Mumbai: On December 16, as protests against the recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) intensified and the situation in Delhi and several other parts of the country were clamped down on, reporters at Aaj Tak received two advisories on their office WhatsApp group.
The first advisory read: “Reporters should not refer to the religion to which a protestor belongs. They are protesting as citizens. Leave their religion out of it.” Within seconds, another advisory was sent, “Reporters may have their opinion on CAA. Good, bad or ugly. We don’t want to know about your opinion. Stick to the facts. Leave your opinion at home.”
This was unusual, and reporters claim they had never before been told how to conduct themselves on the social media.
Later that day, the vice chairperson of the India Today Group Kallie Purie sent out an email to all employees, asking them to refrain from “judgement and debating personal opinion on social media”.
— Pratik Sinha (@free_thinker) December 21, 2019
“I have worked with the group for nearly a decade but have never been asked to mind my language or show restraint before this,” said one senior journalist with the group.
Another reporter welcomed the decision. “Reporters have been pouring their emotions and personal biases into their reporting and social media handles. We don’t need such a situation, really. I am only glad that the employers have sent out warnings to all.”
Around the same time, employees at the Network 18 group too received a long email detailing the “dos and don’ts” on the social media.
“Having the tagline ‘views are mine and do not represent my employer’ in your profile DOES NOT PROTECT Network18 from appearing biased. Remember, even if your opinions or actions are posted using personal accounts or handles, you still represent the Network18 Group. On all social media platforms, you represent both yourself and the group,” the email states.
Unlike the India Today advisory, the Network 18 email contained a long, exhaustive list of things that its reporters are expected to avoid on the social media.
“If you are attacked, trolled or challenged on social media, don’t jump into the debate. With regard to accusations of questionable reporting, threats, bullying and other similar issues, alert your senior colleagues who, in turn, will as needed alert the social, PR and legal teams. Always refer media inquiries to Network 18’s spokespersons and do not speak on the company’s behalf,” the email says.
Some employees of Network 18 have expressed their anguish and call this directive an “overreach” on the part of their employers. “While I understand that some among us (media fraternity) have been seen indulging in communal remarks, but to restrain people from expressing themselves can’t be justified. On the day the Bill was discussed on the floor of parliament and later passed, I had tweeted several times criticising the government. But after this email, my seniors directed me to delete all my tweets. I find this suggestion unfair,” a senior reporter from Network 18’s English channel, CNN IBN, told The Wire.
Several international media houses too have followed a strict social media guidelines for their newsrooms. The New York Times in 2017 published detailed guideline on its website asking journalists to “not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation”.
In India, however, the situation hasn’t been so straightforward. There have been instances and reports of how media houses have been closely scrutinised by the state. Just recently, the prime minister’s office had reportedly criticised media houses that had put out the country’s map and pointed out different places where protests were organised against the CAA and National Register of Citizens.
After this article was first published, Network18 responded to The Wire‘s request for comment by saying, “Network18’s social media policy has been in force since the year 2016. It is in line with the worldwide practice of such guidelines issued by media organisations primarily aimed at reinforcing the need for neutrality by reporters and editors in all situations. These guidelines are reviewed from time to time and reiterated to our teams to ensure objectivity in our communication. Within teams, these get circulated every time a new bunch of employees comes on board. We strongly deny that these guidelines have anything to do with the specific story in question.”
In response to queries, the India Today Group said the social media policy of the India Today Group has been effective since 2014. “Just like any other well-respected media organisation, our social media policy is widely shared and openly stated. This is in line with international best practice,” responded the corporate communications desk of the media group in an email.
“We regularly send reminders on our stated policy in times of big news events. The last advisory was sent on Monday, December 16 as a reminder of our openly stated social media guidelines,” the email response further stated.
The India Today Group has also shared a three-page document that lists out “social media best practices” which the employees are expected to follow.
Note: This article was updated at 9 am on December 23 with Network18 and India Today’s responses.