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Free The Press

Free The Press

American journalist and investigative reporter Wayne Barrett once described journalism as the only profession where you get paid to tell the truth. He did not, however, explain the cost journalists have to pay for telling the truth. Since Barrett passed away earlier this year, there’s no way one can ask him. But in the light of the recent events, Prannoy and Radhika Roy, the co-founders and promoters of the NDTV group, may just be the right people to ask the question: “What is the price to pay for fact-based, fearless journalism?”

Earlier this week, the couple was subjected to intense scrutiny after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided Roys’ residence in Delhi, Dehradun and Mussoorie citing major financial violations that led to the loss of Rs 48 crore for ICICI Bank. NDTV has since released a statement clearing the air and saying the couple had repaid the loan seven years ago. In addition, the news group, in its statement, showed the audacity to employ the basic tenet of the fourth estate to call a spade a spade and termed the entire drill “a blatant political attack on the freedom of the press.”

There should be a distinction between the editorial calls of a media house and the business dealings of its owners. Never can the two intermingle. But, the timing of the raids is crucial. It comes close on the heels of Nidhi Razdan, NDTV anchor and executive editor, unceremoniously throwing out BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra. Extremely erudite and eloquent, Patra is the front face of BJP on most prime time shows and had waged countless war of words during the recently concluded election season.

Patra was caught off guard when Razdan, during a debate on cattle ban, chose to cut him off without any prologue or warning because he accused NDTV of pandering to a certain “agenda”. The day was Thursday. On Friday, at around 3 pm, CBI registered an FIR against Prannoy and Anuradha Roy, and RRPR Holdings Pvt Ltd. All hell broke loose Monday morning when CBI conducted the raids.

Normally, such a proactive stance on part of the CBI would earn them many praises, but, in this case, it does not take a discerning eye to see that the investigative agency’s actions were politically motivated, guided by vendetta and backed by the present totalitarian regime.

Considering the fact that NDTV’s is perhaps the only liberal voice rising above the cacophony and din ruling broadcast journalism and specially prime time news, it is no surprise that CBI’s interest in this case smacks of bias.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is painfully aware of the fact that NDTV, even if it’s a lone wolf on primetime TV, has the bravado and strength of character to foil the party’s attempts at projecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi as India’s most popular and efficient political leader and saffronising the country. By muzzling the free spirit of NDTV, the BJP would have had plans of gagging other mushrooming efforts at dissent within the press.

Non-conformism becomes a habit when the journalists have nothing to lose. Countless journalists in the past have risked their life and the security of their families to get to the bottom of things and break news stories that demand to see the light of the day. Some of the best news stories have been a result of high-quality, fearless investigative journalism. Just to cite an example, it was the astuteness and the tireless legwork of two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, that led to the uncovering of the Watergate scandal in America and the eventual resignation of the then President Richard Nixon.

However, given the current political climate in India, journalists are increasingly getting timid and tend to look over their shoulders in fear and caution.

A recent report compiled by media watchdog Hoot throws up some startling facts. As many as 54 attacks on journalists have been reported in the past 16 months. Earlier this year, Minister of State for Home Hansraj Ahir informed the Lok Sabha there have been 142 separate incidents of attack on journalists in 2014 and 2015.

To add fuel to fire, India slipped three places in the 2017 world press freedom rankings to be placed 136th among 180 countries. India was ranked just three places above arch-rival Pakistan and was one notch below violence-torn Palestine. Reporters Without Borders, the media rights watchdog that releases the press freedom rankings, has blamed Modi’s nationalism for the falling standards in press freedom.

With the nationalists’ brigade trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media. Investigative reporting is becoming increasingly dangerous. Be it sand mining, stone quarrying, illegal construction, violence by police, election campaign or corruption in civic administration, journalists who raise their pen or their voice have had to pay a heavy price.

Apart from direct attacks, there are also cases of invocation of sedition law, suspension of internet services, self-censorship on part of media companies, censoring of films and other arts, among other instances which may frustrate the free functioning of the media.

