Backstory: Independent Media Can’t Breathe With the Ever Shrinking Public Sphere

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

At a point of time when both the Opposition and the independent media are feeling the government at their throats, it may be useful to delve into medical descriptions of strangulation. The appending of the adjective “independent” to the word “media”, by the way, removes from the reckoning those media entities now eponymously referred to as “godi media” because they, even if they are aware that they are being throttled, are simply lovin’ the Big Squeeze.

This is what I learnt about strangulation from a document titled ‘The investigation and prosecution of strangulation cases’, produced by the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention and the California District Attorneys Association. Victims of strangulation “may lose consciousness by any of the following methods: blocking of the carotid arteries in the neck (depriving the brain of oxygen), blocking of the jugular veins (preventing deoxygenated blood from exiting the brain), or closing of ̨ the airway (making breathing impossible).”

This is exactly what happens to the free media when the free flow of information is arrested. It slowly loses its ability to exercise agency, and over time, is rendered comatose much like the human body.

It was also educative to learn that that there may not be any visible external injuries in many of these cases. Indeed, the thing about the present form of media strangulation is that it is not immediately perceivable. In fact, the Modi government assiduously keeps up the pretence of India being a thriving democracy and posters this message all over public spaces, even as posters of those opposed to the prime minister appearing on public walls invite an avalanche of FIRs.

Just the other day, Anurag Thakur, minister of information and broadcasting, claimed in parliament that his government “does not interfere in the functioning of the press”. The statement had one word too many and that was the word “not”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the India Today conclave a week ago, reiterated that “democracy delivers” for India. In the year between now and the last time he pronounced these noble words – it was at the Biden-hosted Summit for Democracy – his government has continued jailing journalists (the latest being Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj hauled up by the National Investigation Agency under charges of  “terrorism”); notching up the highest number of internet shutdowns among the countries of the world; conducting tax ‘surveys’ of media houses including the BBC; withdrawing the FCRA of organisations supporting independent media.

In the few days since the India Today conclave, the BJP system has ensured the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from parliament, the opposition’s most prominent member of parliament. There is in fact an important connection between Gandhi’s expulsion and the state of the independent media today and that is the stifling of the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression. It was, after all, a drive to silence his voice in parliament that led to his expulsion.

Over the last few days, every trick in the book was adopted by the ruling party to gag Gandhi, ranging from targeted audio glitches to deliberate uproar from Treasury Benches to ensure that any discussion on Narendra Modi-Gautam Adani gets aborted.

Outside parliament, the space for public discussion has also been conspicuously shrinking. Even as the Supreme Court declares that “mere membership of a banned organisation” could invite charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, the administration in Kashmir (remember if Kashmir sneezes today, the rest of the country will catch a cold tomorrow) through a recent order sets down that government employees and their family members would invite disciplinary action.

Meanwhile, the police are emerging as the new censors. Fear that “law and order” would deteriorate if meetings take place is now the new justification. Note how the Delhi Police has honed its toolkit to perfection. Delhi University, which should have been a place of learning and self-realisation, has now emerged as a site of calibrated fear creation. Students have been barred for long spells just for organising a viewing of the BBC documentary and protests against this indefensible action have invited further police repression. You can almost hear the doors and windows of the mind getting bolted and latched.

Take the manner in which a meeting on ‘Media Blackout and State Repression in Kashmir’ that was to be held at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi was summarily stopped by the Delhi Police (‘Delhi Police Disallows Event on ‘Media Blackout in Kashmir’, March 15). The police claimed that the organisers of the event were anonymous, and therefore, potential trouble makers when in fact the participating organisations and panellists were all well-known and prominent members of Delhi’s civil society.

A further claim was made out that it would cause “law and order” problems. The police strategy was cunningly crafted: the ban order dated March 14 reached the organisers just before the programme was to take place on March 15, so as to preclude the possibility of anyone approaching the court for relief.

Filmmaker Sanjay Kak in his observations to The Wire explained the larger implications of the move: “It’s important for people to take note that this silencing does not – and will not – stop at discussions of Kashmir alone; it has already fallen on various expressions of democratic rights in India. And this silence is not simply a matter of choking self-expression. It is fast becoming the throttling of democracy itself.”

