Back Story: How Media Freedom Shrank Between the Independence Days of 2019 and 2020

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Prime Minister Modi’s speeches from the ramparts of the Red Fort demand a close reading, not for what they say but for what they do not say, or for what they say by what they do not say.

The Independence Day speech of 2018 had showered petals of affection on Kashmir. “Brothers and Sisters, regarding Jammu & Kashmir, the path shown by Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji is the right one. We want to move ahead on that road. Vajpayeeji said Insaniyat, Jamhuriyat, Kashmiriyat (humanism, democracy, Kasmiriyat)–with these three basic elements we want to develop Jammu & Kashmir…. We do not want to move on the road of bullets and abuses, we want to move ahead with love and affection…”

The Independence Day speech of 2019, ten days after the region and its media had been wrapped up in concertina wire and its people left to negotiate a labyrinth of police checkpoints, had the following words: “It is our responsibility to see that the aspirations of the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh get fulfilled.  It is our collective responsibility to give new wings to their dreams.” A year later, no dreams, no wings.

There was not even a whisper in the 2019 speech about the plan to pass the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, which would soon cast millions of people under a pall of fear and anxiety. The CAA may have been a conscious undermining of the constitutional right of equality of citizenship, yet in the 2019 speech there was much praise for “Our constitution makers” and their “bold and important decisions even during those difficult times, keeping the goals of national integration and political unification in mind.”

This time, Independence Day 2020, the prime minister spoke to us against a backdrop of heightened security – several tiers of social distancing you could say provided by uniformed personnel, snipers perched on elevated locations and dog squads. It was an exercise in morale-boosting, muscle-flexing and mind-bending, pronounced amidst desultory claps on a damp morning. There was just no getting away from the virus at our door and Chinese troops at country’s doors.

What is telling is the manifold shrinking of media independence between the Independence Day speech of 2019 and the Independence Day speech of 2020. The recent attack on three reporters from The Caravan is just one in a string of murderous assaults, prison terms, and harassment of media persons,  yet what is new and profoundly disturbing are the new forms of assault. A female reporter from The Caravan team even had a man flash her while she was trying to flee the area. This was compounded by police inaction. When thugs are let loose with the specific intent to prevent reportage and there is no FIR filed, it amounts to a licence for future gangs to act likewise.

COVID-19 has only compounded the power of state licence, as Beed-based Gammat Bhandari who edits Parshwabhoomi, discovered when a posse of 12-15 policemen reached his office and whisked him away to the police station for the “crime” of holding Maharashtra’s leaders to account.

It is in Kashmir, however, that the government of India is shaping its strategies for comprehensive media control. Not only have media persons there been framed as terrorists by the police and hauled up under draconian laws like UAPA, the Media Policy 2020 introduced recently invests a bureaucrat or a police officer with the power to decide whether a news report is “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or (has) anti-national content”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at the NCC cadets participating in the 74th Independence Day function at the Red Fort in New Delhi, Saturday, Aug. 15 2020. Photo: PTI/Manvender Vashist

This policy also now makes empanelment of newspapers and online portals for advertisements dependent on “antecedents of newspaper publishers, editors and key staff members”. As the writer of the piece, India’s Day of Shame, recently observed, “What Kashmir faces is nothing less than cultural erasure.” The erasure of its media is an important step in this process.

Along with control comes cooption. Over recent years, with crony capitalists exercising greater control over media ownership, a large section of the media see their primary role as amplifying state power. The piece, Demolition Men Do Not Build Nations, They Destroy Them, observes that “A dominant section of India’s media has helped the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party market two enormous lies. First, that a temple of the Sangh, by the Sangh and for the Sangh… And second, that the abolition of Article 370 and 35A of the constitution and the scrapping of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir was intended to help the fight against terrorism, promote economic development and make the people of the erstwhile state true Indians.”

The tasks the coopted media does not, or cannot do, are farmed out to a free-ranging troll army, patronised by the government and prime minister. These foot soldiers as they go about their hit jobs – essentially dirt work — draw their self-worth from painting themselves as patriotic.

