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“AMU helped shape and made me who I am”: Frank F. Islam

Mr. Frank F. Islam Speech at the Inauguration of Auditorium at AMU Department of Mass Communication- October 2019

Indian American philanthropist Frank Islam made these remarks during a ceremony where some 200 foreign nationals took the oath of citizenship.

Before I begin, I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation to Prof. Kidwai for inviting me to inaugurate this beautiful auditorium at the department of Mass Communication. Thank you, Prof. Kidwai, for all you do to make a difference.

It is truly a pleasure to be in the timeless city of Aligarh. AMU has been a beacon of learning. It has always been a beacon of hope, aspirations, and dream. AMU indeed is a true treasure. It is a precious possession.  I am delighted to be here at AMU. My days at AMU have had a profound effect on me. It was an exciting time of my life, though I must admit…sometimes it was chaotic. But nevertheless, it was filled with charms, cheers, changes, and challenges; memory remains endearing. AMU shaped my story. AMU instilled core values that have served me in good stead throughout my adult life. These values continue to be my guiding principles.

Before I begin, I would like to take this opportunity to thank several individuals who have worked diligently to make this dream come true. I want to thank the Vice Chancellor for his vision of the kind of Aligarh we can build together. He represents the best of AMU. He is artillery of our heart. He inspires all of us to do well but do good. He provides the example and sets the standard. Let us give VC a big round of applause.

I also want to recognize and express my deep appreciation and special thanks to Ali Rizvi, Afrina Rizvi and Prof. Kidwai for planting the seed for the creation of this auditorium. I also want to thank Parvaiz Talib and Tauqeer Sherwani for their effort. They were instrumental in construction of this auditorium. Let us give them a big round of applause.

It is a distinct pleasure and privilege for me to speak at the inauguration of the Frank and Debbie Islam Auditorium in the Department of Mass Communication at Aligarh Muslim University.

We decided to put our names on this auditorium for several reasons. The general ones are:

AMU helped shape and made me who I am.

The Department of Communications here at AMU ranks as one of the premier institutions of its type in India.

This auditorium in this department is a special place where students, faculty and guests can convene in a setting to look, to listen and to learn. It is a place where information and ideas will be exchanged that will impact the who, what, where, how and why of our future communications. Viewed from this perspective it is more than a hall for assembling.  It is a launching pad.

Those are my general reasons.  Now, let me add two very specific reasons.

The first is that my wife Debbie and I have a deep commitment to democracy.

The second is that we recognize that journalists and the free news media are central to ensuring that a democracy survives and thrives.

These last two reasons are what I want to talk with you about today – Democracy and the Free News Media. In my speech, I will:

Look at the historical connection between democracy and the free press

Comment on the current status of the news and the free media here in India

Comment on the importance of and requirements for “truthful” news

Finally, in my closing thoughts, I will share my connection to and involvement with the free press.

Democracy and the Free Press

Let me begin by observing that I am an Indian-American.  The United States of America is my homeland and India is my motherland.  I am doubly blessed by having had the privilege of living in the two largest democracies in the world. Active and engaged citizenship is essential to keep those democracies vibrant and exemplars for democracy world-wide.

One of those democracies – the U.S. – came into being in part because of the free press. The other – India – has had the reputation of having the most vibrant and free press in the developing world.

I went to the United States from India to go to school to study computer science at the University of Colorado in Boulder.  There were many things that amazed me in my early days in the U.S.

But, one of the things that truly stuck out for me was the freedom of the press. The journalists and reporter’s ability to listen, to watch, to observe, to investigate and to write about anything was a wonderment to me.  I saw their ability to speak truth to power as a defining hallmark of that great democracy.

At the time, I didn’t know why that capacity existed.  Later in my life, as I have studied and learned more, I have come to understand that the source of this freedom comes from the American constitution, the bill of rights, and the wisdom of the founding fathers.

Thomas Jefferson was one of those founding fathers and the third president of the United States.  In 1787, the year the Constitution was adopted in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote,

“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should say I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Think about that (pause) – Jefferson elevated the need for a free press above the need for government.  His opinion was not atypical at the time the Constitution was drafted.

Many citizens feared that the Constitution gave too much power to a central government and might lead to tyrannical rule.  So, they demanded the addition of a bill of rights in order to get the Constitution ratified by the states.

James Madison, another founding father, drafted the Bill of Rights which contains ten amendments.  The first amendment of that Bill of Rights reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

What makes this statement unique as it relates to “freedom of the press” is that it is an unqualified right: Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or of the press.  This explains why the press and the media in the United States has such a powerful platform upon which to stand.

The platform for the press here in India is not nearly that strong.  One of the reasons for this is that the Constitution of India makes no specific reference to freedom of the press.  The Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of India, does guarantee the right to freedom of speech and expression.  There is a general consensus that this article includes freedom of the press.

