Culture

Backstory: Controlling Information Flows Is the New Game in Town

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

As we come to the end of 2017, we need to recognise it as a year in which Indian journalism was challenged as never before, even if we are to consider the notorious days of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Reporters Without Borders felt constrained to lower the country’s ranking in its press freedom index by three notches in 2017, but this should be considered only a modest demotion given the scale and seriousness of the many assaults on the institutions of the media that took place over the course of the year.

The prevailing political climate lent itself to a multi-faceted censorship perpetrated by both state and non-state actors. Mob actions (‘Editorial: Rajasthan Government Must Ensure ‘Padmavati’ Is Released, Not Pander to Mobs‘, November 11) and online character assassinations by troll armies are the least of it – real-time assassination, the most extreme form of censorship, has become all too real. Never before have journalists in India been reminded so forcefully that they could be marked and eliminated. The sheer impunity with which they have been killed in recent months staggers the mind (‘Another Journalist Shot Dead in Tripura‘, November 21). Nothing reflected the cold-blooded calculations in some quarters that those mediapersons who hold inconvenient views deserve to be eliminated than the celebratory tweets that greeted Gauri Lankesh’s murder in September. The fact that Lankesh’s killers are still at large despite mass protests and solemn assurances from the Karnataka government of the case being cracked, would indicate that the politics of the day militates against justice being delivered in the case (‘Gauri Lankesh: The Life Before Death’, November 30). Every crime of this kind that remains unpunished signals encouragement to the assassin.

Controlling the flow of information is the new game in town. The year saw the deployment of multi-crore SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suits being brought against those in the media who sought to protect and expand the right to public probity, and they include one against this portal as we well know. Meanwhile, we have the extraordinary prospect of judges banning the media from reporting on cases that are deemed to be “sensitive”, “sensational” or “embarrassing”. The Allahabad high court, looking into the case against Adityanath in the Gorakhpur riots, wants no media coverage, and the CBI special court judge presiding over the Sohrabuddin trial, while allowing journalists to be present in court, has banned any reporting of the proceedings which surely defeats the purpose of their presence (‘Former Judges, Journalists Condemn Media Gag in Sohrabuddin Trial’, November 30).

At this rate, we may as well give up on seeking facts or critically engaging with the issues of the day through the agency of trained professionals, and rely wholly on stuff that comes in through WhatsApp feeds. Already, information of uncertain provenance has become the staple of media content. The maelstrom whipped up by corporate television channels over Rahul Gandhi’s religious persuasion was a prime example of primetime fandangle. Instead of exposing the highly suspicious entry in the Somnath Temple register for what it was – an ingenious bit of fakery for political purposes– our top television honchos awarded it the kind of play reserved for matters of the highest national interest and ended up serving the cynically pre-meditated political end of heightening communal prejudices before a crucial election.

If such mainstream media coverage is a foretaste of what is to come during the next general election, just two years away, it fills one with a deepest foreboding. Five years ago, it was the Gujarat assembly election verdict that had shaped the media narrative for the 2014 general election, and indicated a new willingness on the part of India’s most powerful media houses to shed any pretence of independence in their bid to cleave to power. Today, it is not the media’s active support to the government of the day but its proactive support to it that is so disturbing. How then can the media be trusted to provide Indian voters with the informed content needed to make the most enlightened choice in 2019?

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It is in times like these that the collaborative efforts that made possible the Panama Papers, and now the Paradise Papers, constitute an important model for “accountability journalism”. As the piece ‘Paradise Papers Another Example of Power of Collaboration in Investigative Journalism’ (November 18) put it, at a time when journalism is under pressure around the world, “such collaborations are a way of managing risk and bringing greater attention to public issues than any newsroom on its own could manage”.

These are possibilities that independent media platforms within the country could consider, even as they explore innovative formats to generate timely and credible stories. Professionalism is its own reward. Something as simple and straightforward as an “explainer” goes such a long way in throwing more light on matters of national import. The Wire piece painstakingly explaining the nitty-gritty of the Rafale deal, went a long way (‘Explainer: Questions the Modi Government Needs to Answer on the Rafale Fighter Jet Purchase’, November 17). Unsurprisingly, it drew a number of responses and led to heated exchanges in the feedback columns. Similarly, just when the story about Justice B.H. Loya’s demise appeared to collapse in a tide of contradictory media information, the piece pointing out the discrepancies in media reports was an important summation of the relevant questions that arose (‘Death of a Judge: What We Know, What We Don’t Know’, November 27).

