Saturday, November 24, 2012

Media Under Siege - Cover Story - Media Watch "The Sunday Indian Magazine"

A gag on freedom?

India’s national and regional media has never been quite as active in reporting fearlessly on scams and scandals erupting across the country. The social media has added its own chutzpah to the growing momentum. But is there an attempt now to put a muzzle on dissenting voices, asks Aditya Raj Kaul

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Narrating the truth comes with its own consequences. Manipulating and muzzling the press is not new to India’s vast media industry and the trend only continues to grow. Instances of physical and verbal attacks on journalists often do not make headlines but are an almost daily occurrence in today’s  24X7 news environment. Freedom has become a prison for journalists of courage who continue to fight obstacles in order to do justice to their reportage. The moot question in all this however, is whether routine muzzling of the press has gone largely unchecked by agencies with vested interests. Either that or a greater percentage of media seems to have submitted to the diktats of the state and non-state actors who boisterously continue to control  a sizeable portion of the press.

Acknowledging that the freedom of the press is under threat in many states across the country, Chairperson of the Press Council of India (PCI) Justice Markandey Katju had said in February this year that fact finding teams would be sent to ascertain the ground situation in states from where complaints related to violation of freedom of the press have been pouring in. “Since I feel that this freedom is under threat in many states, I intend to send fact-finding teams to some of the states from where we are getting a large number of such complaints,” Katju said.

Katju added that the Freedom of Speech and Expression was a right guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution. “Under Section 13(1) of the Press Council Act, 1978; it is the duty of the Press Council to preserve the freedom of the Press,” he had said. “I have been receiving reports from several states that the freedom of the Press is in various ways being imperiled,” he added. Not stopping at that, Katju specifically went on to name errant state governments (such as the Nitish Kumar administration in Bihar and Prithviraj Chavan’s government in Maharashtra) which allegedly put undue “pressure on journalists to mend their ways or face the music”. Katju elaborated that these government pressures take the shape of threats, coercion and even pulling out all ads from the paper which dares to take an anti-establishment stand.

The use of the cane by the government was most-recently seen at a live-telecast press conference by Union Minister Salman Khurshid who lashed out at an Aaj Tak reporter for having exposed the said Minister’s hand in alleged misappropriation of funds of an NGO run by him for the physically disabled. The Union minister even publicly threatened to convert India Today into ‘India Yesterday’ in court for exposing the scam.

The growing popularity of social media is becoming yet another eyesore for those wishing to curb the spread of ‘bad news’. More than three decades after the draconian 19-month-long emergency, when the people and the press were subjected to unchecked suppression, UPA II took a leaf out of those unpleasant days by banning several social media websites recently declaring that they harbour hateful content. A notification to this effect was served to ‘All Internet Service Licensees’ on 20th August 2012 by none other than the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) under the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. The curbs on social media started after the exodus of the people of northeastern origin from certain parts of the country, but some of the sites and handles blocked caused many to raise eyebrows. Among the banned pages were several news websites including The Times of India, Al Jazeera,,, etc., and handles of two prominent journalists – Kanchan Gupta (@KanchanGupta) and Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor), among others.

Arguing its case, the government said that the internet censorship was necessary to quell hate speech inciting rumors across Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and leading to an exodus of people from the North-East. The rumors, they said, had its origins in Pakistan which circulated inflammatory misinformation through morphed pictures and other communal content.

Government agencies stormed into action without delay by announcing a cap on sms circulation across India, restricting it to a limit of 5 each day. Soon after came the DOT notification blocking several websites. The move led to a massive outrage over the social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook where people overnight turned their display pictures black and wrote with the hash tag of #GOIBlocks and #Emergency2012, which remained key trending topics for weeks on end.

Even as the outrage continues over alleged censoring of government critics in the garb of quelling rumours, sources told Media Watch, “that the union government had indeed been contemplating a ban on a few websites ever since it found itself swimming through a tide of corruption accusations, more so after the recent CAG report on the alleged coal scam.”

“I think the recent crackdown singling out individual journalists for reasons that have never been made clear, was completely unjustified. Using the pretext of hate mail and material being disseminated via social media (a valid reason for concern), the government then went the whole hog. I actually think there is a lot that is absolutely vile on the internet. I think reasonable restrictions on free speech as laid down by our Constitution are a good thing. But you cannot use it as a fig leaf to arbitrarily shut down people for reasons that were never made clear”, says well-known columnist Namita Bhandare.

While the outrage against the crackdown continues, there are others who believe that social media in India is still at its nascent stage and it will take some more time for the industry to develop and agencies to co-relate laws and their behavior in accordance. Madhu Trehan, a veteran journalist who initiated the famous video-magazine Newstrack in India and now runs says, “Social media is evolving into a strong news source with an added punch. Readers/viewers can give their opinions; interact with authors on an immediate basis which you cannot do with mainstream media. It is more democratic and is not controlled so far by the government, though the government keeps trying.Mainstream media is a completely different editorial and revenue model. I don’t think they can be compared.

