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Clampdown on media: Why even well-meaning people fail to see news as news

By Rajiv Shah
Are journalists being misunderstood even by well-meaning people? I was to kickstart by quoting an article published in theprint.in titled “ED (Enforcement Directorate) says NewsClick used Rs 30 cr ‘mystery remittances’ to ‘pay Navlakha, CPM IT cell member’.” This article has invited a wild comment from a person who is known to be editing a well-known left-leaning blog. An old time friend since my college days in Delhi University, referring to this article, said on his Facebook timeline: “An absolutely unethical hatchet job by The Print against NewsClick that descends to unprecedented lows in ass-licking. But am I surprised? Yes, at those who still thought Shekhar Gupta is a journalist with integrity. This is him in his true colours. #StandbyNewsClick.”
I am referring to the FB post as an example of where do activists, particularly Leftists, go out of the way while referred to “media”. When they refer to media, they mean corporate media, but they forget a major factor: That media is not something homogeneous. To quote dictionary.com, it is “a plural of medium”, it is used as a plural verb for “the means of communication, as radio and television, newspapers, magazines, and the internet, that reach or influence people widely.” Even films, work of art on display, books often referred to as “media”.
But first about the theprint.in article which my friend wants to use as a reference point for criticism of Gupta’s integrity as a journalist. First of all, Gupta doesn’t need anyone’s certificate; he may have earned well, has been known for his “closeness” with powerful political and corporate persons, but that doesn’t mean one should doubt his intention in publishing the article. While he acquired fame for his still widely-remembered report on the 1983 Nellie massacre in Assam, I have personally seen him operate as an excellent newsperson.
It was August 1991. Soon after the three-day coup which sought to dislodge Mikhail Gorbachev, a galaxy of journalists from India came down flying to Moscow. Some of them came up to my residence, owned by the pro-Soviet “Patriot” daily for which I was working. They were about half-a-dozen of them. Most of them would sit in my drawing room, watch the Russian language channels to find out what was happening in Russia. As they didn’t know Russian, I tried to translate for them. More often, however, they would watch CNN, in order to report back to India!
One exception was Gupta. While he would file stories from the telex machine at my residence-office, on getting a tip, he took me to along to an old building in the central Moscow area, where he had heard Garry Kasparov, the famous chess champion, was staying put. First he was not allowed in. Kasparov had run away from the war torn Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, which was at loggerheads with the neighbouring Armenia then. The guards wouldn’t allow Gupta in, but he pushed his way inside taking me along, reached up to Kasparov’s huge room.
First Kasparov refused to meet Gupta, but finally said, “Okay, but no political questions.” Stopped at the door, Gupta began by asking the Chess Grandmaster whether he had played with India’s Vishwanath Anand, another world champion, and how he played. Then, as the photographer who accompanied Gupta, continued clicking photos, Gupta slowly shifted to the coup, and what it meant to him. Standing at the door at a distance of about 30 feet for five minutes, he got all the answers he wanted. The interview was published in India Today along with the lead story on the coup.
I haven’t interacted with Gupta since then, nor do I know whether he remembers all this. Be that as it may, I was left wondering what makes one to question the article in question Gupta, who edits theprint.in about ED raids on offices and homes of NewsClick directors for three days, quoting ED sources. The article quotes ED sources who say that the money received from some companies was used to make payments for “petty maintenance work”, to a NewsClick stakeholder who “maintains the social media accounts of the CPI(M)”, and to give “salary” to activist Gautam Navlakha, who is currently in jail for his alleged involvement in the two year old Bhima Koregaon violence. Why should quoting ED sources raise eyebrows?
Let me be a little presumptuous: Frankly, I found nothing wrong for Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami knowing three days in advance that the Government of India was going to conduct air raids on Pakistan’s Balakot. But what is his failure? Refusing to make know this fact on his channel immediately thereafter quoting government sources. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that such “classified” information is not leaked; not of the journalist. The latter’s failure is not reporting what he or she had found out, even quoting unidentified sources. This is not to defend Goswami’s political agenda. Journalists of his ilk are known to refuse reporting things which may embarrass the powers-that-be. They confine themselves to report only that which “pleases” the ruling politicians. They do not see news in octogenarian activists denied basic things like a sipper or timely medical treatment after being imprisoned for what are clearly trumped up sedition charges.

Sedition against journalists: Following Gujarat model?

