Media

Peddling myths

Print edition : January 20, 2017

The journalist Akshaya Mukul, who created ripples at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards ceremony by refusing to receive an award from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a book-release function in Chennai recently. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Raj Kamal Jha, Chief Editor of The Indian Express. He said, addressing Modi: "You said some wonderful things about journalists, which makes us a little nervous." Photo: M. Vedhan

Most mainstream media organisations capitulated to power and began to crawl even before they were asked to bend. There are a few exceptions though, who have carried on the fight.

“POST-TRUTH” was declared the international word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries since it was the most used word “in the context of the E.U. [European Union] referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”. It was described as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. When post-truth becomes the signpost for the media, it can destroy the ethics on which the profession is built and can have disastrous consequences, as was seen in India over the past one year.

The majority of the media capitulated to power and joined the growing circle of coterie around Narendra Modi and the ruling party, peddling myths, or, as some columnists called it, lies. The bridge between fact and fiction collapsed as many media organisations promoted demonetisation in the face of widespread economic disruptions. As an irate trader told this reporter in a Delhi market: “Why should I talk to you? Media persons have been ignoring the disastrous effects of the government’s ill-thought-out move on common folk like me and praising it relentlessly!” In Haryana, a Zee News reporter, Mahender Singh, was reportedly made to resign after he dared to ask Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar for his comments on demonetisation and the interview went viral on social media. Earlier this year, Vishwa Deepak, a reporter with the same channel, resigned citing prejudice in the network’s coverage of a meeting by students of Jawaharlal Nehru University on February 9 to protest against the capital punishment meted out to Afzal Guru.

While a section of the media covered issue after issue with bias, the ones that did attempt “journalism”, which simply meant “doing one’s job”, were censored. Printing presses and offices of newspapers in Kashmir were raided, copies of newsprint seized and journalists detained as they covered the uprising in Kashmir after Burhan Wani’s killing in July. Kashmir Reader, an English language paper that reported several excesses on civilians by the armed forces, was banned in October. The ban was lifted only towards the end of December when winter had set in and the Army claimed to have quelled popular discontent in the Valley. An order was passed banning NDTV India for a day for revealing “strategically sensitive” information while covering the terrorist attack on the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Pathankot base. The ban was later put on hold after senior journalists from the channel, along with owner Prannoy Roy, met Information & Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu and told him that they had not reported anything that other channels had not already shown.

In the initial days of the new dispensation, Modi and many of his Ministers embraced social media in a big way and only gradually started looking at using the mainstream media. Some journalists saw the writing on the wall and began to crawl when they had not yet been asked to bend. As Lakshmi Chaudhry, former executive editor and co-founder of Firstpost.com who resigned from her post under controversial circumstances, said: “Reporters and columnists practise self-censorship when they don’t write certain stories at all or don’t touch upon certain points. This does not even require a nudge but is done in advance, in anticipation, in fear of repercussions. See, it is in the nature of governments and power not to like to be discomfited; for instance, just look at the case of Julian Assange. But the haste and alacrity with which the mainstream media are looking to toe the line before it is even drawn is alarming.” Others who did not toe the government line were removed rather unceremoniously. Several heads of media organisations lost their jobs, only to be replaced by individuals who were seen as being not overtly critical of the government, or who were blatantly close to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Prasar Bharti CEO Jawhar Sircar was relieved of his duties in October after he expressed a wish to retire before his term ended in February 2017. Though there were murmurs of government interference in Prasar Bharti, which comes under the Information & Broadcasting Ministry, Sircar did not confirm them.

Journalists in Chhattisgarh continued to get a raw deal and were subjected to intimidation, threats and arrest. While three journalists were freed after a sustained campaign for their release, Santosh Yadav, who has written for Hindi newspapers such as Dainik Navbharat and Dainik Chhattisgarh, continues to be behind bars, where, he claims, he was beaten up by the police. Malini Subramanian, contributor to Scroll.in, had to leave Bastar, while the journalist Durga Prasad, along with six other members of a fact-finding team probing encounters and atrocities in Bastar, were arrested under the draconian Chhattisgarh Public Security Act.

According to the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ), India became one of the 10 deadliest countries for journalists in 2016, along with Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey and Somalia., Eleven journalists have been killed in India since 2014. Rajdev Ranjan, reporter for Hindustan in Siwan, Bihar, and Karun Mishra, reporter for Jansandesh Times in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh, were killed in 2016 as a reprisal for their work, according to the CPJ. The reasons for the deaths of Dharmendra Singh, reporter for Dainik Bhaskar in Sasaram, Bihar; Kishore Dave, reporter for Jai Hind in Junagadh, Gujarat; and Akhilesh Prata, reporter for Taza TV in Chatra, Jharkhand; are unknown but they were possibly killed for their work too, said the CPJ report. In all, 70 journalists have died in India since 1992, of whom 27 were murdered with complete impunity. “This has created a challenging environment for the press, especially small-town journalists and those reporting on corruption, who are often more vulnerable to attack and whose legitimacy is questioned when they are threatened or killed,” the report said. The climate for press freedom in India is deteriorating, with journalists increasingly facing harassment and threats from right-wing elements.

TV anchor Arnab Goswami, who earned Times Now the sobriquet “fox news on steroids” by a Vice (a print magazine and website based in Vancouver, Canada) columnist, exited the channel to launch his own venture, called Republic. While his farewell was much talked about, others made quiet exits and did not speak about it for fear of further retribution. Honourable exceptions such as Hartosh Singh Bal, Siddharth Varadarajan, Ravish Kumar and many others refused to get intimidated and continued to speak truth to power. At the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards ceremony, presented by The Indian Express, an undercurrent of tension was palpable as Narendra Modi took the stage as chief guest. The irony of his statement that governments should not interfere with the media was not lost on anyone and he quickly followed it up by saying that there were limits to the press’ freedom. The journalist Akshaya Mukul’s brave act of refusing to receive an award for his book Gita Press and The Making of Hindu India from the man accused of the Gujarat pogrom 2002 created ripples. While he registered his dissent by boycotting the event, Raj Kamal Jha, Editor of The Indian Express, converted his vote of thanks speech into a classroom lecture for the Prime Minister on journalism. He spoke about the pitfalls of selfie journalism, pointed out that bad journalism was making a lot more noise and reiterated that criticism from a government was a badge of honour for a journalist. Addressing Modi, he said: “You said some wonderful things about journalists, which makes us a little nervous. You may not find it in Wikipedia, but Shri Ramnath Goenka, and it’s a fact and I can say that as the editor of The Indian Express, he did sack a journalist when he heard a Chief Minister of a State telling him ‘ Aapka reporter bahot accha kaam kar raha hai’ [Your reporter is doing a very good job].”

The year 2016 was, ultimately, the kind of year that began with Narendra Modi unveiling media mogul Subhash Chandra’s (of Zee Network fame) autobiography at 7, Race Course Road, the Prime Minister’s official residence, without anybody finding it amiss or batting an eyelid.

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