Backstory: Tripura’s Style of Media Silencing Points to a Zone of Danger

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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As we arrive at the last month of the calendar, it becomes useful to flag yet again the one big concern that figured in various ways throughout the last 11 months: shrinking media freedoms. So steadily, even stealthily, have they been dismantled that the average person remains unaware of the creeping shades of the prison house.

Consider, for instance, media access to Parliament. Once taken for granted, today even those with valid passes have been denied entry to the country’s central arena of democratic discourse for the last five sessions and the recent protest staged by journalists in Delhi indicates the widespread angst that this treatment has caused (‘“Arbitrary”: Journalists Slam Restrictions on Their Access to Parliament Building’, November 3).

In the seven years of the Narendra Modi period, it is the triad of 2019, 2020 and 2021 that together constitute a particularly significant phase in state-directed media strangulation. If we were to use the analogy of an actual manual strangulation, this period has seen pressure being increasingly applied to the neck of the subject. The actual point of choking may not have been reached; the media may still find the strength to flay their limbs about in a bid to save themselves from imminent asphyxiation.  But the question remains, for how long?

The year 2019, we know, saw media repression bearing the marks of concertina wire, prison bars, the internet ban, and a totalising surveillance becoming the reality in the Kashmir Valley. These strategies were to be deployed in other parts of the country in the months that followed, notably at the Singhu border to discipline  protesting farmers. Kashmir has always been the black box of Indian journalism and this column has argued that any observer of the Indian journalism needs to grasp what is going on in this region (‘Backstory: The Kashmir Model to Discipline Indian Media’, February 13, 2021) to understand the government’s intentions and strategies of media control. It was in Kashmir that the use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against journalists was first normalised. It was here again that the police acquired the full powers to function as super-censors of journalistic work.

The next year, 2020, saw the COVID-19 pandemic being treated as the perfect smokescreen to control media coverage through a variety of means including the pressurising of proprietors, the nudging of courts into ensuring a clamp on independent reporting, and ministerial meetings to cogitate on a set of rules to discipline a defiant online media. In the meanwhile, those who dared to expose the laxities, corruptions and perfidies of the government in its handling of the pandemic found themselves in prison or thrown out of their jobs.

Then 2021 came along. It was during this year that some of the most innovative ways to crush the spirit of the independent journalist were honed, particularly under the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Ajay Mohan Bisht, now turbo-charged in pre-election mode. Among the innovations adopted was the conspicuous use of denial-as-strategy; any reported crime of the government that had the potential of marring its image were simply not recognised as a crime. In 2020, when a young Dalit woman was gangraped by Thakur men in Hathras and was videographed as saying so during her dying hours, the state of Uttar Pradesh and its criminal justice system played down the caste-gender dimensions of the horrific crime entirely and systematically hounded journalists for their coverage. Those who dared to report it, or even only planned to investigate it, had FIRs filed against them for breaching the peace and promoting enmity among different groups. Siddique Kappan, for instance, is still in jail under UAPA for merely travelling towards Hathras.

Siddique Kappan

Siddique Kappan. Photo: Twitter/@vssanakan

A year later, when an elderly Muslim man was roughed up in Ghaziabad and had his beard cut, it was dismissed as a case of personal enmity. Conspicuous in this approach was the state’s complete lack of interest in investigating and delivering justice on what was in all likelihood a communally motivated crime. Its wrath was directed instead towards media persons who had the temerity to tweet about it.

Tripura, the country’s third smallest state – which is also under BJP rule – has faithfully followed this template. When a fireball of anti-Muslim frenzy whipped up by the VHP and allied fronts swept through Tripura in October – supposed retaliation for the anti-Hindu attacks in Bangladesh – they might as well have never taken place as far as the Biplab Kumar Das government was concerned. Reporting of mosques having been burnt down, often with the support of images of the sites of arson, was deemed a malicious attempt to, yes, promote enmity among different religious groups.  Precipitate police action against mediapersons was designed not just to drive a stake of fear in the hearts of those who did the hard journalistic work of visiting affected areas and documenting what they saw with their naked eyes and what they heard with their naked ears, but to dissuade those who intended to do follow-up stories from picking up their laptops and cameras. In other words, the central intent was to reduce the site of violence into a zone of silence, while providing cover to the instigators of the violence to perpetrate their rule of terror against targeted communities – in this case those who had once prayed in those burnt down mosques.

