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Backstory | The Information War in India’s Heartland: Yogi’s Angst Impacts Media Freedoms

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

These have been difficult days for Adityanath, mahant of the Gorakhnath shrine and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, because the grim realities of his state have escaped his image creators and emerged, much like the bodies on the Ganga, before the country in all their naked horror. For a man who, despite his saffron robes, is among India’s most image conscious politicians, this is particularly worrisome.

Adityanath has a partiality for the quick fix. A rising crime graph? Bring in the “encounter specialists”. A don on the loose? Overturn the vehicle he is being brought in. Sexual harassment of women? Deploy vigilantes as “romeo squads”. The same instincts kick in when it comes to independent media reportage that attempts to shine a light on the dark corners of the state. Within weeks of his coming to power in 2017, people were being arrested for critical comments on social media; within months the UP Police was being dispatched to neighbouring states to serve notices on journalists.

All this happened at a time when the chief minister was relatively secure in his fiefdom. Today, sandwiched between a local election that has just cruelly exposed his vulnerabilities and a crucial assembly election a few months away; caught between rising unpopularity with his near-peers and a tenuous relationship with the man who holds the key to his political fortunes – Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Adityanath is a man driven by the blind urge to discipline the media at all costs.

The latest example of this politics of media intimidation were the multiple FIRs filed by the UP Police against individual journalists and institutions including Twitter (for not taking down the tweets), with The Wire also being named (‘Late Night FIR Against Twitter, Opposition Leaders, Journalists for Posts on Ghaziabad Attack’, June 16). Three aspects of this penal action need attention: First, the multiplicity of charges made, ranging from “promoting enmity between different groups”, “acts intended to outrage religious feelings” and the ever useful, ever vague “criminal conspiracy”. If one of them doesn’t work, there is always the other. Second, is their timing – 11:20 pm. The legacy of the midnight knock is alive and kicking at the door. Third, the complainant is no law student or concerned citizen, but a sub-inspector of the Loni Border police station – clearer evidence of the punishing hand of the executive would be hard to find.

Abdul Samad can be seen pleading with his assailants in a video of the incident.

If these charges stick, it would make tweeting and re-tweeting in India a dangerous activity. It would also make reporting any incident whatsoever which does not conform to the authorised police version (including versions concocted post facto), a hazardous occupation. So in the present case, when the police maintains that the communal assault on an elderly Muslim man is “personal enmity” (without citing the subject himself), the media are required to take this version as the whole truth or be accused of fomenting communal enmity. This has serious implications for the profession, as highlighted in a welter of petitions from professional bodies. The Editors Guild of India, for instance, points out that reporting is done on the basis of available facts and “for the police to wade into such professional calls by journalists and attribute criminality to their actions is destructive of freedom of speech”. The Mumbai Press Club calls upon the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting “to educate the UP government and its Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on the tenets of ‘freedom of expression’ and the right to report incidents of news value” – reporting on a hate crime cannot be termed a crime. The international media body, Committee to Protect Journalists, points to what appears to have been “selective law enforcement”. Indeed many of those deemed as critics of the Adityanath government have found a place in this list of FIRs – with Twitter thrown in for good measure since it has now become kosher to drag the micro blogging site to the courts, given the daily fulminations of Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

The irony of course is that Aditya nath has grown to love Twitter and it has helped build a narrative of greatness around his persona. Today the ‘CMOfficeUP’ handle, bearing the smiling visage of the chief minister, has 3.7 million followers and is brimming with evidence of his many goodly deeds. His fans have set up several “Yogi Aditya Nath fan clubs” on Twitter and there is one handle that goes by the legend, “Next PM Yogi Aditya Nath ji”. Go there and a toxic post of May 28, from one “GyanGanga”, jumps out. It shows rows of hijab-clad women waiting for food relief, and comes with the tweet: “This is why India needs CAA and NRC as illegal immigrants are eating up the tax payers money that were meant for poor Indians.” (Shouldn’t the CM, if he is so concerned about communal enmity, take down tweets like this and file FIRs against their originators?)

To arrive at a more granular view of Adityanath’s Twitter activity, one should read a documentation that appeared in The Wire (‘COVID-19 and Uttar Pradesh, Six Weeks of Living Hell’, June 8). The writer painstakingly pieces together the alternative reality presented in the CM’s tweets during the two nightmare months of April and May. Anyone reading them would assume that this one man has singlehandedly stopped the pandemic in its tracks, even as funeral pyres never ceased to burn and the state’s helpline numbers never seemed to work. To take one instance cited here, when UP was going through what was arguably its worst week (April 20-27), the CM tweets that “there is no shortage of oxygen”. On April 24, the CM declares even those isolating at home will be provided oxygen if needed. And on April 25, in a tweet that triggered nationwide outrage, the CM declared there is no shortage of oxygen, beds or medicines. By April 22, when public anger was making itself felt, the CM did what he does best: threaten those whom he claimed were spreading rumours the National Security Act would be invoked against them and their properties seized.

