The then Governor-General, Warren Hastings, who headed the East India Company in India, said in a notification of November 14, 1780: Public notice is hereby given that the Bengal Gazette has lately been found to contain several improper paragraphs tending to vilify private characters and to disturb the peace of the English settlement. It is no longer permitted to be circulated through the channel of the General Post Office”.
In a private letter to a friend in Britain a little later, Hastings wrote that he wanted none to oppose his authority, “to discourage his designs, to encourage disobedience and foment popular odium against me. In a word, I shall have power, and I will employ it”.
Many, many rulers in India have thought the same, but not many journalists have had Hicky’s guts. He wrote in third person after Hastings’ decree: Before he will bow, cringe or fawn to any of his oppressors…he would compose ballads and sell them through the streets of Calcutta as Homer did. He has now but three things to lose: his honor in the support of his paper, his liberty and his life: the two latter he will hazard in defense of the former, for he is determined to make it a scourge of all schemers and leading tyrants…Shall I tamely submit to the yoke of slavery and wanton oppression. No !”
Hicky’s resolve became more determined. His criticism of Hastings and the Chief Justice, Elijah Impey, got harsher. There was an attempt to kill Hicky. In June 1781, he was jailed, something that the Chief Minister of the Southern Indian State tried when she was infuriated by the Indian newspaper some months ago.
However, Hicky was made up of stern stuff: he continued to publish his Gazette even when he was in jail. His attacks on Hastings and Impey grew more pointed, and they not only imposed a crippling fine on him, but also seized his printing machines and types. Hicky’s Bengal Gazette died in March 1782.
Various writers of Indian history have hailed Hicky’s courage, and one would like to point out here that, by and large, Indian media, both the printed and the visual, appear to have lost the verve and the enthusiasm to do a Hicky. Often commerce rule over ethics.
A bold new film from India’s Bollywood, Page Three, (often the celebrity watch page of the country’s newspapers, certainly the English-language ones,), narrates in a fictionalized form how a newspaper baron overrules his editor’s wish to publish a story on child abuse by a leading industrialist saying that the newspaper depends on the business house for advertising revenue!
This is unfortunately the general scene in India where journalistic principles and morals are forgotten and ignored, because money cannot be made by displeasing those in power (in India governments place a lot of advertisements in the media) and those running huge commercial empires.
Hicky cared little for authority, and he dared to lose. He languished in prison for 19 months, while his wife and children starved. All for the cause of Press freedom.
(Posted on this website on February 1 2005)
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