Devious designs

Print edition : February 02, 2018

Smriti Irani, Information & Broadcasting Minister. Photo: PTI

Jagdish Thakkar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Press Information Officer.

After applying pressure on TV channels and news organisations to show it in a favourable light, the BJP government is now targeting PTI, the nation’s largest news agency.

Three years into the Narendra Modi regime, most media organisations have turned pliant because of the government censuring them or applying pressure on them through other means. But there has been no let-up in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) attempts to transform the media into a seamless propaganda machinery. After television channels and newspapers, wire services are under tremendous pressure now to show the government in a favourable light and avoid news that could be deemed unpalatable to the BJP. Any non-compliance by news organisations is immediately responded to with a rap on the knuckles.

Certain Ministries have always preferred to be anonymous sources of news for the media, insisting that what they shared is not attributed to them in any way. In the recent past, however, WhatsApp groups have become the medium through which Ministry spokespersons interact with journalists and disseminate official information. A reporter not toeing the line drawn by the spokesperson is publicly censured and sometimes removed from these WhatsApp groups. In some instances, the boycott of the reporter lasts for months and is extended to SMS groups and press briefings. “They want to teach a lesson to such news organisations and reporters. It also serves as an example for others,” said a reporter on condition of anonymity. A new practice that has come up is to check reporters’ phones for invites at the gates of the venues of press conferences to restrict entry. “Boycotts have been practised in the past, but the manner in which they are being done now is unprecedented,” said the reporter.

If there is an article that is deemed objectionable by the high command, it is not unusual for party officials to call the reporter and ask for the article to be removed from the website. If the reporter stands his/her ground and refuses to remove the news item, calls are made to the editor or others higher up in the hierarchy. Threats are also not unheard of. When things become unmanageable, agencies are forced to downplay particular news stories. Ruling party officials have made such calls over stories about allegations made by Rahul Gandhi and other members of the opposition against the BJP, and over unfavourable reports during the Bihar and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections.

Information & Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Smriti Irani publicly castigated Press Trust of India (PTI) twice for carrying reports she deemed objectionable. When PTI tweeted a photograph of BJP supporters wearing masks of Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar to mark Friendship Day, Smriti Irani retweeted it and questioned PTI’s ethics. PTI apologised at once though it was not in the wrong. “Since when did reporting ground reality become wrong? And how was the photo offensive?” asked a reporter. “In the United States, the media ask tough questions of Donald Trump, not just for the sake of asking questions but in a meaningful manner and in the public interest. When I see the media here bending over backwards at the first hint of having upset the powers that be, it makes me sad,” said the reporter.

The government had made Aadhaar a requirement to register deaths from October 1, 2017. In case the applicant for a death certificate is not aware of the deceased person’s Aadhaar details, she/he would have to give a declaration that the deceased person did not possess an Aadhaar number to the best of her/his knowledge. False declaration was made an offense under the Aadhaar Act, 2016, and the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969. The PTI report on this was contested by the Press Information Bureau on Twitter, and the government later clarified that Aadhaar was not mandatory for death certificates.

In another instance, PTI wrongly carried a photograph of a flooded Chennai airport as that of Ahmedabad and Smriti Irani took objection to it. PTI apologised and, rightly, removed the photograph. It also sacked the photographer. Each time PTI is publicly reprimanded, which happens often, the agency apologises, whether it is in the wrong or not. “There is a sense that PTI is trying very hard not to rub this government the wrong way. We are seen as a government agency, but the truth is we have gone against the government when required. During the 2G scam, PTI did a story after talking to Minister of State in the then Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), V. Narayanasamy. The PMO released a statement rubbishing the story. But PTI put out the recording and the transcript of the interview and stood its ground. But, increasingly, we no longer bother to contest statements by officials of the ruling party and apologise even if we have proof of being right,” said a reporter on condition of anonymity.

Interference in editorial policy

Interference in the newsroom and changes in editorial policy are under way in PTI, said the reporter. “Earlier, we never used terms such as Hindu activist or Muslim activist. The way one reports and edits stories on communal clashes is also changing subtly. We have started mentioning the names of the communities, the accused and the victims, adding a communal flavour to the stories. Things are not blatant, but if you observe closely, there is some compromise and one feels that the ruling party is being shown in a fairer light than is journalistically permissible.” However, the opposition still got space in PTI’s coverage, and the agency was definitely not in the league of news channels championing members and schemes of the present government, the reporter added.