We have reached yet another level of public censorship which, because it disrupts the free flow of public information, translates into media control. It is not just media organisations and their funders that are being targeted, the attempt is now on to obstruct the very sources of media information. While public rallies and speeches require police permission, the attempt now is to control closed door meetings of people interested in discussing issues of public import and mutual interest. So we are confronting another methodology of strangulating public discourse, another way to deprive the brain of an entity we call society of oxygen. Jurgen Habermas’s coffee houses, which expedite exchanges between people on public issues and create a public sphere that could potentially challenge the state, are being dismantled.

The Indian constitution is by no means perfect. It has many silences that continue to haunt us. But it is significant that Article 19 1 (a) of the Constitution has several components. Apart  from guarantee of the right to freedom of speech and expression there are guarantees of the right to form associations or unions; move freely throughout the territory of India, and so on. There is also the crucial right to “assemble peaceably and without arms”. Each one of the clauses of 19 (1) (a) reinforces the other; without one, the other will be rendered infructuous.

These clauses incidentally emerged out of animated discussions during the Constituent Assembly debates. One member had put it this way: “A State should not be empowered to pass a legislation restricting permanently peaceful assembly and assembly without arms. I think such a general power in the armoury of any State, however popular or democratic, would not be desirable. In the larger interests of the country…to give such wide powers in the hands of the State and with regard to such fundamental rights as, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement would, I believe, be harmful and result in the creation of a suffocating and stuffy atmosphere as opposed to the free air of a truly free country.”

We have reached that point in history which the speaker had foretold with dread: the strangulation of ideas before they can even emerge. What we need is the free air of a truly free country.


An investigation in pre-poll Karnataka

Dhanya Rajendran, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the feisty news portal, The News Minute, was given this year’s Chameli Devi Jain award for Outstanding Woman Mediapersons, for her investigation into a very contemporary story that made waves across India: data theft for electoral purposes. In her post-award speech, Rajendran revealed the investigation’s back story: “To me, this is the story of India today – the story of stripping away rights of citizens, the story of political greed – the story of how the vision for this country as a democracy, as outlined in our constitution, is being eroded… not even slowly, I think it’s happening at breakneck speed!”

It was fascinating listening to this media theft story from the woman behind it. In August 2022, a journalist running a Kannada digital news outlet called Prathidvani had approached The News Minute with some vital information from a whistleblower about a senior minister in the Karnataka assembly collecting voter data illegally.

The first aspect was immediately recognising the siginficance of the story a few months before a crucial assembly election. Rajendran said, “We investigated the story for two months. At many points, it seemed like there was no story, or at least there was no big story. Officers we asked questions to dissuaded us. We were unable to establish the links. We were even unsure what the illegality was. And then one fine day, the man who was helming this voter data collection operation threatened our team. This is the kind of situation that often makes journalists retreat – a combination of doubt and threats. We, however, knew one thing – if we had ruffled so many feathers just in the beginning of our pursuit, there must be something sinister behind it all.”

It was this hostility that made The News Minute persist with the story and finally uncover an unsavoury effort to compile lists so as to potentially remove voters from electoral rolls, particularly those belonging to the Muslim and Dalit communities.

The question that Rajendran asked herself was this: How does a journalist, whose job it is to find the truth and bring it to the people, stop herself from losing her morale in an atmosphere of political chicanery and repression; when rules are brought in without legislative oversight to make it almost impossible for the independent media to function?

The News Minute’s story had an immediate impact. The agency doing the collection was barred; the Election Commission of India appointed bureaucrats to oversee electoral rolls across Bengaluru; and voter lists in three seats were rechecked.

There was an additional point: The impact of the story would have been much less if it was only The News Minute and Prathidhvani that had published it. In this case, the entire media in Karnataka came together on the story. “Kannada TV channels and newspapers, English newspapers in Karnataka followed up, broke new stories, and asked tough questions. This was one instance when I felt like we are all in the same fight – we are all here to speak for the public good. To speak up for democracy,” she said.

Unfortunately, such moments of unity are rare. “This collective power of the media has faded and the blame largely lies on the media. Over a period of time, it seems like most journalists have forgotten who they serve and have instead allowed themselves to be pawns in somebody else’s game. And those in power, have used one media house to bring down another, one story to undermine another.”


We can all take a leaf from Gary Lineker’s book

If there is one thing the Gary Lineker episode tells us it is that when employers forget their principles,  that’s the time for senior journalists to stick by theirs.