Media trainer and author Harini Calamur adds a different perspective, declaring that non-state actors have also begun to play a fair role in muzzling press freedom. “Non state actors and groups have been asserting their identity and flexing their muscles for quite some time,” she says and adds that their arm twisting tactics include writing, sponsoring, threatening boycott of advertised products in media, peaceful demonstrations, legal and illegal action, and more.

“The government in liberal democracies rarely takes suo moto action unless there is a risk of law and order going awry. Non-state actors are becoming more intolerant, more aggressive. But it is important to note that the media is also a non-state actor. The role of government is to keep the peace between the different non state actors in the case of a conflict,” she says.

In January this year, while inaugurating a book The Tribune 130 Years: A Witness to History written by historian VN Dutta, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, reported Indian Express, asked the media to introspect, suggesting a “degree of self-regulation”.

On the “inevitable highs and lows” in the media, Singh pointed out that there was “sensationalism, driven by a desire to sell a story at any cost... there are stories without a clear understanding of the underlined issues. There is reporting which is prejudiced. There is trivialisation of important matters. There is corruption. The prevalence of the practice of ‘paid news’ exposed recently has come as a shock to all right-thinking people.”

Of course there is ample truth in the prime minister’s words. But will media houses take his tough words seriously given that Dr Singh’s government itself seems cornered from all sides with allegations of scams and scandals being uncovered from every hidden closet? Instances of curbing freedom of speech by those close to the government further take the sting out of the his cutting remarks. Not many days ago, Ravi Srinivasan of Pondicherry became the first person in India to be arrested for a Tweet. The Tweet, which was addressed to no more than 16 followers said that Karti Chidambaram, son of Finance Minister P Chidambaram had “amassed more wealth than Vadra (son-in-law of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi)’. The Tweet followed a police complaint. Police charged Srinivasan under Section 66A of India’s Information Technology [IT] Act, and demanded 15 days of police custody. Pondicherry’s chief judicial magistrate however declined the remand and granted bail instead.

Incidentally, the same law has been used to arrest a professor earlier this year for posting cartoons on the net ridiculing West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.  Latest in the chain has been section 66A being used to arrest two young girls from Thane in Maharashtra for their Facebook post questioning the shutdown of Mumbai after Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s death. Such instances have not only sparked outrage among the Twitterati and other netizens but also exposes the deliberate attempts by sections of the political elite to shoot the messenger.

In fact, a sensational instance of shooting the messenger – in this case TV news channels – was played out in Karnataka earlier this year. After a private TV channel caught former Cooperation Minister Lakshman Savadi and Women and Child Welfare Minister CC Patil watching porn on a mobile handset inside the state legislature this February, the first reaction of the state government was to sack the concerned ministers from the cabinet the very next day. But their next move was to propose a ban on live telecast of the proceedings of the legislature by private TV channels altogether. They did not mention porngate even once when making the announcement. But the message was amply clear: go against us and we know which buttons to press for your continued compliance. Touche!

"We don't take pride in telling the truth"

Veteran journalist Carol Andrade, editor of Afternoon Dispatch and Courier, talks to Aditya Raj Kaul about the muzzling of the press and how we ourselves are to blame for it.

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Have there been increasing incidents of muzzling of the press in India by state and non-state actors?
Not overtly but in a furtive and covert way. Everybody knows that it is around, but you do not talk about it. A lot of it is actually is driven by the need to protect yourself.  It also comes from the knowledge that we do not have a free press. We do not have recourse to a lot of higher processes; we cannot expect authorities to protect us. Even our judicial process is against us. Every journalist is afraid of being tied up in the legal process. Automatically, you censor yourself. Government would muzzle us less than the non-state actors (corporates, underworld et al).  Money talks louder than anything else.

How did you react to the Aazad Maidan violence in Mumbai?
I think the police were caught unawares themselves. The suddenness of the attack and the sheer irrationality surprised everyone. It was a failure of intelligence, not the police. We are so used to it by now that we are not even surprised about it. A lot of us know what happened to those police women at Aazad Maidan, for instance and nobody is talking about it. Even the press is silent. It’s probably because we cannot get confirmation about it. Police could not do much to protect the media. What was shocking was the people who attacked the media actually knew that they were attacking cameramen; they would have somewhere in their minds known that they would not get away with this! It was just that they were in such huge numbers that they might have thought they would.

Was it foolishness on part of the government to arrest cartoonist Aseem Trivedi?
It was plain foolishness. I think it was a kneejerk reaction. There were calls for his arrest and they simply went out and did it. After that, the easiest thing in the world was to slap a sedition case against him, which is such an outdated thing that it has lost all relevance to what is happening in this country. How many cases of sedition have ever been probed? It is an 1816 law which was brought in to protect rulers from the natives. Those cartoons were stupid. They are badly drawn too. His perception of the parliament as a toilet was childish. It was distasteful toilet humour. I cannot imagine RK Laxman indulging in this kind of a thing. The media made a hero out of him and he behaved as a martyr, as if he was the only champion of free expression. The authorities and the media made a mountain out of a molehill.

Have there been efforts to bring in a law to protect the journalists in Maharashtra?
It will not be useful because you may bring in the best laws in the country but it is the implementation where we suffer. It is the execution where we suffer. We have ourselves to blame that we have not stood out as an industry or a profession that prides itself on integrity and telling the truth.

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