Despite an Increasingly Censored Mediascape, Hope For Change Remains

In times of censorship and constant threats to the freedom of the press, there is still optimism to be found among young journalists.

As in previous years, World Press Freedom Day in 2018 again saw most of the world lamenting the increasing restrictions placed upon the press. From ‘fake news’ plaguing our timelines to the alarming increase in the arrests and even murders of journalists, it seems like the media’s overall landscape has come under attack.

What is the impact these stories of doom and gloom have for those who have recently entered the profession?  The Wire spoke to four young journalists to find out.

Is there any hope left?

Parth M.N. of the LA Times
Credit: Parth M.N.

Speaking on heightened restrictions, Parth M.N. of the LA Times, says, “There is a shrinking space for dissent and a lack of grassroots reporting on issues that are not sexy enough for TRPs. Luckily, I work with the Los Angeles Times as a correspondent so the reduced freedom of expression where one has to think twice about criticising the government doesn’t apply to me. We have done several strong anti-government stories without being concerned about what its implications. But despite that, these restrictions do influence the way you look at the media landscape – you wonder if you can write what you want to without worrying about the establishment.”

Atul Dev of The Caravan says, “The place where I am working right now has no such restrictions, which leaves me with the easy part: finding interesting stories, and that is not too difficult these days. But I wasn’t always working here. My first job was at the Sunday Guardian as a feature writer. Towards the end of the year that I worked there, Joyeeta Basu and M.D. Nalapat were killing stories every week that were even slightly critical of the BJP government. To sit in editorial meetings with them was torturous, so I quit. The fake story on Kathua rape that they published in their opinion pages recently came as no surprise to me, it’s the logical conclusion of the prevailing editorial practice in that paper.”

Atul Dev, staff writer at Caravan. Credit: Caravan website

When contacted by The Wire, Joyeeta Basu, editor of the Sunday Guardian refuted these claims, saying, “We did not need Mr Atul Dev to sit in editorial meetings to discuss the main newspaper, which carries the political content. He was a part of the Features team, and wrote for Guardian 20, the Features section, which is a supplement with the main newspaper. He had nothing to do with the main section. Our editorial meetings for the main paper, the political part, do not include members of G20. These meetings are restricted to the political bureau, that is the reporters, and the three top editors, no one beyond that. This has been the practice from a time much earlier than Mr Dev joined the organisation, and this practice continues till date and will continue.”

She continued, “Neither was he a political reporter nor was he on the news desk. So he did not know how the main newspaper functioned. I strongly refute such a baseless allegation. In fact, I take offence at such a charge made. I am also quite surprised at the allegation, as we have carried, and still carry many reports against both the BJP and the government, as a perusal of our newspaper will show. As for what he has to say about our “editorial practices”, the Sunday Guardian is a reputed newspaper … We have national and international writers of repute writing for us. We have a strong team of political reporters. Our readers trust us. We do not seek Dev’s endorsement of what we print.” On the “fake news” piece Dev referred to, “it was clearly tagged as fiction” said M.D. Nalapat, Sunday Guardian‘s editorial director.

Nalapat added, “If you googled my views on Vajpayee or some others prominent in the BJP, such a missive may not have been sent. I stand for abolition of the IT Act as well as Sec 377 ,the promotion of the English language, and for free speech and the right to quaff alcohol. Do go through my work and decide for yourself about whether the son of Kamala Das and the nephew of Aubrey Menen would act in the manner you describe. If what you said was true, I would have censored a fair amount of my own work.”

Dev responded by saying “Towards the end of my stint at the paper, every page of the features section was screened by Joyeeta Basu before it could be sent to the press by the features team. This, of course, can be corroborated by anyone who was in at Guardian20 at that time. So despite our best intentions, we had to engage with their ideas about what is printable and what is not every week.”

“Stories must be told”

Neha Dixit, independent journalist

So what motivates young reporters these days to power through despite the heavy arm of censorship? A sense of moral duty, it seems. “Stories must be told. That’s our job as a journalist. And they need to be done in a way that everyone reads. When stories manage a wider reach and sometimes make an impact, it makes one want to do more of such stories,” says Neha Dixit, an independent journalist, a frequent contributor to several print and digital and publications, including The Wire.

