Backstory: If Journalists Are Under Threat How Can Journalism Be Safe?

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

On October 2, celebrated as the birth anniversary of a journalist – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – media persons across India will be on a protest against the rising attacks on them, under the slogan, “You can kill but you can’t stop us”. The words they have chosen to define their action are recognition that the threat to their lives and well-being arise from the stories they have done, are doing and could do in the future; stories that someone, somewhere do not want going public.

There is also an important promise to the country here: that the labours of independent journalists will carry on, no matter the threat. The viciousness of those who seek to target journalists in this way is only matched by their cowardice – striking under the cover of night, stinging under the veil of anonymity.

Journalists are meant to be “objective”, and a recent piece in The Wire, ‘Is the Indian Media Failing to Perform a Necessary ‘Activist’ Role?’ (September 22) unpacks what that means in an age of proliferating media platforms, while arguing powerfully for why the times require journalists to be activists. The fact, however, is that media professionals within formal organisations have very little agency to play that role, even if they wish to, given the structures of power in which they operate. Even journalists who don’t self-define themselves as activists and try hard to be “objective” find themselves under attack the moment they focus on anything that goes against the interests of the ruling establishment. What is demanded of them is a stance that negates the very raison d’etre of their profession of being the independent eyewitness. Only total submission to the “greater good” of the nation as defined by the ruling powers will do.

In an earlier day, journalists who ventured to defy the establishment would be met by denials delivered by bumbling public relations officers of the government, or may perhaps have had to respond to rejoinders by ideologues of the ruling party. They may have been reprimanded by bosses, forced to apologise, or suffered transfers to some other beat. A few may have even lost their jobs. Today, censure for journalistic “deviance” is brutal and immediate. It has also become weaponised, as testified by the three bullets in the body of Lankesh, or the savage knife wounds on Shantanu Bhowmick’s person.

This is a scenario so dire that it should have sounded sirens at the highest levels of government and the offices of media managements across the country. Instead, we have a remarkable quiescence. The writing on the wall is large enough even for the chronically short-sighted, yet nothing registers. Forget ensuring the arrest of the assassins and assaulters, there has not even been a statement of condemnation from the prime minister or his government.

Could this reticence be driven by the understanding that those who are mounting the campaign of terror against journalists have the support of this government and the media managements that identify with it? That if you, as a journalist, happen to criticise the government and the ruling ideological apparatus, anything that happens to you is your responsibility alone? These are not idle presumptions if we are to go by Alt News’ expose that blew the cover of those threatening a senior media person, ‘Anonymous Threat to NDTV’s Ravish Traced to Exporter Followed by Prime Minister Modi’ (September 27). The same journalist has felt impelled to issue a touching public statement asking the PM a question: will I lose my job? The trolls who are attacking him, who say they want him dead, are claiming that he will be out of work soon, which is why he “as an ordinary citizen and quite insignificant, but also a vigilant and committed journalist” poses such a question to the prime minister.

There is, of course, nothing more mind-numbing than cold-blooded murder, or the threat of it – and journalists are now receiving messages that the fate of Lankesh will be visited upon them – but there are other innumerable shades of everyday intimidation that these professionals face, some of which have been underlined by a range of reports and analyses carried by The Wire. The scrapping of stories by management, very often at the behest of the government, is one such. The piece, ‘Times of India Takes Down a Story the BJP Finds Embarrassing, Again’ (September 26), highlighted the classic web of influence that links editorial decision makers within media organisations to those in power. Nothing discourages more enterprising, “independent”, “objective” journalists who file their stories in good faith and then be made to wait interminably for them to be cleared by some boss sitting in the head office, often only to learn that their efforts have been binned without explanation.

The system is completely opaque and leaves no fingerprints. It could dismantle, often permanently, a journalist’s innate ability to critically engage with the news subject and lays the ground for self-censorship. In such circumstances, only those stories that are likely to pass muster will then see the light of day. Jayant Sinha’s classic rejoinder to his father, which read like an ad for the Modi government, could be the general template.

When this web of influence develops holes or is not perceived to work; when editors refuse to fall in line, there could be another form of intimidation: the issuing of marching orders. This has telling demonstration effects. No one quite knows the real context in which The Hindustan Times’ former editor-in-chief, Bobby Ghosh, packed his bags and left, apart from the protagonist himself and his boss. But all circumstantial evidence carefully culled in The Wire analysis, ‘Hindustan Times Editor’s Exit Preceded by Meeting Between Modi, Newspaper Owner’ (September 25), would indicate this was a good, old-fashioned sacking.

Then there is the ever-present threat of physical assault while in the field, designed to intimidate, influence or stop coverage (‘The National Project for Instilling Fear Has Reached Completion’, June 26). What is striking is the new impunity that is being demonstrated by the police in their attitude to journalists, an impunity that seems to be driven by the certain knowledge that they will be protected by their political masters. The recent thrashing administered by the local police on the senior journalist of Kerala Kaumudi, Sajeev Gopalan, was to avenge an expose he had done on them, but often police repression appears to have the sanction of those higher up the chain of command. The way the Varanasi police inexplicably set upon media persons covering the recent Banaras Hindu University protests, leading to the hospitalisation of some of them, and the notices that the Mumbai crime branch issued to over 20 journalists in Maharashtra for their Facebook posts (‘Journalists Cry Foul After Police Summon Several of Them in Fake Facebook Profile Investigation’, September 23) indicate that “disciplining” media persons has now become part of policing.

