On Journalism and a Free Press

Text of a message from Abraham George that was delivered at the foundation stone laying ceremony at the proposed journalism institute grounds on Sunday, April 23, 2000.

The proposed IIJNM, modelled on the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism at New York, is an undertaking of the Adi Chunchunagiri Maha Samasthana and The George Foundation. These two organizations joined hands last year to establish BS&G Foundation, a non-profit trust, to start the journalism institute. The first academic year is set to begin in January 2001.

The 28,000 sq ft, Rs 5 crore building will come up on five acres of campus grounds, roughly 3 km off the Bangalore-Mysore highway from Kumbalgod. The institute will have all the modern amenities required of a world-class academic institution, with computers and internet access for all students and faculty. The library will contain books, newspapers, magazines and journals from around the world to offer exposure to quality journalism.

The IIJNM will offer a Diploma programme equivalent to the Masters' curriculum in journalism developed in association with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, home of the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes. It will closely resemble the curriculum offered at Columbia, but will be adapted to suit the requirements of the Indian context.

Initially, the institute will offer courses with special emphasis on print journalism and web publishing. Later, majors in broadcast journalism will also be offered. Students can choose to specialize in areas such as national politics, international reporting, writing on business and economics or arts and culture. They will be involved with in-house publishing of a web newspaper, and work on a magazine. The faculty is being recruited from all over India, and will include visiting professors from abroad.

As a non-profit institution, not associated with the government or private industry, IIJNM will have the independence that is required to preserve freedom of the press. We will train our students to strive for quality in journalism and maintain objectivity, fairness and ethics. IIJNM will give them the tools to practice balanced reporting, in-depth analysis and investigation, and present different points of view.

Why is a strong and free press essential for our democracy? For 50 years after WW2, the world experienced the cold war where everyone's destiny was in the hands of two superpowers. Their two leaders controlled life and death. In the last decade, an even more powerful force often being termed as globalization is replacing cold war. One of the fundamental ingredients of this new force is a combination of computer technology and communication on a global scale. The Internet has brought peoples of the world together - in information, markets, finances and technology. The press is now delivering news in ways more than the printed matter, radio and television. It is reaching out to everyone through the Internet. Now the individual has the power, at least in truly democratic countries, and increasingly so even in less democratic nations, from access to information.

We should try to inject ideas of mutual understanding, tolerance, and spirituality. We need to insist on the notion of a participatory public, as opposed to special interest groups and favors, to allow citizens to be accountable for their own destiny. A public emerges when citizens take part, not when they merely watch. Citizenship is more than voting; it means participating in the dialogue of democracy. Participation does not end with elections. The press is one of the major vehicles of this public dialogue.

Our system of government and public activity has failed to resolve many of the fundamental problems that have constrained us for years. One reason is that our public discourse has become the verbal equivalent of mud wrestling. Indian press needs to reaffirm the principle that it is possible to carry out deep analysis of political actions and their consequences on social life that rational human beings will recognize as being true, regardless of whether the conclusions point adversely on one segment of the society or the other. Lacking such an understanding will continue to alienate each group of people in the name of our separate realities.

People want to know what is happening to them, and what they can do about it. As Bill Moyers put it, millions of people are not apathetic; they want to understand the world around them; and they will respond to a press that stimulates the community without pandering to it, that inspires people to embrace their responsibilities without lecturing or hectoring them, and that engages their better natures without sugarcoating ugly realities or patronizing their foibles.

One of the roles of newspapers and periodicals is to provide a culture of community conversation. The purpose is not just to represent and inform, but to signal, tell a story, and activate inquiry. When the press abandons that function, it no longer stimulates what a great philosopher once termed "the vital habits" of a democracy -- that is, "the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternative purposes that might be pursued".

IIJNM will strive to develop in its students these "vital habits" of a true democracy.

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