Media

Backstory: The Far Side of the Moon Where the Media Dare Not Go

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

The ‘dark side of the Moon’, or the far side of the Moon, has long been romanticised by poets as a region engulfed in a wilderness of dark dead space that will forever remain beyond human consciousness.

The image is an apt one if you consider the media coverage of the Chandrayaan 2 mission.

As the gush over it turned to gloom, it was striking that there was not one serious analysis of what the proximate cost of the loss of the lander, Vikram, was to the country. We were told, of course, that this ISRO mission was among the most cost-effective in its class and the figure of Rs 978 crore, or $142 million, has been presented to the public as proof of it (‘Lander Vikram Located on Lunar Surface: ISRO Chief K. Sivan’, September 8).

But the cascading financial implications of a space mission of this proportion having gone wrong will probably never be known to the Indian public – consigned, as it has been, to the far side of the Moon.

On terra firma, however, there was some attempt by the ISRO authorities to prime the story and present it as a success. Few commentators were prepared to pierce through this careful narrative to ask the tough questions, distracted possibly by the number of consoling pats the prime minister had rained on the quivering shoulders of ISRO chief K. Sivan. 

But as a The Wire piece observed, there was a certain disingenuousness about reassurances that 95% of the mission had succeeded. “Was all the hoopla just for the 5%?”, it asked (‘The Farther Away From Chandrayaan, the Pettier the Winds Blow’, September 7).

Another bit of information that has been consigned to the far side concerned the exact details of the original hitch that had delayed the Chandrayaan 2 launch, scheduled for the night of July 15-16. ISRO took the familiar recourse of citing the “classified nature” of such information to fob off the more persistent inquirer. It finally took off on July 22. The question whether ISRO itself had come under political pressure to push through with the launch in order to perhaps fuel an Independence Day speech or a hundred-day celebration will never be answered because it was never asked.

Also read: Today Is a Historic Day for ISRO for Two Reasons. Chandrayaan 2 Is Just One.

The problem really is the thick layer of patriotism that engulfs our space programmes and the manner it has come to be fused with the expansive persona of the prime minister. The writer of the piece, ‘What Happens When the State Uses Science to Distract the People’ (September 13), put it well:

“The public rhetoric fashioned Chandrayaan 2 into a sort of special gift to the prime minister. But this is not science, it is sycophancy, and it doesn’t augur well either for science or for the country.”

Meanwhile, NDTV’s Pallav Bagla discovered that all the goodwill earned over a lifetime’s career spent in glorifying the country’s space missions can disintegrate into a howl of Twitter protests the moment he asserted his journalistic right to know. The piece, ‘What Chandrayaan 2 Taught Us About India’s Media Landscape Today’ (September 8), made up for its lack of structure and finesse by the brilliant way it garnered the tweets and toots of the ISRO story. The Wire did well to borrow this offering from the Indian Journalism Review, if for nothing else but to catch a glimpse of famed anchor Deepak Chaurasia of News Nation togged up in astro-wear.

Also read: #RightSideUp: Modi 2.0 Report Card, Netflix in the Red

The country’s space and nuclear sectors have always been consigned to the far side of the Moon, but there was a time when the Indian media did ask questions that in today’s times would appear grossly anti-national. Questions like how many schools could be run on the money that was going to fund the Indian nuclear weapons programme.

C. Rammanohar Reddy, in a masterly three-part series, ‘The Wages of Armageddon’, that appeared in The Hindu after the Pokharan tests in 1998, had this to say: 

“The cost of each bomb is the same as that of 3,200 houses under the Indira Awas Yojana. The cost of one Agni missile can finance the annual operations of 13,000 primary health centres. The cost of an arsenal of 150 bombs is the same as the Central Government funding of all public health programmes in 1998-99. The annual investment costs of weaponisation are the same as the Central Government funding of elementary education in 1998-99. The funds required for the true total cost of weaponisation (Rs. 40,000-50,000 crores) are large enough to finance the incremental costs of universal primary education for two years. Alternatively, the annual demands of weaponisation will finance 25 per cent of the yearly incremental costs of sending every Indian child to school. These are the true opportunity costs of nuclear weaponisation.”

Which journalist today would have the mind space, or indeed the media space, to write like this about the Chandrayaan 2 mission? Take me in a rocket to the dark side of the Moon is all I can say.

§

Name of the game: Intimidation.

As a close observer of the intimidatory treatment accorded to journalists over the years, one cannot but notice the new coercive tactics in play. In an earlier age, all complaints against individual journalists were routed through the institution in which she or he worked.

Today, the browbeating has become more direct. Mediapersons are run over, shot down, arrested, and saddled with police case because their reporting itself is seen as an act of crime.

In the case of Pawan Kumar Jaiswal, whose video exposing how the mid-day meals of roti and salt were being served to the children of a government school in Uttar Pradesh’s Jamalpur block, Mirzapur district, an FIR based on a complaint by the local block education officer sought to criminalise the expose, terming it “despicable work” that maligns the UP government (‘FIR Against Journalist Who Reported on Rotis With Salt Being Served as Mid-Day Meal’, September 2). If this is “criminal activity”, we need more of it to expose the real reprobates who, as representatives of the state, seek to steal the lunches of poor children.

