Backstory: What They May Not Have Taught You at Journalism School

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

Occasionally I look back to my own years in journalism school. The Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), which first introduced me to a profession that became like my second skin, functioned out of a large-ish double-storeyed building in South Extension, New Delhi. Today, the campus has been relocated to verdant environs that have been hived off from Jawaharlal Nehru University’s capacious grounds. That bungalow has perhaps gone the way of all brick-and-mortar flesh on this stretch of the Ring Road, swallowed up by its ever-expanding malls and showrooms.

There were some marvellous teachers who did more than scratch our minds in that institution and the list includes the IIMC’s urbane, liberal director, M.V. Desai, who in his 1989 book, India Briefing, argued that of the three media functioning in those years, he would lay store only by newspapers in terms of confronting political authority. Professor M.R. Dua, a noted media professor, plugged away at getting us to imbibe the finer points of law and journalism which we found deadly dull. Photography, on the other hand, under the red lights of the institute’s darkroom, came alive under the gentle tutelage of Dhruva N. Chaudhuri. In contrast to his flamboyant father, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, author of the iconic work, Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Dhruva was content to be an unknown Indian, quietly capturing with his camera the urban scapes of the city in which he lived. His lens eye only shuttered down with his death in June 2019.

We also had renowned guest lecturers. I remember, for instance, the bespectacled, formally suited (I think he lectured in a three-piece!), G.G. Mirchandani making an occasional guest appearance in an attempt to get us enthused about the selfless, anonymous work that news agencies required. Mirchandani’s United News of India (UNI), incidentally, was giving its much older compatriot, Press Trust of India, a run for its money at that point. Having given up his radio job for the news agency, UNI under Mirchandani’s energetic leadership (it was said that his morning meetings was all about checking to see where UNI had done better than PTI in covering the day’s news), had an extensive teleprinter network of over a lakh kilometres across the country and bureaus in most districts, and had content sharing arrangements with many institutions including the Associated Press. It is with sadness I write all this because UNI today is in dire straits. We were also put through typing and shorthand classes in order to have the requisite skills to document the country’s future!

The IIMC, having been set up by the Government of India, was possibly envisaged as a grooming school for “establishment journalists”. I don’t remember anything I learnt there that would have helped me handle an interregnum like the Indira Gandhi emergency, for instance. In fact, it would appear that generations of post-independence mediapersons in this country, whether they went to journalism school or not, have today sleepwalked to a phase when journalists are subjected to the same repression as human rights defenders (HRDs), yet do not have the appetite to take on their persecutors – unlike many HRDs. In an era where a prominent spokesperson of a prominent political party can be deplaned and arrested for an expression he used at a press conference, what chance do journalists have to resist the boot at the throat?

Even more troubling is that the journalist has little or no understanding of the laws and rules that can be used against them as indeed the rights and protections that can keep them relatively safe. When you are on the way to Hathras as a reporter and your taxi is suddenly halted by a fearsome posse of khaki-clad men, and literally abducted by them, what should you do? Siddique Kappan, a reporter for Azhimukham the Malayalam, has shared his chilling experiences with The Wire (“Siddique Kappan Says Police ‘Tortured’ Him to Admit Links to Terrorist Groups”, February 4) and several other publications. He soon found himself literally shackled, not just by police handcuffs but by a plethora of false charges: Section 124A (sedition): 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, etc); 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA); the Information Technology Act; and as if all these were not enough, the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. His bid to recover his freedom took two years of his life and put him and his family through unspeakable mental torture.

In another corner, at another point of time, a brilliant Kashmiri woman photojournalist was told by colleagues that she had been charged under Section 13 of the UAPA and Section 505 of the IPC for her “anti-national posts” (“Kashmiri Photojournalist Charged Under UAPA for Unspecified Social Media Posts“, April 20, 2020). She was in a total daze when she was summoned to the cyber police department of Srinagar to explain why she was disturbing “public tranquility” by putting out her work on social media. Although she had been an internationally known professional photojournalist since 2016, suddenly in the eyes of those speaking for law and order, she was seditionist just by virtue of this very work.