As for fake news, a charge he constantly levies on the media, even the book he was seen handing over to the prime minister and home minister in his recent visit to New Delhi, which supposedly extolled his handling of the migrant crisis, needed a fact check. It was widely publicised over the CM’s social media networks including its WhatsApp group ‘State Media 1′ (‘Ahead of Polls, BJP Top Brass in Political Flux as Adityanath Loses Grip on UP’, June 15). Alt News put the document, claimed to be a study conducted by Harvard University, through the scanner and discovered that it was produced by the Institute For Competitiveness and Microeconomics of Competitiveness a Harvard Business School affiliate (‘Adityanath Misleads Modi, Shah on ‘Harvard’ Study Praising UP Government’, June 14).

This is not the first time that there has been such economising with the truth. The craving for international and national media attention has led the UP government to place advertisements in praise of the Adityanath’s handling of the pandemic in Time magazine; its television ads bleed into television reportage, appearing like independent coverage; and newspapers are full of front page promotionals with visuals of the PM-CM duo and their winning formula: “Trace, Test, Treat”.

Eliminate crime by eliminating alleged criminals; manufacture media eulogies through advertising when they don’t exist in actual reporting Adityanath’s information war certainly needs to be closely tracked in the days ahead.

UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath handing a copy of ‘COVID-19 & The Migrant Crisis Resolution: A Report On Uttar Pradesh’ to home minister Amit Shah. Photo: Twitter/@myogiadityanath

Ombudsperson, not public editor

For those who may not have noticed the last line in this column, my email id has changed. I have now been designated as the “ombudsperson”, not “public editor” of The Wire. One of the reasons for this change is that many readers were mistakenly of the view that I am involved in the editorial decision making within the organisation. Over the years I have written to those who have made this error, explaining that as public editor I cannot function as a facilitator for their contributions to The Wire because one of my responsibilities is to sometimes comment on the material that appears, and this requires distance from editorial responsibilities.

The term “ombudsperson” is therefore more appropriate, given that one is required to write on journalistic matters and ethics vis-à-vis The Wire’s own work. I realise the term is unwieldy. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “ombudsman” was borrowed from Swedish, where it means ‘representative’, and ultimately derives from the Old Norse words umboth (‘commission’) and mathr (‘man’).” Gender neutrality demands the term “ombudsperson”, rather than “ombudsman”.

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Tough times for journalists

On every parameter, from salaries to job security to personal health and well-being, the pandemic has been catastrophic for journalists. Shut downs, lay-offs, job losses have pockmarked the year and as media observer Cyril Sam puts it, “every lay-off or closure signals our information ecosystem becoming poorer and our information sources becoming fewer.”

Additionally, a third of deaths of the journalists to COVID-19 worldwide were from India (‘India Third in Journalists’ Deaths Due to COVID-19 Globally, Finds Media Rights Body’, May 18)on an average, three media persons died every day this April, and in May, four.

At a time when positive news proved so elusive the settlement recently negotiated for 49 plant workers of Diligent Media Corporation Ltd, publishers of Daily News & Analysis (DNA), the print edition of which no longer exists, is so welcome. Under the settlement, each worker received Majithia Wage Board arrears ranging from Rs 6.89 lakh to Rs 10.93 lakh.

The settlement was reached between the Shramjivi Shakti Sangh and the DNA management, and was facilitated by the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists (BUJ). The BUJ, incidentally, has been a valuable resource for Mumbai’s journalists for decades. Many a historic press conference has taken place in its premises and committed trade unionists still lend their time and effort to keep the institution relevant. It is a reminder of the possibilities of journalist-worker solidarities and engagement with the larger professional community.

Hashflag for internet shutdowns

Twitter was in the news, not just for its many troubles in India, but for coming up with a “hashflag” to alert users on internet shutdowns. It was put to good use when the microblogging site labelled the internet outage of June 8 with its new emoji.

