New Delhi: After India protested about “unwarranted” remarks made at a conference about rising intolerance against minorities by an Indian editor, the UK has brushed off the complaint by noting that journalists’ views can’t be expected to be aligned with the government’s and opinions cannot be “suppressed” at an event which was expressly about media freedom.
Last month, the UK and Canadian governments had jointly hosted a ‘Global Conference on Media Freedom’ in London. According to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, the conference is “part of an international campaign to shine a global spotlight on media freedom and increase the cost to those that are attempting to restrict it”.
At a panel on religion and media on July 11, editor of the Indian newsmagazine The Caravan Vinod Jose gave a presentation on the history of religious intolerance against minorities in India. As per the presentation uploaded on YouTube, he showed clips of mobile phone videos of recent lynchings. He also stated that “hatred for these minorities owed in good part to the teachings of Hindutva ideologues, including the founders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)”.
Recounting the list of incidents, Jose had referred to the 1984 riots. The slide on the devastating riots that killed 2,700 Sikhs stated that “members of the Congress party, members in the right-wing group, the RSS, (were) among the killers”.
After his presentation, chairman of India’s state broadcasting authority, Prasar Bharati, A. Surya Prakash protested. As per a PTI report and a video seen by The Wire, Prakash said after the presentation that he was “pained by the decision of the organisers to have given a platform for such a blatantly anti-India presentation”.
“I don’t think anyone is furthering the cause of democracy by running down the most vibrant democracy in the world,” he said.
Prakash also claimed that there were “very many factual inaccuracies” in the presentation. He pointed out that “all that was shown on the screen is the work of the Indian media”.
“There are few people in this world who are uncomfortable with the electoral decision taken by 600 million voters of India and are using forums like this to pander and push their political agendas,” said the Prasar Bharati chair in his response from the audience.
Thereafter, the moderator, Lord Tariq Ahmed, UK minister of state for the commonwealth, South Asia and UN, also noted that the strength of forums was that such issues were raised and there was also a right to challenge them.
He pointed out that there were also similar problems within the UK, specifically including anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.
He added that the fundamental strength of India’s democracy was respected. “But the point of religious persecution is understood…also…thank you for the point that you have illustrated that the systems of governance are robust and media is part and parcel of democratic fundamentals,” said Lord Ahmad.
At the conclusion, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting forwarded the Prasar Bharati chairman’s report on the conference to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
As per multiple media reports, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar wrote back to I&B minister Prakash Javadekar that the matter had been raised directly with the two organisers of the conference, the UK and Canadian governments, about the “unwarranted” remarks.
The Wire has also confirmed that Jaishankar did write to Javadekar that the two sponsor governments were told through diplomatic channels that it was “unacceptable and unfortunate” that a platform had been provided to make “unfounded remarks” against India.
The UK government doesn’t seem to agree – at least as per the remarks of the high commissioner to India, Dominic Asquith.
When asked at a recent interaction about the Indian government’s protest, he stated that it was agreed by all those who participated that media freedom event was a “vital part of international responsibility”.
Asquith noted that a “range of views were, of course, expressed at the conference as you would expect”.
He added, “It is a forum for exchanging views, not a forum to suppress views”.
The British envoy also went on to state that it was not surprising that a presentation made by a journalist would not fall in line with narratives of governments.
“I can say that not just in that case, the views expressed in the conference, as you would expect professional journalists are not always aligned to some of the governments. So, that’s what freedom of media means. In the context of that conference, the chairman of Prasar Bharati had space made for him by the chairman (of the session) to respond to the comments made…and we have of course listened to him,” he said.
The Ministry of External Affairs has not publicly commented about the letter written by Jaishankar to his cabinet colleague or officially confirmed that it had raised the matter with the UK and Canada.
However, official sources defended India’s protest with the two countries, asserting that such a demarche is not such a rare tool of protest. “Even during think-tank events, we have registered our protests if there was anything that we felt denigrated India or was substantively wrong,” they said.
When contacted, the Prasar Bharati chairman said that he did not want to comment on the UK high commissioner’s response to the Indian government’s complaints.
Vinod Jose told The Wire that he welcomed the UK high commissioner’s statement. “If the UK government’s India envoy did not respond to the Indian government’s criticism positively, he was echoing the sentiment expressed by the global community in London last month. As an Indian, I am ashamed that the Indian government had to be reminded of the definition of a professional journalist – someone who is not always aligned to the government,” he said.
The Caravan editor asserted that the “view of certain government officials that I should not have been invited for the conference by the governments of UK and Canada is symptomatic of a habit that those working within the Indian regime have developed these days: of fielding ideologues who will conform to narratives that the Emperor likes to hear.”
The senior Indian journalist was highly critical of India’s move to formally object to his presence with foreign governments.
“Minister Jaishankar’s response is a glowing validation of why a Global Conference for Media Freedom was needed in the first place: because governments and vested interests are throttling the press world over, and we need collective local and global efforts to resist such suppression to safeguard whatever little we have built since World War II in terms of value systems and democracy,” said Jose.
He felt that that “whoever advised a career-bureaucrat-turned-minister to write such a letter is painting the Indian Foreign Service and Indian diplomacy in poor light”.
“It is the irony of ironies, since Jaishankar is taking objection to a critical and factual presentation that I made at a conference dedicated to the freedom of the press,” Jose pointed out, adding that the “external affair minister’s efforts to quell dissenting views have to be discouraged”.
He noted that India’s ranking in various indices had been deteriorating – whether in media, religious freedom, environment, hunger or the human capital index. “Can minister Jaishankar and his government address these troubling facts instead of using ineffective stunts to eclipse the goings-on in India?”
He also observed that the 20th century had witnessed the choice made by diplomats, ministers, journalists and jurists to be on the side of truth and justice, freedom of press and rule of law, while others chose authoritarian governments, control of media and arbitrary decision-making. “I don’t think the 21st century will be very different either. Individuals and governments are taking positions, and I hope individuals and governments still slipping on the wrong side will calibrate their positions to be on the right side of history,” said the senior journalist.
Author Salil Tripathi, who is the elected chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prisons Committee, participated at the London conference but couldn’t attend the session. However, he did watch and listen to the recordings later.
Tripathi, who is a contributor to The Caravan, found it “unusual that a diplomat as seasoned” as the new external affairs minister felt “he had to criticise the UK and Canada, which had organised the conference for letting Vinod have his say.”
“That’s mildly amusing because it seems Mr Jaishankar has failed to see the point of a conference on media freedom, where journalists can express themselves freely, and somehow ironically, he appears to want the state to restrain or control journalists from speaking freely,” he said.
Such interventions, Tripathi declared, made “India look like an immature nation”. He noted the conference had invited the Filipino journalist Mara Ressa, who is being persecuted by Duterte administration, as well as reporters from Myanmar, Cameroon and other countries. “None of those governments reacted.”
The reason that Tripathi couldn’t attend the session was because he was interviewing the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, about the murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I don’t think the Saudi Arabian government has expressed any view about that interview. Maybe it is time for India’s government to reflect on the meaning of the constitution, as it celebrates the Independence Day,” he added.