What comes through, time and again in these cases, is that truth is never a defence – in fact, it is often the cause of the assault. Ask the three journalists in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, who were arrested for having reported on an examination paper being leaked in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh (“UP: 3 Journalists Arrested for Reporting on Paper Leak Case as Attack on Press Freedom Continues“, April 3, 2022). One of them, Ajit Kumar Ojha of Amar Ujjala, even while he was being taken to the police station with his colleagues, publicly called out those behind the scam, condemning the way journalists were being treated like felons. They ended up being jailed for 28 days.

As for the “survey” conducted by the Income Tax Department officials on the BBC on February 14, those present revealed how they were viewed as malefactors just for going about their normal office work on the afternoon of February 14. One of them told Shahid Tantray of The Caravan, “It was as if they were telling us ‘Hands up now.’ They said, ‘Don’t touch your system, put your mobile phones on airplane mode, no one is going to make any call to anyone, even family members, otherwise there will be a huge problem.’ And the tone of those people was very hostile.”

The time has come it seems that journalism schools need to train their students not just about the finer points of Article 19 1(a) but how it is being eviscerated in today’s India. Journalists need to understand not just legal reporting but the laws that could be used against them.

Even if your journalism school did cover such topics, it is worth undergoing a refresher course by reading a valuable document just brought out by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) which seeks to get mediapersons to become more aware of their “rights, remedies and protection measures available under Indian laws.” The trouble often is that when the police land up at your door, there is panic and the mind blanks out. This document advises you to first, after checking for the warrant of arrest, to understand under which law you are being arraigned and the charges being brought against you. But always remember that detention without being presented before a magistrate within 24 hours is illegal. And, yes, women cannot be arrested by male police officers after sunset and before sunrise.

What I particularly liked about this document is the manner it links its information with actual cases. For instance, when the charge of sedition was filed by a BJP leader against the late Vinod Dua, which argued that his criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic could instigate violence against the government, it is useful to remember that the Supreme Court of India threw the case out of court arguing that “even brutal criticism of the Government would be within a journalist’s right to free speech.”


Do you hear the snipping of those scissors?

The Modi government keeps refining its record of censorship, as for instance the manner in which large portions of the speeches made by opposition leaders in parliament have been expunged even as every word spoken by the prime minister and his party has faithfully made it to the records.

In this context, a lead story in The Hindu, ‘The cuts of Central Board of Film Certification run deep’ (February 12), after examining over 1,000 cuts ordered on over 300 films by the Central Board of Film Certification, observed that “of late…a different kind of censorship has taken shape, regardless of what a film’s classification is.”

The effort of censor seems to have found a new focus: to protect the image of the prime minister and his government. For instance, the Hindi dub of the Tamil film, Mookuthi Amman (2020), a fantasy comedy, had to wipe out a reference to the ‘Prime Minister’ because it was apparently a “wrong reference”, according to the comment alongside. The Telugu version of the Tamil comedy film Gulu Gulu (2022) was subject to a similar order, although why deletion was sought remained unexplained. Pathaan made crores but it had several brushes with the Censor Board. Incidentally, references to the PM and the PMO in it were replaced 13 times with the more generic ‘Minister’ or even with ‘the President’.

Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Pathaan’. Photo credit: Yash Raj Films

Evidently, it is not just the prime minister who gets extended such courtesies. In the Hindi crime fiction film, Dil Hai Gray, yet to be released, censors ordered the removal of references to ‘government’, while a reference to ‘Motabhai’ was also excised. No explanation for this was apparently forthcoming.