Readers write in

Empower disabled voters

Mumbai-based academic and researcher Dr. Akshay Bajad says that he is committed to good governance (an edited version of his mail): “Section 11 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, states that election commissions at the Centre and states shall ensure all polling stations and electoral processes are made accessible to persons with disabilities. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has specifically committed to building an equal access framework for persons with disabilities supported by the fundamentals of responsiveness, respect and dignity to enhance elector confidence among them; and support to initiatives for improved service offerings to enhance their electoral participation. This includes providing accessible technological tools. Article 15 of the Constitution also prohibits discrimination by the State against any citizen, and this includes the disabled. Yet, persons with disabilities (Census 2011 put their number at 2.68 crore) have been fighting for years for their right to vote at a par with other citizens.

“Voters with disability in seeing are still able to cast a vote with assistance. However, in the present system of voting through EVMs, there is no way of knowing if the assisting person has indeed reflected the voter’s choice accurately. For the convenience of voters with disability in seeing, the balloting unit has the candidates’ vote buttons, digits 1 to 16, embossed in Braille signage. However such a voter, while they can press the button, cannot ascertain the actual voting.

“Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) is an independent system attached to EVMs that allows voters to verify that their votes are cast as intended. However, there is no such facility for voters with disability in seeing.  There is need therefore to provide a system by which such voters can get immediate audio verification. The basic idea of the proposed stand-alone real-time system is to capture the image of the paper slip generated by the printer in the VVPAT, and convert the text into speech that can be heard through headphones. This image-text -to-speech conversion (ITTS) device can be fixed inside the VVPAT machine in such a way that the voters’ clear view through the VVPAT window remains unobstructed. Externally, it requires a set of headphones with volume controls in them. The proposed stand-alone system is not vulnerable to manipulation. The manufacturers of EVMs are capable of making inexpensive and efficient ITTS devices using current technologies. I would urge the ECI to incorporate such a system in its EVMs.”

Polling officials carrying EVMs and other materials to a polling centre. Photo: PTI

A hit job?

Joseph Koshy mails: “Societies that lose their love of truthful speech seem to end up in a bad way. Nazi Germany, Maoist China and Soviet Russia are held up as the canonical examples of this phenomenon, but a more recent example is perhaps India: there were many signs that COVID-19 had not actually been controlled in India, but the Modi administration, which has no great love for truthful speech, chose to ignore them.

“It is in this context that I note that The Wire has reprinted a hit piece against a particular country in the Far East [1].
[1]: https://thewire.in/health/origins-of-covid-19-wuhan-china-coronavirus
This article with its explosive thesis that a ‘lab leak’ had occurred in China in December 2019 seems to be propaganda, from the usual set of warmongers in the West. I wonder why you have published this smear and given it credibility. May I ask: now that you have published this article, and a few follow-on smears attributed to ‘undisclosed US intelligence reports’ (e.g. [2]), what would you do if someone were to demonstrate that Wade’s article is a collection of half-truths and lies?
[2]: https://thewire.in/health/wuhan-lab-staff-hospital-covid-19-origin
This is not a rhetorical question. I would genuinely like to know your position on truthfulness in public speech. Thank you in advance for your answer.”

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Modi and Biden

A response from Kalki Narasimhan: “Please refer to ‘Seven Years of Modi: Why India Needs to Find Its Joe Biden’ (May 28). It is coherent and well written. However, I think he missed a reference to an article published in the Washington Post recently referring to Joe Biden as God, born to save the earth. If he had quoted this article many in India would have been benefitted and added value to his article, opinions and ‘mission’.”

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Not fair, Wire

Sundeep Gupta complains: “Your claim of fair and natural journalism does not hold water. Your platform is primarily a critique of BJP and your handling of other political parties is very soft. There is nothing wrong in highlighting mistakes or wrong policies of the government but it should not be party specific. Your agenda becomes self-evident to any reader. Please do not be pretentious.”

A mail from K. Balachandran, who says he gave up his first name years ago because of the Sangh’s appropriation of the right to speak for Hindus: “Before casting stones at others, look into the mote in your eyes. Why doesn’t The Wire have a button for comments after each article that skirts around the real issues? I have also come across stories with the timeline ’15 minutes’, two months after they have been published.”

Poor connectivity in Kupwara

Students from schools and colleges in Kupwara write in: “People from Divar Lolab area of North Kashmir’s Kupwara district are fed up with the poor internet connectivity in times of Covid-19. Poor connectivity and network problems have emerged as a serious problem for them as online activities have increased during the pandemic with online classes becoming the norm. Online classes have affected students of rural areas as all villages do not have Jio fibre network connectivity. Network problems vis-a-vis Reliance Jio have been there for the last three months and remain unresolved despite many complaints being lodged. Some students have not been able to submit their online exam papers on time because of low internet speed. We urge Reliance Jio and Airtel officials to resolve the issue as soon as possible.”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in