” in 1780 and for criticism of British Government his news paper and the press were seized and he was imprisoned for criticising the British Government. According to him, unless a newspaper frees itself from inducement of commercial advertisement, it would not fulfil its obligation as a free newspaper committed to spread information. Mahatma Gandhi was a crusader of press freedom and had established the newspaper “Indian Opinion” in 1903 in South Africa to fight against racial discrimination. On return to India and after he took leadership of the freedom struggle, he published “Young India” weekly magazine and was arrested on 10-03-1922 for writing articles critical of the British administration. Several other freedom fighters and reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy published Sambad Kaumudi; Bal Gangadhar Tilak published Kesari; Bipin Chandra Pal Paridarshak, Maulana Azad Al-Hilal, etc. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was arrested under sedition law in July 1908 for his writings in Kesari against highhandedness of British officials. Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das to propagate ideas of freedom and Gandhiji’s struggle published The Samaja in 04-10-1919 from Satyabadi as a weekly magazine and was subsequently arrested in 1921 and 1922 and imprisoned for about two years for writing on misconduct of British officials.
In the context of growing intolerance to dissent, how do you visualise the future of media in our country?
Unfortunately, media today suffers from disunity and due to corporatisation of many print and electronic media. Only enlightened public opinion and ethically committed media would be a proper check to the current trend. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru appreciated media criticism as he championed the cause of freedom whereas during rule of his daughter Indira Gandhi the free press was muzzled under the iron curtain of Emergency. In the Constituent Assembly, there was a debate to secure freedom of Press, but no specific provision was specifically made under the nomenclature of “Press Freedom” as Article 19(1)(a) gave wide power to freedom of speech and expression which covered freedom to speech, publish and circulate to which Dr Ambedkar in his explanation said that the above provision is enough to secure freedom of individual as well as the press in co-equal term. However after Independence, the colonial sedition law was misused in several cases to arrest citizens and media personalities for their views opposite to the ruling class which would be evident from the fact that while the number of sedition cases in 2000 stood at 47, it jumped to 70 in 2018 and 93 in 2019. After 77 years of India’s Independence, political leaders and parties had failed to abrogate the colonial law of sedition while the Supreme Court in a historic judgment in May 2022 suspended the sedition law after 162 years long misuse of this law both in post and pre-Independence. Much of the misuse of law relating to voice of dissent after Independence is mostly due to a divided press and a fragmented opposition.