Pressures on a profession

Print edition : August 29, 1998

The debate over the Press Council's censure of The Times of India for its ``campaign'' against the Enforcement Directorate has brought to the fore divergent perceptions of the role of the press in India.

AUGUST this year has witnessed the emergence of crucially divergent perceptions of the nature and role of the press in India. The Times of India is at the focus of the debate. Underlying the newspaper's approach is the thesis that news is a commodity packaged to suit market requirements. Accordingly, over the years, it has denigrated the office of Editor, who is presumed to uphold the objectivity of news and the social obligations of newspapers, and made him subservient to the management. The wide-ranging repercussions of this approach and the strains it is imposing on the journalistic profession are now coming to the surface.

On August 5, The Times of India was censured by the Press Council of India "for carrying on a campaign against the Enforcement Directorate with the manifest intention of pressurising and deflecting it from performing its lawful duties." The duties here concerned the owner of The Times of India group, who is charged with violations of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA). The political aftershocks of the issue continue to shake New Delhi.

A week later, the president of the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), Vijay Darda, expressed "strong objection to the Press Council's decision to censure The Times of India for its series of articles on human rights in an effort to state its case in the continued harassment of Mr. Ashok Jain, Chairman of Bennett, Coleman and Co., Ltd., (owners of the paper)." His criticism was not limited to the Council, but extended to its Chairman, Justice P. B. Sawant, a former Judge of the Supreme Court, whose remarks (made in quite another context) were described as "indicating ignorance of the ground realities of the industry as well as absence of understanding of the climate in which India had created a free and independent media."

The extra-journalistic interests of The Times of India were also the subject of a complaint by H. K. Dua, its former Editorial Adviser, to the Press Council the previous month. Dua complained of wrongful dismissal "because of his refusal to accede to the demand of Ashok Jain to help him in his alleged FERA cases by creating public opinion, to lobby with the political leaders, and to write articles in his favour." Hearings into the plaint are to begin.

Yet another aspect of the malodorous issue to surface is the charge of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary Jayalalitha on August 16 that the transfer of M. K. Bezbaruah from the Enforcement Directorate had been procured by "the owners of a group of publications facing FERA charges," by bribing persons close to the Prime Minister. Asked to explain by the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary, Brajesh Mishra, the executive secretary at the AIADMK headquarters, P. Mahalingam, insisted that contacts were continuing between the Corporate Director of The Times of India group and an individual close to the Prime Minister. He proposed an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

The contrast between the coverage given to these serious developments by The Times of India and other national papers is revealing. The Indian Express report on Jayalalitha's statement was: "Reiterating that she had nothing to do with the transfers of Bezbaruah and other high-level bureaucrats of the Central Government, she alleged that the owners of a group of publications facing FERA charges had paid 'hefty bribes' to persons very close to the Prime Minister to effect the transfer of Bezbaruah."

According to The Hindu, "Ms. Jayalalitha referred to the vigorous pursuit of FERA cases filed against the owners of a well-known group of publications...." She alleged that "these newspaper owners paid hefty bribes to persons close to the Prime Minister to get Bezbaruah transferred out of E.D." Other national papers carried similar reports.

The Times of India's sanitised version of Jayalalitha's remarks was: "Condemning the 'attempt to put the blame' on her, Ms. Jayalalitha said she was being made a 'scapegoat' in order to 'appease' some 'vested interests'. She also alleged that 'persons very close' to the Prime Minister had been paid 'hefty bribes' for Mr. Bezbaruah's transfer." No mention of owners of publications.

While Mahalingam's letter to Brajesh Mishra was fully reported by other newspapers, the following paragraph in The Times of India exemplifies the art of selective, commentative reportage: "The reply gave no proof of her allegation but hinted that interaction between senior officials of a newspaper group with a person who was recently in the PMO would naturally lead to adverse inferences." Those wanting to know exactly what Mahalingam had written about this sensitive matter had to turn to other newspapers.

This is not the first time that the reputation of this once-respected newspaper has been sacrificed in an effort to protect its proprietor. Earlier this year, it was its prolonged campaign against the Enforcement Directorate, under the misleading title "Human Rights Watch", that earned the displeasure of the Press Council of India. The Council noted that the campaign was launched after the Supreme Court confirmed the rejection of Ashok Jain's application for anticipatory bail.

The partisan character of The Times of India campaign shocked many even before it came before the Press Council. The People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) called a meeting in New Delhi on February 13, at which several prominent jurists and journalists expressed their concern at the misuse of its columns. I was present when the well-known cartoonist and columnist Rajinder Puri pointed out that a vital sentence from an interview sought from him by The Times of India had been deleted. It was: "At present, The Times of India's campaign does not appear to be a campaign for human rights but a private war against the Enforcement Directorate."

Puri was not the only victim of unscrupulous interviewing. Rajinder Sachar, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, complained in a letter published by The Times of India on February 10: "While most of my interview has been correctly reported, I cannot say the same about the part which suggests that I had expressed deep concern over the high-handed and excessive manner in which the Enforcement Directorate has handled its investigations, particularly in an individual case."

R. M. Pal, Editor of the PUCL Bulletin, threw further light on the process of disinformation. Under the heading "E.D. has no business detaining people overnight", The Times of India reported on January 27: "Several human rights activists also expressed unhappiness at the arbitrary manner in which agencies like the ED operate. R. M. Pal of the PUCL said: 'These agencies are often biased in their approach and twist matters to satisfy their own prejudices against people under investigation.'

Pal later clarified that he did not say this in the context published. In fact, asked on the phone for his views on Jain's case, he had replied that it was only when rich people were investigated that newspapers reacted. Asked for his general views on the police and the law enforcement agencies, he replied that only the poor were victims of police torture, the rich got away. The strategy behind the Human Rights Watch feature emerged in editorial notes on January 31 and February 2. The first merits reproduction in full:

"For the past year Mr. Ashok Jain has been hounded by the Enforcement Directorate. He has been accused of 'feigning illness to avoid investigations' when, in fact, he has fully cooperated. Despite subjecting him to gruelling interrogation 19 times, the E.D. has been unable to come up with substantive charges.

"Can the E.D. be allowed to continue on its unaccountable, arbitrary and repressive course? Should it be allowed to keep assuming that big business is inherently dishonest, and can be terrorised at whim? This is an outdated notion, and liberalisation has acknowledged the lead role that industrialists play in taking the nation forward. The unanimous condemnation by every industry association of the E.D.'s retrograde attitude has served notice that business leaders will no longer be passive recipients of injustice.

"The responsible Press of this country has always endorsed the rule of law. The Times of India has initiated a series to reiterate this, exposing the torture by the E.D. of several businessmen, big and small. The time has come to say clearly and unequivocally that State agencies must definitely do their job, but they must do so transparently, and without trampling over the individual's human rights. This is the least that citizens can expect in a democracy."

Two days later the target was framed more specifically. "Can we allow the Enforcement Directorate to make a mockery of our fundamental rights as citizens and subvert our democratic principles?" the newspaper asked. "Can it unilaterally condemn a person as an economic offender, and use that as an excuse to strip him of every shred of dignity? That ordinary, decent people are tired of arbitrary high-handedness is clear from the overwhelming public response to The Times of India's series highlighting human rights violations by the E.D."

In the final analysis, it is for the reader to judge whether The Times of India deserved censure by the Press Council of India, whether its coverage of events is biased and whether it fulfils the obligations expected of a national newspaper. The survival of the office of Editor, as known so far, may depend on the outcome.

Ajit Bhattacharjea is Director, Press Institute of India.

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