A new contract for employees who have worked with the agency for several years made no mention of their past employment record in the organisation and, on paper, treated them as fresh recruits. The contractual employees protested against this, and the specific changes were done away with. But the contract had made hiring and firing of employees easier, said the reporter. When PTI was looking for a successor to its long-time editor-in-chief and chief executive officer M.K. Razdan, The Wire reported that the BJP was trying to get a person of its choice appointed. After much speculation, Vijay Joshi, a veteran who has covered India, Singapore, Egypt, Malaysia and Thailand, was given the mantle. It remains to be seen how PTI operates under his command.

It does not come as a surprise that the ruling party wants to control PTI since it is the largest wire service in the country. Controlling its news feed would ensure indirect control over what newspapers and television channels, both national and international, report. With its unparalleled network of reporters and stringers, PTI has, by far, the widest reach. The I&B Minister denigrating and shaming PTI in public is also seen as an attempt to make it fall in line or make it redundant. “If you can’t control it, ruin it,” said a reporter.

Revival of Hindustan Samachar

The revival of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) news agency, Hindustan Samachar (H.S.), is also seen as a factor in the government’s treatment of PTI. Founded in 1948 by Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) general secretary S.S. Apte, it was merged into Samachar, along with PTI and the United News of India (UNI), during the Emergency. It was never in the game until A.B. Vajpayee became Prime Minister in 1998. Even after that, it did not really flourish.

Attempts are being made to make it relevant after the BJP formed the government at the Centre. In 2014, the web-based news service expanded to more languages, including English, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Assamese, Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi, Sindhi and Nepali.

From June 2016, the government changed its advertisement policy, which directly benefited H.S. The I&B Ministry framed a new print media advertisement policy for the Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity (DAVP) relating to the release of government advertisements. For the first time, the policy introduced a new marking system for newspapers and a system to get their circulation certified by the Audit Bureau of Circulations/Registrar of Newspapers for India (ABC/RNI). The marking system is based on six criteria, with separate marks allotted for each criterion. Of the six criteria, subscription to the wire services of either UNI, PTI or H.S. was assigned 15 marks. The other criteria are circulation, certified by ABC/RNI (25 marks); EPF (Employees’ Provident Fund) subscription for employees (20 marks); number of pages (20 marks); owning a printing press (10 marks); and annual subscription payment to the Press Council of India (PCI) (10 marks). Advertisements would be released by the DAVP to newspapers on the basis of marks obtained by each newspaper. This move firmly places H.S. in the league of national agencies.

Former I&B Minister Manish Tewari of the Congress party tweeted that Prasar Bharati was asked to terminate the services of PTI and UNI and replace it with H.S. Prasar Bharati runs All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan and subscribes to the news feeds of PTI and UNI. “Govt idea—Manage feed out of wire agencies you control narrative. If PTI, UNI&ANI do not fall in line Hindustan Samachar default option,” he tweeted. Minister of State for I&B, Rajyavardhan Rathore, answering a question in the Lok Sabha, clarified that the government did not plan to do so. But he admitted that AIR was reviewing H.S. “It is also having free trial service of Hindustan Samachar. Reviews of performance of news agencies are done from time to time to assess their value and relevance, taking into account the unique position of AIR in the country,” said Rathore.

It is well known that bureaucrats and Ministers in the Modi government are being watched, which is why they do not interact with the media as freely as before. Ministers who were friendly with the media earlier have now barricaded themselves. The PMO has become the most opaque of institutions. It is completely inaccessible to the media, and its officers do not speak to journalists any more as there is an atmosphere of fear. As a result, journalists have stopped going to the PMO. To top it, for the first time in years, the PMO does not have a media adviser. Earlier advisers were almost as well known as the Prime Minister. From Sharada Prasad for Indira Gandhi to Ashok Tandon and H.K. Dua for A.B. Vajpayee, Prem Shankar Jha for V.P. Singh, and Pankaj Pachauri, Harish Khare and Sanjaya Baru for Manmohan Singh, they all became the public faces of the PMO.

That Modi has not held a single press conference in three years in office is unprecedented for a Prime Minister. Very few people know about Modi’s Press Information Officer, Jagdish Thakkar. A 70-year-old former information officer, Thakkar is not known to take calls or messages. He used to work with Modi in Gandhinagar, and together they seem to be replicating the Gujarat model of non-transparency with the media in Delhi too.

But not all media managers in the BJP are as reticent as Thakkar. Shrikant Sharma, former national media cell convener of the BJP in Delhi, is now the Power Minister in the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh. Insiders in the BJP say that he owes his meteoric rise to Amit Shah. From being an active member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in Delhi University and the BJP’s youth wing leader to becoming Power Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the 46-year-old Sharma has come a long way.

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