Interview: Vinod Jose

Vinod Jose: ‘We are seeing a culture of intolerance’

Print edition : February 26, 2021
Interview with Vinod Jose, executive editor of “The Caravan”.

IN the last week of January, there were grievous attacks on the freedom of the press, with sedition charges being slapped on several journalists. On February 1, the Twitter handle of The Caravan was withheld. Vinod Jose, the publication’s executive editor, told Frontline about the harassment his team had been subjected to. He advocated new business models to minimise dependence on government as well as corporates for revenues. Excerpts from the interview:

Why do you think Twitter withheld the handle of “The Caravan” following a directive to this effect from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology?

I have no idea. Unfortunately, there is no transparency in information coming from either the government or Twitter as to why this was done. Whatever we know is from media reports.

What could have been the immediate trigger?

The decision was taken on February 1, three days after 10 sedition cases were filed against members of The Caravan family in five States [four of which are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party]. The complainants had problems with The Caravan’s coverage of the farmers’ protests. But we had given coverage to both eyewitness accounts and the police version of the events. I don’t understand why the complainants have a problem if The Caravan fairly reports both sides. The profession of journalism will cease to exist if we do not give voice to eyewitnesses who are speaking contrary to what the government may want to be published.

How do you view the recent spate of first information reports (FIRs) and arrests of mediapersons?

We are seeing a culture of intolerance. The people in power can be seen restraining journalists from doing their job freely. It can be done in multiple ways. It can be done through advertising, by influencing publishers or individual journalists. When one resists such attempts and does fair journalism, there is targeting. Nothing else explains why India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index, which was 101 a decade ago, is now 142.

Also read: Muzzling the media: How the Modi regime continues to undermine the news landscape

Is the crackdown on a free press and on civil society members an attribute of successive governments or specific to the current dispensation?

Under the current government, it is a matter of record how sedition cases have gone up. A number of human rights advocates, activists and intellectuals are in jail in multiple cases. Laws are passed without proper discussion or consensus, thereby triggering protests, first with the CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] and now the farmers’ protests. Far too quickly, a democratic polity is being changed into an authoritarian system.

“The Caravan” has been a critical voice against the government and its policies on a range of subjects. Have you or anybody else in your organisation experienced any form of coercion or threat from any individual or party over the publication of such reports and stories?

There are probably a few instances of people in position of power filing cases against The Caravan. When we published a story on the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s son running a company in a tax haven in the Caribbean islands, Doval’s son filed a defamation suit against The Caravan. We were pointing out duplicity of standards in the Doval family, where the father had written extensively against tax haven companies while his son had one. Essar filed a case against us in Gujarat, while Reliance sent multiple notices. Four of our journalists were attacked while on the ground reporting on the Delhi violence of 2020. Two male reporters were physically attacked and a woman journalist was molested by a mob.

In October 2020, one of our journalists was assaulted in police custody. He was covering a protest after the family member of a lower caste house help committed suicide after alleged sexual harassment. The aggrieved family wanted an FIR to be registered. The Caravan journalist was outside the Model Town Police Station; he was taken inside the police station and beaten up.

Are these incidents sporadic or is there a larger pattern of coercion directed against “The Caravan”?

The recent developments [seem to be targeted], first with the sedition cases, which had the same charges and the same order being filed in 10 different cases in five different States. When we read the FIR, there seemed to be a design in each one of these cases that had sedition charges and were filed simultaneously. The government seems to be intolerant towards covering the farmers’ protests or for that matter any story that crosses a certain line that it draws. But our professional journalism always went to two sides of an issue and it will continue to do so, so that people are kept informed.

Has the response of the media fraternity to the series of punitive actions against journalists been adequate?

Unfortunately, no. We can do better and we have done better under government pressure in the past. I don’t want to speculate on the reasons, but certainly our media organisations are not speaking truth to power as much as what is expected in a democracy.

Also read: The BJP government's Goebbelsian campaign against the farmers’ agitation

Could this be because of the fear of losing advertisements? Is it time we developed more innovative business models to support independent journalism? How do you see such endeavours taking shape in India?

We have delicate media models, under which one must rely on the government for advertisements in most instances. If The New York Times, which for over 100 years depended on advertisements, turned around in a decade and brought in a subscription-first business model, I do not understand why we cannot produce quality journalism and ask for subscription. That will free us from the government- and corporate-controlled revenue model, and we will be able to uphold the age-old practice of seeking accountability. Reinstating our commitment to free and fair journalism and telling the reader that we need their support translates into people responding.

The First Amendment in the U.S. gives a range of protections to the press in that country, including ruling out prior restraint. Do we need similar laws?

Of course, there is a need for that. In the case of the U.S., if we pay attention to what happened in that country, especially after the Great Depression, there was a massive boycott of the news media. The circulation fell drastically because of the media’s alleged role in aiding the depression. There were Hollywood movies in the 1930s in which journalists and the media were portrayed as villains. This crisis led to an interesting course correction in the American press, led by the then owner of Time magazine, Henry Luce. He constituted a commission, known as Hutchins Commission, which included philosophers, public intellectuals and scientists, and wrote a report on the role of the media in a democracy. A famous social media responsibility model came out in the Hutchins Commission report. If in the middle of the 20th century, a wise intervention by Time magazine’s owner could save the American press and help people develop trust in the media, it is unfortunate that in India we see no attempt of that nature, even as the trust of general people in the media is fast eroding, if not already eroded.

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