Gary Lineker, a former footballer, and one of Britain’s most popular commentators of the game – his ‘Match of the Day’ on BBC has made it to the Guinness World Records as the longest running football TV show in history —  also happens to be a thinking, ethical person. He did not shy away from expressing his outrage over the UK’s new plan to dispatch asylum seekers arriving in small boats to the UK all the way to Rwanda. As he put it, the proposal is an “immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable.” He even drew a parallel between the language that the UK government used in arguing for this policy, and that used by Germany in the 30s. Lineker’s  public stance did not go down well with his bosses under pressure from a right wing government. Before long, Lineker was asked to stop presenting his show ‘Match of the Day’ until the organisation “got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media”.

We have had similar situations here in India. Remember the treatment accorded by the India Today management (‘India Today Editor Fired for Tweeting Against Fake News Hints at Legal Action’, February 14, 2018) to one of its senior editors, Angshukanta Chakraborty, for her tweets (‘India Today Editor Fired for Tweeting Against Fake News Hints at Legal Action’, February 14, 2018).


Chakraborty unfortunately did not get support from her professional peers unlike Lineker.  When he refused to apologise for his tweets and was taken off the air, support for him poured in from all sides with fellow presenters even ditching their own programmes to drive home the point that they will not stomach such silencing. Many Lineker-related hashtags trended, including a petition demanding his reinstatement with thousands signing on. Within a matter of days, Lineker was back with his ‘Match of the Day’. What’s more his freedom to tweet was not curtailed and he underlined this with this sharp comment: “A final thought: however difficult the last few days have been, it simply doesn’t compare to having to flee your home from persecution or war to seek refuge in a land far away. It’s heartwarming to have seen the empathy towards their plight from so many of you.

“We remain a country of predominantly tolerant, welcoming and generous people. Thank you.”

The difference between Them and Us, it seems, is the spontaneous support that those unfairly punished for holding politically unpopular, anti-establishment, views received in the Lineker case, not just from the public but from peers.


Readers write in…

You’ve got it wrong

A reader who wants to be identified as a well-wisher of The Wire writes in: “With all due respect from a common citizen in Tamil Nadu, I appreciate The Wire’s efforts to publish neutral news in the era of decaying journalism. Recently I read the piece, ‘Instead of Fake News About Attacks, Let’s Talk About the Real Issues Facing Migrant Workers’ (March 9) and came across the following line: “The rumours driving the narrative of migrant exodus are not just due to the stir created from outside. There has been an ostensible undercurrent of animosity against the Hindi-speaking migrant workers predominantly propagated by Seeman, the chief coordinator of the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK, or We Tamils Party), and his virulent Tamil nativist followers.

“This statement misrepresents the sentiments of our people as we are trying long and hard to convey our stand that we are not anti-Hindi but pro-native speakers. We are not against Hindi but against its imposition. Why should we use Hindi in our everyday life when we have a rich, beautiful and classical language as our mother tongue?

“Regarding Seeman how has he been spreading hate against Hindi-speaking people? I have followed his stance and know he is pro-Tamil and speaks for the welfare of the Tamil peoples in their own land. What is wrong with that? After all, shouldn’t a journalist present both sides of the argument? This piece does not do that. Would you label ‘Make in India’ as an anti-West idea? There were around 2,000 languages in India. Most of them have been silently killed. Those who claim that we are anti-Hindi don’t spare a thought about this reality.  As responsible journalists, we advise you to also take the opinions of members of the Naam Tamilar Katchi before publishing anything on this issue.

“Though things diverse from diverse sages’ lips we learn,

’Tis wisdom’s part in each the true thing to discern.

To discern the truth in everything, by whomsoever spoken, is wisdom.”

Why no acknowledgements?

Dr. Ganeshdatta Poddar, adjunct faculty with FLAME University, Pune:  “I am writing to you because a few attempts earlier failed to elicit any response from the editorial team of The Wire. Sincere authors who contact The Wire with their work at least deserve an acknowledgement or a reply, even if the platform is not interested in publishing their writing!”

My response: First, apologies for this failure to communicate, but I have to say that this is a common complaint with regard not just to The Wire but media offices everywhere. Unfortunately, it is difficult for news establishments, many of which are understaffed, to respond on the status of unsolicited articles received in large numbers on a daily basis.

Tailpiece: These words of Justice Deepak Gupta, a former judge of the Supreme Court, while speaking to The Wire (from the 10th minute), caught the attention of reader N. Jayaram: “Normally it takes 100 days for the recommendation [from the Collegium of judges] to be approved by the government… If it’s a Christian it takes 266 days, if it’s a Muslim it takes more than 350 days.”

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