The commentary on sanitation workers (‘We Are All Complicit in the Institutional Murders of Dalit Sanitation Workers’, November 23) was particularly hard hitting and informative. It should be made compulsory reading in all schools of journalism. Manuel scavenging would perhaps have been consigned to history decades ago if the media was halfway serious about reporting on it effectively. As the authors point out, “Caste is rarely mentioned when the media reports these death cases – somehow they are able to report and discuss sewer deaths without ever connecting them with the problem of caste. The media cannot be too naïve to understand the caste system in its entirety. Their silence, then, is as supportive of the caste system as is the government’s.” As Sujatha Gidla, author of the new book ‘Ants Among Elephants’, puts it in an interview carried in The Wire, “I would say that story of India is the story of caste, and it is not a pretty story. In America, I know many white people who are not racist. I don’t think I have come across as many upper caste people who are not casteist” (‘Story of India Is the Story of Caste’, October 29, 2017). Pity the two pieces were not tagged – they should have been.

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Meanwhile, as the courageous manner in which Hadiya stood up for her personal rights and emerged as an icon in her own right (‘Hadiya’s Encounter With the Courts Reveals the Continued Stranglehold of Brahmanical Order’, November 29), the story titled, ‘Tell Hindu Girls That Muslim Men are “Terrorists”, and Other “Lessons” from an RSS-backed “Hindu” Fair’ (November 18) was particularly relevant. It had information that other reports lacked, including the fact that the Hindu Spiritual and Service Foundation (HSSF) that organised it is linked to the RSS and its affiliate, the Rashtriya Sewa Bharati, is based in Chennai. Regressive indoctrination that is going on in the name of “family values” “women’s honour” and “patriotism” is now a pan-Indian phenomenon.

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Finally I got down to responding to feedback mail after a long spell out of town… Should The Wire carry articles with contending perspectives? That was the question raised in one of the mails I received. Prannoy Sablok cited two articles comparing the execution of government schemes under the UPA and NDA dispensations, ‘Modi May Have Repackaged 23 UPA Schemes, But Most Are Working Better Now’ (October 12) and ‘Flagship Governance Programmes: Who Did it Better, UPA-II or Modi Government?’(November 20, 2017). He writes, “As a reader I suppose that the reason you are posting both the stances, namely the NDA did better and the UPA did better, is to adhere to balance and to inform the reader of both sides of the argument. However, I believe the way you are presenting it is seriously flawed. By posting one argument on one day and then the other argument some weeks later, you are doing a disservice to your readers. Both sides should be presented in the same article so that we as readers would be able to scrutinise them properly. At the moment, it just seems that The Wire itself does not have a stance on the issue and is posting these articles blindly! Not only do I find this unprofessional but it erodes trust in The Wire as a reliable news organisation. More dangerously, by not presenting both arguments side by side on the same webpage, you are providing fodder for trolls from each side to spread misinformation and propaganda. BJP supporting trolls, for instance, could use the pro-NDA article to simply say ‘Look! Even The Wire now supports us!’ Anyone who is not aware of the other article will fall for this trick.”

In response to Prannoy, I would only say that all credible media organisations provide space for rebuttals to pieces they carry. In fact the second piece referred to here had prominently carried the line: “Note: This is the second part in a five-series rebuttal and examination of how well the Modi government’s flagship governance schemes have functioned so far.” As for trolls with pre-determined agendas, it would be a sad day if The Wire were to allow them to determine its content.

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Ashoke Chatterjee, who has long been associated with the Crafts Council of India, has written in to express his thanks for carrying two pieces that reflected an “excellent understanding of the GST impact on artisans”: ‘The GST Regime is Damaging, Not Helping, India’s Crafts Sector’ (September 25) and ‘Imposing GST on Handmade Goods in Line With India’s History of Policy Bias Against Artisans’ (October 21). But he has one grouse: why does The Wire’s website not carry a feedback email id? The editorial team should look into this.

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Readers still seem to have difficulties in sending in donations. Archith John Bency, an Indian graduate student who living in Southern California and is “happy to see journalism that scrutinises the dispensation in power”, found that his attempts to make a payment through his credit card has been unsuccessful thus far and suspects that the payment portal of The Wire may not have been configured to accept payment from credit cards issued by US banks. He would like to know if there are options for receiving money from those with foreign bank accounts. He adds that he, as an Indian citizen with a valid PAN number, has had no problem in donating to other Indian organisations through his American credit cards or Paypal account.
Meanwhile, Ali Faraz Asghar, who had made a donation, writes in to ask why his tax deduction statement has not reached him as yet.

  • alok asthana

    I’ve said it earlier and I’ll say it again. This time Modi will will be defeated not by the efforts of opposition but by those of good journalists that throng The Wire. Also, by a lot of stand-up comedians who have richly contributed to show us what Modi really is.