The one institution that could have emerged a sentinel for media independence – the Supreme Court – has over the last year, repeatedly failed to do this, as indicated by the strategic delays and the cover it provided for state impunity when dealing with freedom of expression in Jammu and Kashmir. That it takes its reputation of upholding the “majesty of the law” with high seriousness is evident from the thin-skinned way it ruled against crusading lawyer Prashant Bhushan.

But as others have pronounced, a judge’s dignity should rest, not on the powers of contempt, but on their own conduct. This verdict, pronounced ironically on the eve of Independence Day 2020, will go down in India’s history as a tipping point in the apex court’s failures to uphold democratic freedoms. Our honourable judges would do no better than to hark the words of the late poet,  Rahat Indori, which Prashant Bhushan recently quoted in another context: “Lagegi aag to aayege ghar kayi zad me. Yaha pe sirf hamara makan thodi hai” (If a fire breaks out, many houses will be burnt. It will not just be my house).


Warning: Media is injurious to health. It’s also casteist

In their book, The Outrage Industry, Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj talk of how outrage has emerged as a genre as well as a form of discourse, and how it serves the central purpose of provoking emotional responses from audiences. The death after a heart attack of Rajiv Tyagi, a Congress Party spokesperson, shortly after participating in a television chat show, demonstrated the lethal quality to contemporary television debates and has provoked debate on the need for some serious self-regulation by channels profiting from this.

The other media story this fortnight, drawing from a research paper for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, was on the English language media newsroom.  The hegemony of the upper-castes over this space is almost by default, given the poor representation of Dalits: “There is strength in numbers and the minuscule number of Bahujan journalists makes it difficult for the few who are part of the news industry to challenge the cultural bias and caste discrimination they face at their workplaces.”  If newsrooms don’t pro-actively correct this bias, they may face an ugly backlash.

Responses to The Wire

Reader Srishti Arora writes in: “This is with regard in the article ‘China Calls Article 370 Move “Illegal, Invalid” Again, India Says China Has No Locus Standi’ (August 5). It’s really astonishing that even as the whole world has turned topsy turvy due to COVID-19, the one thing that hasn’t altered is the mind of the Chinese government. China has always proved to be the snake in India’s sleeve. Even catastrophic episodes like Galwan and 1962 have not deterred China from interfering in India’s internal affairs, whether it is with regard to Article 370 or Pakistan.”


Urbee Bhowmik wrote in to express his appreciation of the recent articles by Arundhati Roy and Siddharth Varadarajan: “They excelled at articulating the precarious predicaments of the nation. August 5 is indeed a day that has stained the Indian calendar, and both the articles poignantly summed up the gloom and melancholy that many of us have been cast into…”


Sniping from OpIndia

Another reader, B.M. Baisali,  alerted us to the OpIndia website which while carrying an appeal to readers to support it financially, took a gratuitous side swipe at organisations like The Wire and NDTV, who it claims are getting good response to their fund raising appeals. She writes: “I really appreciate the work you do. Being a well wisher and admirer of the publication, the OpIndia notice did not go down well with me. I find it really unethical to demean other publications with misleading information while asking people to donate to their website.”

Thank you Baisali, for your concern. We will leave OpIndia to judge the merit of Baisali’s observation. Incidentally, I also noticed this recent tweet from Pratik Sinha who heads Alt News: “Thank you all for your generous contributions to Alt News. It has caused a massive heartburn to folks in OpIndia and Swarajya.”


COVID-19 distress

Harinder Singh Rajpal has made an appeal: “I request The Wire to highlight the need for states to stop carrying out large scale testing for COVID 19. It has adversely affected general public psychologically, and has resulted in many small scale businesses being shut down. Not only was the decision to mass test taken in an abrupt manner without proper preparation, it has worn down people mentally, physically and emotionally. A leading newspaper have also cast doubt about the efficacy of testing kits like RT-PCR test, antigen tests, serological antibodies tests. They have failed to provide accurate results, leading to a high number of false positives and false negatives. When the accuracy over the testing kits is itself in doubt, why are they not being stopped. It seems to me like another way of helping big pharma to make money.”