Despite the many difficult stories this type of reporting may lead to, Dixit says in order to get by, “most journalists develop a filter. A switch on, switch off button. This is a self-defence mechanism because each difficult story corrodes a bit of the reporter. But over the years, one learns to distance oneself without losing empathy and compassion. One learns that distance is important to be able to put a difficult story in the public domain efficiently, for it to really have an impact.”

Shruti Jain, independent journalist

Shruti Jain, a Jaipur-based independent journalist and regular contributor to The Wire, adds, “I think my motivation in doing the stories that may not go viral but are still important has been that my editors have always accepted and encouraged these stories. There is a need to bring the report from the ground up, because no agency, government or otherwise, will address the masses who are always ready to talk about their issues.”

Changing mediascape 

Reporting may be improving now because online platforms are trying to push for greater truths, something mainstream print media is slightly reluctant to do. Jain says, “However, reporting is still dominated by the latter as they have sufficient funds to send their reporters across the country. I do think that the changed landscape is enabling checks and balances within the media. Today, if any media organisation has a non-objective report or is embracing fake news, it will not go unnoticed. Online media sites will definitely point it out. Citizens are more ‘informed’ about how the media is representing news than they were before.”

Dixit adds: “The internet has democratised media. Information that was at the discretion of big media conglomerates is no more at their mercy. It comes out on digital platforms without requiring many resources.”

Parth concurs. “Digital platforms are great. It gives me tremendous hope because it is a lifeline of sorts in the times we live in. The opening up of online platforms has opened up opportunities for young journalists like me. “

Reality or virality

“You look at the mainstream media and are perplexed by what passes off as news. It’s cringe-worthy. And having been in the same profession, you feel if this is what goes viral then I don’t want to do it. Also, I wouldn’t be very good at doing it either,” says Parth.

“The disproportionate coverage is reflective of an infuriating class bias. A fire in south Mumbai is breaking news but it takes 300 casualties for Kokrajhar to be noticed. So you try and correct that in your own work, focus on stories that matter to you, and the ones you can do with conviction.”

Dev adds: “I honestly feel that the traction a story gets on social media has absolutely no bearing on whether it is a story worth your time. I only think about what is the value of this story that I need to report. Why must it be done? What is at stake. Why is this important? Those are the same questions that I discuss with the editors – Hartosh Singh Bal and Vinod Jose. And I do not think ‘because it will go viral’ is the right answer.”

Dixit agrees: “All news stories have an archival value. As someone said, journalism is the first draft of history. Even when a story does not go viral, a well-researched story will continue to have value decades later. It is a registry of an issue or an event of significance that may be responsible for shaping a future society. So a story’s value is not dependent on the number of retweets and Facebook shares.”

Pushback by young journalists and new voices

“New and different public discourses are a result of a push by journalism. Debates like caste, sexual harassment or sexuality that were a taboo till a decade back have found dominant space in public debates. That is a big accomplishment,” says Dixit.

Parth agrees, “You see young journalists pushing boundaries when the editor has a spine, or when the newsroom is committed to the profession and doesn’t look at it as a mere job. So it’s not a coincidence that places like The Wire, PARI, Scroll.in have some excellent reporters.”

The all-controlling public eye

The support of the public in sharing and funding content cannot be overstated by these reporters who believe that for the media to remain open and unbiased, it must be independent. Corporate controlled media, with vested interests, often chokes the ability of journalists to do their job fearlessly and speak truth to power, they believe.

Parth follows this up by saying: “One important thing is the public needs to support and understand the importance of independent media. “

Dixit agrees. “People must start paying for journalism. Even the smallest amount makes a difference. It should become a way of life.”

These responses re-ignite hope for the future of the press, and if anything merits optimism in these times, it is the idealism and fervour of these journalists. By fighting the good fight and reporting tough stories through the increasing impositions, they underline the importance of this day – of keeping the press free and fair. This freedom depends on the readers, the public, what we want to consume, what we want to pay for and support. If anything challenges the cynicism of media standards, it is the value of these journalists – and that is a cause that merits our attention.

Note: This story has been edited to include the full text of  Joyeeta Basu and M.D. Nalapat’s responses after she complained about not being quoted in full.