The HW News Network put out an official statement that detailed unambiguously the various ways in which its young reporters, Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha, were treated by the Tripura police. The list of violations against their right as human beings, forget their rights as journalists, was mind-boggling. FIRs were filed against them by the Tripura police under various sections of the IPC. The police carried no warrant of arrest while serving these FIRs. The charges made out – maligning the image of the Tripura government and the VHP – would have been laughable if they were not so malicious. This twinning of the government with a group like the VHP was evidence enough of the ideological slant of the state and its institutions. The police action took place at 5:30 am on November 14, when the law prevents such police action against women after sunset and before sunrise without express magisterial permission, which of course was missing. While the journalists had secured a transit remand from the Assam authorities and given a week to record their statement, the Tripura police disregarded this and bundled them back to Tripura.

Such a state-imposed zone of media silence proved to be the precursor to similar tactics of intimidation against oppositional candidates during polls to urban local bodies that took place subsequently and the BJP ‘s victorious sweep of almost all the seats spoke of a captured election (‘Tripura: ‘People Losing Faith in State Police,’ Says Ruling BJP MLA’, November 15; ‘Threats, Violence and Dirty Politics at the Heart of BJP’s ‘Clean Sweep’ of Tripura Civic Body Polls’, November 30’).

Tripura has demonstrated something that is taught in journalism schools but rarely recalled in these rough times: serious threats to the functioning of the media translate directly into serious threats to the functioning of democracy. Nothing grows in the zone of state-imposed media silence apart from fraudulent elections, sham genuflections to democracy and the uninterrupted sway of the politics of religious polarisation.

Calling out well-known anchors

Two of Big Media’s best known anchors whose work has consistently conformed to the interests of the government and ruling party, have had mirrors held up to their biased journalism. Sudhir Chaudhury, editor-in-chief of Zee News, was supposed to be a speaker at a seminar hosted by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India’s Abu Dhabi chapter. His reputation as  something of a hate-monger (difficult to forget his ‘jihad chart’ that was  featured in one of his shows after the northeast Delhi anti-Muslim violence last year) seems to have done him in, if we are to go by the unvarnished words of an Emirati princess, Sheikh Hend Al Qasimi, who tweeted: “Why are you bringing an Islamophobe and hater to my peaceful country?!?!??”

Meanwhile, programmes conducted by Rahul Shivshankar, editor-in-chief at Times Now, and his colleague Padmaja Joshi, have been found by the National Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) to be violative of the “Fundamental Principles as enumerated in the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards and various Guidelines issued by NBDSA” for failing the test of impartiality and objectivity (‘Two of Times Now’s Debates on Delhi Riots Were Not Impartial, Objective: NBDSA’, November 22). The Authority has also asked the channel to remove the offending episodes from its website. Both channels, in the aftermath of the communal violence that had broke out in the capital for the first time in 35 years, had programmes that had added to communal animosity at a fraught time rather than worked towards restoring calm and ensuring justice to the victims.

Rahul Shivshankar and Padmaja Joshi.


Garbled pronunciation

Noted television journalist and media critic Nupur Basu had an alert for The Wire: “A quick note of caution. The audio recording of the piece on farmers’ victory and media (‘Farmers Win on Many Fronts, Media Fails on All’, November 20) has several errors when it came to names. “Narendra” was mispronounced as ‘Natendra’ and ‘Amrinder’, as ‘Amtinder’. The rendering of names of places and vernacular words were similarly garbled. Please be alert to these error and have the recording corrected otherwise it may attract criticism.”


Important names Left out

Tiruchirappalli-based A. Anwar Hussain wants to correct the record: “This is with reference to the piece entitled, ‘From the Pagari Sambhal Jatta to Now, How India’s Farmers’ Movements Have Evolved’ (November 22) on the important personalities in the farmers’ movement. While the names of the leaders he mentions are quite important in leading the movement and there cannot be a second opinion on this, equally important have been the roles played by Hannan Mollah, Viju Krishnan, Krisna Prasad and Amra Ram. Why does The Wire often (not always) try to hide the role of the traditional Left?


Wrong accusation

Hema Gusain, former dy secretary and OSD to the late Soli Sorabjee and the late Prof M.G.K Menon, wrote in: “This is with regard to a 2017 article that was republished in December 2018 entitled, ‘India International Centre Membership Audit reveals many Irregularities’, which spoke of corrupt practices especially highlighting the auditors’ findings:  I wish to inform you that the auditors who had conducted the audit had done the entire audit based on photocopies so as to humiliate and harass all those who were connected directly or indirectly with the late Mr Soli Sorabjee, the former president of the IIC, and had a bitter squabble with Mr N.N. Vohra over the presidentship of IIC. As on date being OSD to the late Mr Sorabjee I have filed a writ petition in the High Court of Delhi against the Chartered Accountants Chandiok and Guliani who had done the audit. My humble request to you today is to once again revisit the entire story regarding membership granted under Mr Sorabjee’s tenure. I do hope that you will give it a thought because many innocent employees had to lose their jobs by that one report of yours.”