Excerpts from a letter that a student activist of Delhi University: “Covid 19 is already disrupting our lives in multiple ways and now those in power are using it for their own purposes. This is with reference to the casteist and classist attitude of the administrators of Ambedkar Ganguly Student’s House for Women, University of Delhi. In a meeting held on 27/07/2020, by the Provost, Warden , Resident Tutor and the Chairperson, it was decided that from the next month the hostel will not pay salaries to its workers due to a shortage of funds. This decision was applied to all the cleaning staff, technical resource person, peons, security guards, gardener and even the one housekeeper and the person appointed as JACT. These are the people who basically put in all the labour needed to run the hostel.  Similar has been the case in the North Eastern Student’s House for Women where a few workers were asked “not come anymore” due to a shortage of funds. Earlier this month, subsequent to the decision to terminate the workers, they were also directed to vacate their university flats. This despite the fact that the hostel authorities had renewed their six months contract in the month of July 2020. The workers, most of whom belong to the Scheduled Caste and OBC categories, have been working here for years and their salaries are their only source of income to feed and educate their children. Among our demands is that these decisions be revoked forthwith.


Lawyer Prashant Bhushan. Photo: PTI/Arun Sharma

Contempt law must go

The Supreme Court has held Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court despite the widespread revulsion the proviso raises in the minds of so many in India. In a letter to the Chief Justice, a group of eminent Bengal- based lawyers, academics, artists and activists expressed their anguish at the contempt proceedings brought against Prashant Bhushan. This petition arrived before the Bhushan verdict.

“We the undersigned citizens of this country are extremely perturbed at the initiation of contempt proceedings against human rights activist and advocate Mr Prashant Bhushan by the Supreme Court of India, in respect of two tweets. We are reiterating the concern as already ventilated by several hon’ble retired judges and academics. Mr Bhushan has been a relentless crusader for the rights of the weakest sections of our society and has spent his career in pro bono legal services to those who do not have ready access to justice. He, we believe, has the same right as every ordinary Indian citizen to voice his views/concerns on various subjects including the functioning of the highest judiciary. The initiation of contempt proceedings against Mr Bhushan who had articulated such concerns in his tweets, appears to be an attempt at stifling such criticism, not just by Mr Bhushan but by all stakeholders in this democratic and constitutional setup of India. We strongly hold that an institution as important as the Supreme Court must be open to public discussion without instilling any perception of persecution in the mind of the multitude. Indeed, criminal contempt as an offence has already been made redundant in most functioning democracies, such as the USA and the UK. Even in India, the principle that criticism of the judiciary should not be stifled by the indiscriminate use of the power of contempt has been recognised by the Supreme Court as well as by academics and advocates of repute. The initiation of the contempt proceedings against Mr Bhushan, we apprehend, is setting the clock back.

“In the interest of justice and fairness and to maintain the dignity of the Apex Court of India, we urge the Court to reconsider its decision to initiate suo motu contempt proceedings against Mr Prashant Bhushan and to rescind the same at the earliest.”

Endorsed by:

BIMAL KUMAR CHATTERJEE, Barrister, Former Advocate General, West Bengal; BIKASHRANJAN BHATTACHARJEE, Senior Advocate, Calcutta High Court; MP, Rajya Sabha; ARUNAVA GHOSH, Senior Counsel, Calcutta High Court; ACHINTYA BANERJEE, Advocate, Calcutta High Court; SOURIN BHATTACHARYA, Retd. Professor, Jadavpur University (JU); PABITRA SARKAR, Retd. Professor, JU; Former VC, Rabindra Bharati University; GAUTAM BHADRA, Historian; RUDRAPRASAD SENGUPTA, Theatre Activist; Retd. Professor, Calcutta University: BIBHAS CHAKRABORTY, Theatre Activist; SWATILEKHA SENGUPTA, Actor & Theatre Activist; KOUSHIK SEN, Professional Actor & Theatre Worker; SOHINI SENGUPTA, Professional Actor & Theatre Worker; SANDIP BANDYOPADHYAY, Writer; MIRATUN NAHAR, Retd. Professor; Ex-Member, WB Women Commission; SUJATO BHADRA, Retd. College Teacher; Rights Activist; ASOKENDU SENGUPTA, Retd. Professor, WB State University; ANIS KUMAR ROY, Retd. Professor, Presidency College; SUBHENDU DASGUPTA, Retd. Professor, Calcutta University; SASWATI GHOSH, Academic and Activist;DEBASIS SENGUPTA, Professor, Indian Statistical Institute; KUNAL CHATTOPADHYAY, Professor, Jadavpur University;SANJAY MUKHOPADHYAY, Professor, Film Studies, Jadavpur University;SIDDHARTHA GUHA RAY, College Teacher, sidhu.gray@gmail.com;PARTHASARATHI CHOUDHURY, College Teacher, Dhupguri-Jalpaiguri; Rights Activist; SANJIB K ACHARYYA, Professor, Jadavpur University;MANJI BHADRA, Professor, Bankura University; SADHAN CHATTOPADHYAY, Writer;NILMONI DHAR, Retd. Senior Engineer, Govt. Of WB; PARTHO SAROTHI RAY, Scientist & Social Activist; Dr. TARUN MONDAL, Physician; Former Member, Lok Sabha; Dr. ASOK KUMAR SAMANTA, Physician, Medical Service Centre;AMITDYUTI KUMAR, Retd. Teacher; Rights Activist;Working President, APDR; DHIRAJ SENGUPTA, Retd. Teacher; Rights Activist; General Secretary, APDR; TAPAS CHAKRABORTY, Rights Activist; Convenor, CDRO;SUBRATA SARKAR, Retd. Principal, RG Kar College of Nursing; MANOJ PAL, Artist, manojpal.pal@gmail.com; DILIP CHAKRABORTY, Veteran Journalist; KUSHAL DEBNATH, Labour Rights Activist; BANKIM DATTA, Teacher and Science Activist; JITEN NANDI, Social Worker & Writer; CHOTAN DAS, Secretary, Bandi Mukti Committee; SUBHASISH ROY, Advocate, Calcutta High Court; RAGHUNATH CHAKRABORTY, Advocate, Calcutta High Court; SAMIM AHAMMED, Advocate, Calcutta High Court; AYANAVA BHATTACHARYYA, Advocate, Calcutta High Court; BIPLAB DEY, Advocate, Calcutta High Court; SAILEN MISHRA, Advocate, Bolpur-Birbhum Court;AVIK GHOSH, Advocate, Calcutta High Court; NILANJAN DUTTA, Freelance Journalist & Rights Activist;ABHIRANJAN BHADURI, Teacher; Rights Activist, Siliguri; JATISWAR BHARATI, Teacher; Rights Activist, Jalpaiguri; RANJIT SUR, rights activist; MILAN MALAKAR, Rights & Theatre Activist, Baharampur-Murshidabad; PARTHAPRATIM DASGUPTA, Retd. Govt Employee; Rights Activist; GOUTAM MUNSHI, Retd. Govt Employee; Rights Activist; KAJAL MUKHERJEE, Rights Activist; NANDITA RAY, Retd. Govt Employee; Rights Activist;KAMAL DATTA, Retd. Govt Employee; Rights Activist;AMALKRISHNA RAY, Govt. Employee; Rights Activist; DEBASIS GUPTA, Retd Govt Employee; Rights Activist; JOYDEB DAS, Self employed; Rights Activist, joydebdas; SAMIRAN MEEL, Service; Rights Activist; ARIJIT GANGULY, Rights Activist; SUBHAJIT SINHA, Rights Activist; NILANJAN MONDAL, Rights Activist; RAJENDRANATH BAG, Rights Activist

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