The shutdown of the printing presses of two Kashmir newspapers after the killing of militant Burhan Wani, and the ban on Kashmir Reader, an English daily from the Valley, for three months during the same period, were cited in the Hoot report as instances of media censorship.

CBI’s raid of the premises of the Roys’ is the latest entry to the long list of direct and indirect attempts by the government as well as hoodlums to muzzle courageous journalism.

Not surprisingly enough, NDTV has previously also been at the receiving end of media censorship when the Information and Broadcasting Ministry decided to impose a one-day ban on the news channel for its coverage of the Pathankot attack last January. The ban, however, had to be put on hold after the channel approached the Supreme Court.

The relationship between the Indian press and the government has seen many ups and downs. During the freedom struggle, the press had served as the advance guard of the nationalist forces, which later took over power once independence became a reality. For a time afterwards, the relationship between them was cordial. But, it didn’t take long for the honeymoon period to end.

The government/officialdom has the duty to keep the press informed, while the onus of assessing information, fact-checking and dissemination of news lies with the scribes. Confrontations arise when the officials become chary and the press suspicious. This can have two outcomes – either the press can genuflect before the high and the mighty and bow so low that their head hits the ground or they can, like NDTV, hold their head high.

It was Thomas Jefferson who said that if he were to choose between a government without the press and press without government, he would choose the latter. But, the tables turned after he became the President of the United States. His relations with the press were far from exemplary as he harassed and persecuted scribes. A similar kind of double standards is seen presently in the country under Modi’s rule.

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the Twitter-savvy Prime Minister took to the microblogging site to wax eloquently about the need for a “free & vibrant press, which is vital in a democracy.” The demagogue may choose a different discourse for every occasion, but those who remember the reportage in Gujarati newspapers during the 2002 Godhra riots would know that newspapers were partly responsible for the long spiral of violence.

A study conducted by two Baroda-based organisations, Shanti Abhiyan and People’s Union for Civil Liberties, found that the vernacular press employed selective usage of words and phrases to identify and further communalise the minds of people. More significantly and often with tragic consequences, it also denounced citizens as religious fanatics or devotees based on their religion. The coverage was deeply saffronised and sought to decimate an already atomized community. For example, Sandesh, a Gujarati daily, carried screaming, deadly headlines like “Avenge blood with blood” and “Hindus beware: Haj pilgrims return with a deadly conspiracy.” It must be noted that in spite of such flagrant violation of journalistic ethics, these newspapers were not taken to task. One is forced to wonder if this is the kind of “free & vibrant press” that the Prime Minister advocates.

To say Prime Minister Modi has had a love-hate relationship with media would be an understatement. His dealings with the press fraternity have been limited to the extreme ends of the spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are the likes of Arnab Goswami, who has been the perfect model of servility in both his previous and present workplace, while on the other end are media houses like NDTV that are hounded and subjected to regular smear campaigns online for initiating a kind of dialogue that goes beyond sycophancy and dwells on facts.

Modi has not called for a single press conference in India in his three years as prime minister. He has agreed to only sit-down interviews and that too with journalists who have a track record of eulogizing him. He may be the second-most followed world leader on Twitter after US President Donald Trump, but Modi’s engagement with press is limited to his once-a-month All India Radio broadcast “Mann ki Baat” and his tweets. Note that these are monologues and not question-answer sessions or discussions. The tyranny of tweets is so much that these have now become the primary source of news for the media, which has found reporting more and more difficult. One negative news and the right-wing organizations and leaders and the prime minister’s legions of fans are quick to vilify the journalist. Needless to say, dissent is curbed effectively.

Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak once wrote that his object in running the Kesari was to make the rulers know about the aspirations and the agonies of the ruled and to make the ruled feel more fearless. The object put forth by Tilak remains relevant even today. The future of the fourth estate lies not in edifying flimflam but in nurturing many more Tilaks. The good governance that Prime Minister Modi shouted about from rooftops will come about only if it is met with fearless journalism.

#(Published on 12th June 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 24)