Earthquakes and editorials

Remember the Amartya Sen argument that had China a functioning democracy and an alert press, it would not have seen the estimated 30 million deaths to starvation during the great leap forward years. By the same token, it can be argued that the death toll in the recent earthquake in Turkey would have been much lower if had a functioning democracy and a media that responded to real-life developments like the unholy nexus between the Erdogan regime and corrupt contractors. A Guardian comment (‘An act of God caused the earthquake in Turkey – murderous corruption caused so many deaths’, February 15) noted that  building “laws passed in 2011 and 2013 – the latter likely petty revenge for the involvement of trade chamber leaders in the Gezi protests – specifically excluded chamber professionals such as civil engineers, architects and urban planners from the process of approving and inspecting construction projects.” This meant that the onus for ensuring safe constructions lay with the vagaries of the market, with even building inspections privatised.

As for the watchdog that could have alerted the public on these developments – well, we know what became of the once-vibrant Turkish media. In 2022 alone, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 40 found themselves in prison. Turkey, follows Iran, China and Myanmar, in terms of the number of journalist arrests.

Tailpiece: The Sixth Neelabh Mishra Public Dialogue was on ‘Hindi Media ka Jayaza’ (Taking stock of Hindi media). Anchored by former editor of Dainik Bhaskar, Nidheesh Tyagi, it had an interesting panel  comprising Om Thanvi, former editor-in-chief of Jansatta; Rupa Jha, head of BBC India; Ashutosh, editor of Satya Hindi; and Tanzil Asif, editor, Main Media. Asif, an engineer by training who is now handling a news portal in the Seemanchal region, observed that it is truly unfortunate that people seem to be convinced that the louder you are, the more powerful is your journalism. The quiet story focusing on the real problems of real people don’t seem to have a chance against the lung power of many of these Arnabesque mediapersons running channels across rural Bihar.


Readers write in…

Cinematic questions

New Delhi-based Arvind Koshal sent in this mail comparing three recent films: “PM Narendra Modi has made a stern assertion that party leaders and activists refrain from indulging in unnecessary remarks on irrelevant issues such as movies. This strategic statement, interestingly, referred to movies as ‘irrelevant’ at a strategic time when three important films were released for viewership in India and abroad: Yash Raj Film’s Pathaan, Rajkumar Santoshi’s Gandhi Godse: Ek Yudh and the BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question.

Pathaan, starring SRK, is an average film but proved extremely successful at the box office. Those calling for its boycott contributed towards making it a super hit. There were reports that activists of the Bajrang Dal disrupted screenings of Pathaan despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s warning. The film, India: The Modi Question, produced by the BBC, analyses the role of Modi as chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots. It was immediately blocked, not banned, by the government from social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter. Surprisingly, Bajrang Dal chose to remain silent on this issue. BJP’s IT cell counters several pertinent issues of national importance through a counter-propagandist approach on social media, but on this film, it remained just a silent spectator. Neither the government nor the prime minister came up with any official statement countering the facts of the film. With the G-20 Summit just around the corner, the film raises serious doubts about the ‘image’ of the prime minister. Meanwhile, Gandhi and Godse: Ek Yudh, which projects Godse as virtuous and a visionary, remains a flop!

“Questions related to the Gujarat carnage will continue to haunt Modi despite the ‘clean chit’ from the highest court of the land. Similarly, Godse will continue to torment BJP despite films being made that provide ideological justification for his actions. It seems the only respite for Modi and BJP could be to address the communalism problem and shun Muslim hatred forever. It’s difficult to see them doing this, though, with the next general election upon us!”

Narendra Modi and BBC logo. Photo: Wikipedia


Noted journalist and author, Sumanta Banerjee, sent in this mail: “The piece, ‘Backstory: How the Media Makes Crimes Against Women Disappear’, has detailed the involvement of politicians, especially BJP politicians, in such crimes, exposing the hypocrisy of Modi’s ‘Beti Bachao…’ pledge. There was a reference in it to Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s complicity in the killing of a woman. I recently wrote an article for Countercurrents, in which I traced the history of Modi’s bonhomie with the godman Asharam Bapu (who is now in jail for rape). I also examined the records of these godmen who enjoyed the patronage and protection of politicians of the ruling party which allowed them to get away with the sexual exploitation of their women devotees. It can be read here.

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