Status of the Free News Media in India

Even though there was no specific provision for it in the Constitution, from the time of India’s establishment as a free-standing nation in 1947, the free press has grown substantially and contributed significantly to the evolution of the Indian democracy.  Sadly, in recent times, the freedom of India’s free press – or, I should say “free news media” to update that term to the 21st century – has been threatened.

In 2018, six journalists were killed in India placing it fifth on the list of countries in the world where journalists have been murdered. In September of 2017, well known journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh and television reporter Santana Bhowmik were killed in separate incidents.

Given these incidents and numerous more over the past few years, it is understandable why Freedom House, an organization that evaluates countries in terms of their freedom of the press, rated India’s press status as only “partially free” in 2017 giving it a score of 43 on a scale from 0-100.

The Importance of and Requirements for Truthful News

Those rankings for India are going the wrong way and are discouraging. Nonetheless, I know that all of you who are involved with the journalistic and communications professions understand that the need is to persist and to carry-on. Because if you do not, the Indian democracy will crumble.

The essential requirement, in this era of accusations of “fake news” thrown at the authentic free news media and the dissemination of much “fake news” by those with ulterior motives, is for those of you in this business and preparing to be part of the business is to continue to produce truthful news.

“Truthful” news stands in stark contrast to “fake news”. Truthful news is fact-based, authentic and accurate.

There are sometimes errors in truthful news. But they are not in it by design. They are honest mistakes or misstatements. They are misinformation, not disinformation.

Truthful news is produced by journalists and others who adhere to set of ethical standards.

According to Professor Michael Schudson of Columbia University, there are six key functions that journalism and news play to a greater or lesser degree for citizens in democratic societies:

Information: provided fairly and fully

Investigation: into concentrated sources of power

Analysis: furnishing in-depth and coherent frameworks to help explain complex topics or issues

Social Empathy: describing the conditions and situations of others in society and the world especially the disadvantaged

Public Forum: being a centralized communications vehicle for dialogue and discourse on issues and matters of importance

Mobilization: advocating for particular positions, programs or actions

Fake news and truthful news can make a tremendous difference in a democracy. Truthful news has the potential to bring us closer together and to facilitate collaboration in problem-solving, community building and pursuit of the common good. Fake news can highlight our differences, widen the gap between us as citizens, and reinforce polarization and partisanship.

The free news media must be the purveyor of and promotion of truthful news.  In 2009, the Knight Commission produced a report titled Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.  That Report focused on the three objectives:

Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all citizens and their communities.

Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information.

Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.

Those of you in this auditorium have the competence and the capacity to adapt and pursue them in playing your role and making your contribution to advancing and enhancing this Indian democracy.

The Indian democracy is not perfect- far from it. But India’s democracy shines as a beacon of light in a world that is increasingly becoming darker. India has the potential to become a champion of democracy around the globe. If it realizes this potential, it will bring about a new dawn for democracy in the 21st Century.

Closing Comments

In this final section of my talk, I want to say that even though I am not in nor part of the free press or free news media.  I stand staunchly for the free press, the free news media, and those journalists and others involved with it here in India.

I want to assure you that those are not just idle words. I put my money where my mouth is: That is why my wife and I have provided financial support for the naming of this auditorium.  It is also why we have sponsored fellowships through the Alfred Friendly Press Partners affiliated with the University of Missouri School of Journalism to bring deserving journalists from India to the United States for classroom education and to work in an American newsroom.

Our first fellow was Smitha Rajan who was an assistant editor with DNA Divya Bhaskar in Gujarat when she accepted her fellowship.  Our second fellow was Gulam Jeelani who was a graduate of AMU and who came from the Hindustan Times in New Delhi.

We will continue to fund fellowships such as these going forward because of a simple reason: In a free society, the free press matters.  It really matters.

During my talk, I have placed a strong emphasis on the free press and news media.  That is because that without them there can be no real democracy. And, if there is no democracy, the free world as we know it will cease to exist.

From that perspective, let me close with a quote from the Newseum in Washington D.C.  The Newseum is a living memorial it recognizes news accomplishments of the past and a daily basis, it presents front pages selected from over 800 newspapers in its rooms on a daily basis.

Etched in the entry to the Newseum is a quote that reads as follows:

“The free press is a cornerstone of Democracy. People have the need to know. Journalists have the right to tell. Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the right to be fair.  News is history in the making.  Journalists provide the first draft of history. A Free Press, at its very best, reveals the Truth.”

It is my privilege today to be with you. I know you are truth tellers and advocates for the free news media. You have the responsibility to seek or report the truth. You have responsibility to separate the facts from fiction.

Please keep up your good work.  Know that the fate of the Indian democracy and of democracies around the world hinge in the balance. Know that I am on your side. Through your words, you can keep us keeping on.

Thanks for all you do and for listening to me. Good luck and god bless you.

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