Clearly, as we see things today, seditious charges have extended their arms. If till now it was activists, now journalists are also being targeted. But first I first came to know about sedition against journalists way back in 2008 in Gujarat. Two “Times of India” journalists – crime reporter Prashant Dayal and editor Bharat Desai – were charged with sedition for a series of three articles soon after the appointment of a new Ahmedabad police commissioner about for his alleged underworld links. There were journalists’ rallies in front of the commissionner’s office in Ahmedabad as well as at the DGP’s office in Gandhinagar, which I also attended. I was among other half-a-dozen journalists who were summoned by the police to find out why and how the article appeared in the Times of India. We gave our statements. The Gujarat high court quashed the sedition charges in 2012.
No doubt, Gujarat has not seen seen any clampdown ever since, except the arrest of in May 2020, when Dhaval Patel of a little known news portal “Face of Nation” was charged with sedition for a very mundane report suggesting that the state’s chief minister may be changed. While Dhaval was granted bail, the state government view on who should be charged with sedition is worth noting. Opposing the plea to quash sedition charges against Dhaval, the state government told the court, “Disaffection, contempt or hatred towards the government in a speech constitutes the offence of sedition”!
Is this the “model” which appears to have become operational across India? The government’s clampdown on journalists has taken a sharp spike this year. Enough facts are by now available on this. Journalists, including editors, against whom criminal charges only for “misreporting” include NewsClick editor Prabir Purkayastha (whose house and office were searched for 113-hours), India Today TV’s Rajdeep Sardesai, National Herald’s Zafar Agha and Mrinal Pande, Caravan’s Paresh Nath, Ananth Nath and Vinod K Jose, The Wire editor Siddharth Varadarajan and journalist Ismat Ara.
Others who faced either arrest or police complaints included Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist who has contributed for “The Caravan” and “Junputh”; Kanpur TV journalists Mohit Kashyap, Amit Singh and Yasin Ali; Manipur journalists Dhiren Sadokpam, Paojel Chaoba and M Joy Luwang; Kerala journalst Siddique Kappan when he was on his way to report the Hathras rape case in Uttar Pradesh; TV journalist Pongi Naganna in Vishakapatnam for his “links; with Maoists; criminal proceedings against Patricia Mukhim, editor of “Shillong Times” for a Facebook post. As for Kashmir all know how tens of journalists have faced intimidation and how “The Kashmir Times” was locked.
Things have gone so far recently that the Government of India has been found clamping down on social media. Thus, on February 1, more than 250 Twitter handles were blocked at the behest of the Ministry of Home Affairs for the use of a hashtag on farmers’ genocide. Although Twitter lifted the blockage after a few hours, the government put pressure, and Twitter later blocked about 500 handles and issued a statement saying that it had not blocked journalists’ accounts and would work in accordance with Indian law. By February 12, Twitter succumbed to pressure of the Government of India; the strong arm pressure of the government eventually culminated in Twitter blocking 1,398 accounts of the 1,435 flagged accounts. It is not known how many of these are that of journalists and social media bloggers.
All this happened even as the Human Freedom Index 2020, by the American think tank Cato Institute (which once praised Modi for his economic reforms) and Fraser Institute in Canada, released in December last year placed India at the 111th spot out of 162 countries. India ranked 94 on the index in 2019. Earlier in April, India dropped to rank 142, two points below its 2019 rank, in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index list, produced by the campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which surveys the state of the media in 180 countries and territories. A study by senior journalist Geeta Seshu, showed that more than 150 journalists have been arrested, detained and interrogated between 2010 and 2020. Of these cases, 40% were reported in 2020 alone. Things have only got worse in January-February this year.

News as business

No doubt, we are living in perilous times. However, there is a need to understand that media is reflection of society, and journalists or for that matter any other persons who handle any medium do not come from any another planet. To expect moon from them, therefore, is foolish. At a time of clampdown, it is but natural that a big section of the journalists, like people in general, would toe the line of the establishment. Those working for corporate media have to, willy nilly, follow their corporate media owners, for whom news is business. Till the point the news do not go against their corporate interests, the media owners will allow them to appear. However, any news that goes against the corporate interests will not be allowed.
At the time of Vibrant Gujarat summit, I would be asked to stop negative reports, because that would hit the advertisement of the paper. Soon thereafter, I would be allowed to report. Only, I had to be very careful not to cross the line of news and be commentative. We published Tata Nano stories in large numbers, the reason being the Tatas had stopped advertisements for some story that was anti-Tata in the paper. However, all this did not stop us from writing essentially news stories that would embarrass Gujarat powers-that-be – something Gujarat’s top men never liked. They complained not only to the editor but to the owner sof the paper as well, but without any success.
So what is the way out? First of all, those seeking to get news published should remember that advocacy efforts with journalists, who are simple reporters having little knowledge of the world around, should be stepped up. Most journalists think they know a lot; actually, their overall worldview is very limited. They are not even jack of all, not to talk of master of any particular subject. Secondly, effort should be made to provide them with something absolutely new, newsworthy, instead of being unnecessarily commentative. That would impress journalists and they would surely publish the news.
And finally – and this the most important factor – the world has changed. There was a time when, though alternative media did exist, it was not widely used. Currently, there is a possibility of using and promoting alternative media. It does not require big investment, one reason why journalists with little resources are plunging into alternative media. Counterview is just one small example. In fact, internet and social media should be used to the fullest possible extent for spreading the word.

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