The question is that if journalists are forced to function under a blanket of fear and anxiety, can journalism be safe? And if journalism is not safe, can democracy be safe?


Speculative stories: useful?

George Harrison termed gossip as the “devil’s radio”, and just as gossip is often the grist for animated personal conversations, speculation adds a certain zing to media content. But should responsible news platforms purvey speculative stories? The question crossed my mind when I came across The Wire story, ‘As Speculation Mounts Over NDTV Takeover, Here’s a Look at Top Suitor Ajay Singh’ (September 22).

This had followed a rash of news reports indicating that Ajay Singh, owner of a low-cost airline, was indeed going to be NDTV’s next supremo. NDTV officially denied this. Despite that, the temptation to go ahead with this shining nugget of news was far too great for The Wire editorial team to resist having a go at it. The Wire report was, of course, safely contoured and claimed only to add to the sum of human knowledge on Singh. Should it have been done? Is such information on this man at all useful if there is no deal after all? I would say that it would have been better to have waited for further developments, before rushing with this story.


Alan Kurdi redux

Nothing in the media defending the argument that the Rohingya crisis is a humanitarian one worked more powerfully for me than the Reuters story and photography carried in The Wire on September 18 (‘Images Capture Rohingya Grief as an Infant Dies Crossing the Myanmar Border’). The baby’s tiny, inert form in the hands of its distraught mother seemed to embody a reprimand to the world on its ineffectual, unconscionable, handling of the greatest humanitarian crisis of today. It brought to mind the innumerable innocents who have died in situations of conflicts even before they have lived. How can anyone forget the inert form of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi that washed up on a beach? The Rohingya story was from a news agency, but the very fact that it made it to The Wire, and not widely elsewhere in India, reflects an alert and thinking news desk.


Reader feedback

K. Desai, a chartered accountant, is a fan of Vinod Dua and follows his comments assiduously. On Dua’s response to GST, he writes that two aspects have not been highlighted adequately: On the profit margin that can be involved in big-ticket items, any negotiation that is carried out subsequent to a final agreement is of no value. There are many car companies that offer high-end cars at 0% interest in India. No one imagines that the sale is without profit. Profit in capital goods items is very high and one need not even wait for interest to accrue. Normally each item is defined and negotiated in any big contract but in this case, no one is even discussing it. Two, any big-ticket capital goods purchase needs a thorough comparison of products available.


Some compliments

Sudeep Chakravarti found the piece ‘Times of India Takes Down a Story the BJP Finds Embarrassing, Again’ (September 26, 2017) courageous. “You guys are on fire,” he writes.

Karan Thapar thought the article, ‘Modi Government Affidavit on Rohingya Refugees Reverses India’s Long-Held Stand on Non-Refoulement’ ( September 21), was superb. He was particularly pleased to find references to former diplomat and now a minister in the Modi government, Hardeep Puri’s statements on refugees made in the UN, expressing apprehensions that the international refugee law framework was threatened by “increasing xenophobic tendencies, violations of the principle of non-refoulement and new barriers in traditional countries of resettlement”.

Another piece on the Rohingya issue, ‘Despair and Desolation: Life in a Rohingya Refugee Camp in Delhi’, has encouraged Marcus Shaw, the director of admissions, Woodstock School, Mussoorie, to consider offering a scholarship to a bright Rohingya boy or girl to study in the school. He is now looking for organisations working with refugees to help him identify such a candidate.

Sticking points

Anup Singh is upset that “all the articles on your website has anti-Modi theme some way or the other”, and asks The Wire not to be a mouthpiece for Modi critics. He enjoins the portal to “add some positive articles – not everything he does is bad for the nation.”

Singh, however, doesn’t seem to be a careful reader. Besides generating innumerable pieces on subjects other than Modi, The Wire has also noted governmental steps undertaken to stem slowdown (‘Centre Considers Extra Spending of Rs 500 Billion to Halt Economic Slowdown’, September 23) and has carried positive stories as well: two examples, ‘Modi May Have Repackaged 23 UPA Schemes, But Most Are Working Better Now’ (September 13) and ‘Critics, India’s Bullet Train Project Could Be the Path to the Future’ (September 15).

Another reader found the piece, ‘What’s So Neat About Tamil Nadu’s Education Strategy?’ (September 8) badly wanting since it made no reference to any official policy document.

Anjan Basu is disturbed by the verbal abuse that has been building up in the sections on readers’ comments. He writes: “The worst aspect of this abuse is its openly personal tone, as though the reader is determined to settle some old scores with a writer, or even a fellow commenter. I have hesitated for long to formally lodge a protest against it, but it looks as though things are pretty much getting out of hand. I hate to name names, but do be so good as to look up some of the comments a reader who goes by the name of ‘Windwheel’ posted recently on the contributions of such well-known writers as P. Sainath and Prof. Ashwani Seth.”

Basu also points out how he himself has been a particularly favoured target. “She/he jumps at every single comment I happen to post on any item here (which includes) perfectly gratuitous jibes.” He wants to know if The Wire is finding it difficult to keep up with its responsibilities to moderate or screen readers’ comments, given rising volumes. He urges it to find a more efficient way to filter out personal attacks and venom from these comments.

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