In journalism, as in every other sphere, it is the questioning and independent mind that really matters. Priya Ramani, having just emerged from the ordeal of cross examination in the defamation case against her by former minister of state for external affairs, M.J. Akbar, with her feisty spirit intact, had this to say:

“It was important and necessary for women to speak about sexual harassment in the workplace. Many are brought up to believe silence is a virtue. In all my disclosures pertaining to M.J. Akbar, I spoke the truth in public interest and for public good.”

Romila Thapar’s CV was recently sought by the administrators of Jawaharlal Nehru University. But in their bid to diminish her, it was they who emerged as Lilliputians – with a definition of university education which could work just as well for journalism: “The essence of university education is to teach students to ask questions, to enable them to question existing knowledge, and through this process of questioning, to advance knowledge” (‘JNU Asks Romila Thapar to Submit Her CV For ‘Evaluation’, September 1). 

Intimidating those who do not conform to state-friendly narratives through the agency of the police has now become the new normal (‘Bhima Koregaon Case: Pune Police Raid Delhi University Professor Hany Babu’s House’, September 10). In the Hany Babu instance, the raid was apparently conducted without a search warrant. Such conspicuous expansion of police agency, whether to suppress independent journalism or to destroy the reputation of scholars and institutions, point to the making of a police state under Union home minister Amit Shah.

Also read: Why Does Shehla Rashid Make Her Detractors So Angry?

The Kashmir story is all about mass intimidation through the presence of the security forces and the absence of the media. A recent fact-finding report, News Behind the Barbed Wire – Kashmir’s Information Blockade’, anchored by senior journalists, Laxmi Murthy and Geeta Seshu, detailed the many forms of coercion against journalists there. They range from surveillance; control of printing facilities; and imposition of skewed information, to informal threats and arrests (‘Fact Finding Report from Kashmir Reveals ‘Grim and Despairing’ Picture of Media’, September 5).

The editor of a major newspaper in the region carefully sets down the instances of horrific media repression going on around her in tone that is wryly dispassionate (‘What the Last Month Has Looked Like for the Media in Kashmir’, September 11): in the run-up to August 5, a web portal editor was arrested; a few days later, another local  journalist was picked up; senior journalist Gowhar Geelani was stopped from leaving India for a training programme abroad; three journalists now have notices to vacate government accommodation; four  photojournalists are beaten up for covering a Muharram procession, one of them now bearing pellet injuries; a woman journalist was set upon by security forces for doing her job. Will this list ever end, is the question that rises in the mind of anyone reading this enumeration.

Some of the tactics adopted reek not just of repression but misogyny. The hounding of Shehla Rashid and framing charges of sedition against her is a completely unacceptable way to silence her and is more evidence of a system that is turning feral (In Case Against Shehla Rashid, a Glimpse Into Centre’s Approach to Kashmir Crisis’, September 10).

§

Some weeks ago, there was a small news item about how tourists at the Taj Mahal are having a horrendous time coping with “stinking toilets” because the safai karamcharis in the state were on strike for much delayed wages.

It reminded me of an observation made by Magsaysay awardee and convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, Bezwada Wilson, at a public meeting in Delhi recently:

“We think of our manual scavengers only when confronted with the harrowing mess of over-flowing toilets, we never consider their own daily experience of dealing with overflowing shit. Toilets – good, bad and indifferent – are furiously being built under the celebrated Swachch Bharat programme, but functioning sewerage systems are never planned. Manual scavenging may have been declared illegal but the whole edifice of sanitation in this country continues to rest on caste hierarchies. Given this, people will continue to be forced into occupation of manual scavenging despite that fact that it is nothing less than a death sentence; an occupation that kills.”

Glad to note that the ‘Grit’ section of this news portal has grown from strength to strength. It has noted in its columns that at least 50 people have died cleaning sewers in the first six months of this year (July 24), and this number accounts for only eight states. The full horror of this planned violation of the right to life comes into view, as the piece points out, when we consider government records collated from the 2011 Census, “which calculated that there were 740,078 households across the country where human excreta was removed by a person from a dry latrine”.

§

A reader, Jonathan Fernandes, writes back on a distressing incident that took place during the CDS (Combined Defence Services) 2019 examination which was held on September 8. Two students sitting beside him were openly cheating, but no action was taken against them. When he reported this to the invigilators, he was harassed for doing so. 

After the examination, he approached the authorities, who assured him that his complaint would be looked into, yet no effort was made to file a written complaint. Fernandes ends by observing, “I believe that this is was a great lapse in the standard of the examination and hope the office takes cognisance of this serious breach and starts an investigation into the matter.”

§

Mail from the embattled Kashmir Valley keeps trickling in. Hakim Wajahat of Baghwanpora sent across the following text that began with lines from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, ‘Postcard from Kashmir’:

“This mail must be taken as an SOS to all the humans living on this planet. If we all die and you kept quiet, you will be answerable to God. It’s been over a month of a complete blackout – an atrocity like no other. In the rest of the world, people are able to pick up their phones and get in touch with parents, siblings, friends. But the Indian State and the Indian media (with a few exceptions) think it is perfectly alright to snatch this very basic liberty from the people of Kashmir. If this is not a complete violation of human rights, what is?”

§

Poojan Sahil, responding to the growing number of incidents of mob lynching and hate crimes, believes it is important that we never forget those who became victims of such assaults. In an attempt to do this and reject the politics of hate, he mailed us the link to a video which carries his rendition of Habib Jalib’s ghazal, Dastoor. It is interlaced with a poem written and performed by Nabiya Khan.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in