No, they won’t

lash@lashabv responded to the title of the piece, ‘Backstory: Govt U-turn on Farm Laws Important Lesson for the Media. But Will They Ever Learn?’ (November 6): “The answer is no. No lessons will be learned. Many of them are not even journalists — just a disgrace going by that name. People are fed up. No one watches their shows anymore. BARC numbers are lying.”


Understand plagiarism

S.K. Mathur, a professor at IIT Kanpur who had figured in a 2016 Wire report, ‘Economist at IIT-Kanpur Accused of Plagiarism’, writes: “Ignorance is bane to the society. Plagiarism software maps previous work of authors, maps age old methodologies and referenced material to give a high similarity index. I guess we can rephrase the text to reduce the similarity index, but how does one rephrase known methodology? We surely need a discussion on this issue in academic circles, which is missing often because of hesitancy, lack of knowledge and boldness to discuss IPR and copyright issues upfront. Can such software be applied to old work? It is like asking whether new rules can be applied retrospectively. I guess data privacy issues become important. Can you critique all time series studies which get a very high R2 value in the regression when time series analyses were not developed to the extent they are today. Can’t two studies get published based on the same set of ideas even if these had evolved separately? We need to contest using such plagiarism software until we know how to interpret them and, more importantly, learn the IPR rules in this digital era. It seems plagiarism software most of the times acts as tools for vendetta and hate politics. Sometimes such plagiarism software are applied clandestinely on papers not published anywhere but lying in a remotest corner of the internet.”


Clean up politics

In this season of pre-elections, Rakesh Raman sent us his thoughts on cleansing the electoral system of criminality based on a petition he dispatched to Chief Justice N. V. Ramana and President Mr. Ram Nath Kovind: “In his Gettysburg speech of 1863, the-then U.S. President Abraham Lincoln introduced America’s representative democracy as the ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. Ideally, this should be the bedrock for any democracy in the world.

“Unfortunately, however, the so-called Indian democratic system has become a ‘government of the criminals, by the criminals, for the criminals’ which does not obey any rule of law. In this system, the ordinary citizens’ role ends immediately after deceptively held elections. Then a handful of criminal politicians run the government as a parliamentary dictatorship.

“Now it is being observed that India has become a kakistocracy where the government is under the control of the worst, least qualified, and most unscrupulous people. Their entry, existence, and success in politics is directly proportional to their criminal records and their capacity to commit a range of crimes. You need to be at least a thug, thief, or dacoit to be eligible to become a politician. Alternatively, if you have to survive in Indian politics, you must defend and support the crimes of your bosses in a political party.

“In today’s increasingly specialised and cut-throat world, a person must have in-depth knowledge and extensive domain expertise to handle a particular department even in a small company. But it is highly unfortunate that people with no relevant qualification or expertise become Presidents, Governors, Prime Ministers, ministers, judges, and bureaucrats in India to manage highly complex domains of governance. That is why India continues to be a poor, underdeveloped country.

“The people of India can be saved only by weeding out criminality from politics. I urge you that as the President and Chief Justice of India (CJI) to take some visible and bold steps to address the crisis along four parameters: Eligibility of Candidates: Only those people who have demonstrable public service records should be allowed to participate in elections as contestants; Disclosure of Crimes: The first step to throw out criminal politicians is to name and shame them openly among the citizens. Registration of Election Manifestos: The political parties must get their election manifestos registered as legal documents. Imposition of Sanctions: If a legislator or parliamentarian fails to fulfill their commitment made to the voters or they are found guilty of misconduct, they must immediately be removed from their positions.”


Why so many ‘whys’?

Looking at headings on the portal page of November 27 and the ‘whys’ just jumped off it at me. The lead story heading went: ‘Why Farmers’ Demand to Legalise MSP is Justified’, followed by ‘Why Magisterial Inquiries into Encounter Killings in Kashmir Invariably Run Aground’, and a couple of stories later there was ‘Why the Elderly Are More Susceptible to Social Media Misinformation’. ‘Why’ is a useful term, I grant, but why the over-use?

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