New Delhi: In the wake of two recent high-profile exits from ABP News, which saw known editor-in-chief Milind Khandekar and anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai, leaving the channel due to political interference in their work, the Editors Guild of India has come out and condemned “the manner in which the right to practise free and independent journalism is seen to be undermined by a combination of forces”. It also decried “all attempts on the part of the government to interfere in the free and independent functioning of journalists, either put under pressure directly, or through the proprietors”.
In the statement, the Guild said the forces which were interfering with independent journalism included “some media owners’ inability to withstand political covert or overt pressures from the political establishment and frequent instances of blocking or interference in the transmission of television content that is seen to be critical of the government.”
Guilds criticism of Government comes soon after Bajpai revealed his story
Though the Guild refrained from naming any channel or making a pointed reference to any episode, its criticism has come just days after Bajpai revealed the story behind his exit in which he said: “From being told not to take Narendra Modi’s name on my show or show his image on any programme critical of the government to a sinister blacking out of my show, Masterstroke, what happened was nothing short of censorship.”
The Wire had earlier reported how his exit had come after he had angered government ministers by reporting that a Chhattisgarh woman held up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a success story for his rural schemes had not “doubled her income” as he had claimed. A couple of days later he was told that he would no longer be anchoring his popular show, ‘Masterstroke’.
It had also been reported that apart from Bajpai and Khandekar, senior news anchor Abhisar Sharma had also been pulled off air by ABP News for 15 days after he reportedly questioned instructions from management that there be no criticism of Modi on his programmes.
Amit Shah had spoken about teaching ABP News a lesson
In the run up to these changes at the channel, the report had also mentioned how BJP president Amit Shah had reportedly told a group of journalists in parliament house that he planned to “teach ABP News a lesson”.
The Editors Guild statement appears to be in line with these developments. It read: “The past few days have seen senior journalists of at least two electronic media channels come out in the open to assert that their employers attempted to either tailor or tone down their content to make it less critical of the government, leaving them no choice other than resigning. At least one such instance has been reported formally in writing to the Guild. These instances are disconcerting.”
Reacting to these complaints, the Guild reminded media owners that “institutional strength and respect is directly linked to editorial independence and undermining the former can result in curtailing the latter. It urges them to not cow down to political pressure being brought upon them by the government or any other forces”.
‘Disturbance of signals an attempt to punish’
Reacting to these complaints, the Guild decried “all attempts on the part of the government to interfere in the free and independent functioning of journalists, either put under pressure directly, or through the proprietors”.
It also reminded media owners that “institutional strength and respect is directly linked to editorial independence and undermining the former can result in curtailing the latter. It urges them to not cow down to political pressure being brought upon them by the government or any other forces”.
It stated that “owners and journalists have an equally shared interest in press freedoms and in resisting pressures”.
Since Bajpai had also pointed out how the satellite signals would be disturbed during his programme and the problem solved by itself after he moved out, the Editors Guild also noted that “even more worrying are the recent instances where signals of television programmes critical of the government have seemingly been blocked or disrupted in a manner almost Orwellian”. It said one TV channel had also shared with it the screen-shots and details indicating such interference.
“Such attempts strike at the root of media freedom and indeed the foundations of our democracy. These undermine the right to be informed and to hold the establishment accountable. This seems a brazen attempt to punish “unfriendly” news channels and silence inconvenient voices,” the Guild charged.
‘Probe egregious violations; saboteurs must be brought to book’
The Guild also demanded that the government take note of these instances of disruptions in television programme signals, investigate and explain how and under what circumstances these egregious violations are taking place.
“Suitable action must be taken against those who were responsible for such nefarious activities aimed at throttling media freedom. It must also assure the nation that either directly or through any proxies or agencies it isn’t involved in this activity. And if it isn’t, these saboteurs must be brought to book. Freedom of airwaves cannot be tampered with.”
‘Stop selective denial of journalistic access as a weapon’
The other instance that the Guild alluded to without again naming any person or organisation appeared to be that of senior journalist and anchor Karan Thapar who in his latest book, Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story, delved deep into how he had interviewed Modi, when the latter was the chief minister of Gujarat, and during which he questioned him about the 2002 pogrom in the state. While Modi had walked away from that interview midway, after he became prime minister, BJP ministers and party spokespersons stopped appearing on Thapar’s shows.
In an ostensible reference to the issue raised by Thapar, the Guild also decried the tendency on the part of the government, and the political class in general, to use selective denial of journalistic access as a weapon. “This has become worse when there are few opportunities to ask questions to those in public life or in official positions on public platforms like press conferences, which is a legitimate democratic right of journalists on behalf of all citizens,” it said, in an oblique reference to Modi not holding a single press conference since he became prime minister.
The Guild told the powers that be that “denying this right and shunning journalists critical of you are unhealthy practices in a democracy. Unfortunately, it can also lead to one-sided coverage. This unhealthy and unfair practice must be avoided”.
Anil Ambani’s ‘cease and desist’ notice in Rafale irks Guild
The Guild also criticised the “cease and desist” notice served by a large corporate group on some newspapers in an effort to block the coverage of an important defence deal. While not naming the Anil Ambani group or the Rafale deal, the Guild said, “the company should withdraw this notice”. It added that if the company does not do so, “it should be resisted”. Also, it hoped that the courts will weigh in for the right of journalists to investigate and raise questions.
The notice was served by three Anil Ambani owned companies on some newspapers, including The Hindu which reported that it was served against publishing “unverified and speculative” reports relating to the offset contract that was part of the Rafale deal. It said the three companies were Reliance Infrastructure Ltd., Reliance Defence Ltd. and Reliance Aerostructure Ltd.
Dated August 2, the notice had charged that the news reports in the matter were “speculative, factually incorrect, and exhibiting lack of understanding in a section of the media”. It had also urged the media “to avoid, cease and desist from carrying out any unverified and speculative reporting on such a sensitive subject relating to national security”.
Guild pained at detention of photographer Shahidul Alam in Dhaka
Finally, the Guild also expressed it pain at the detention of eminent photographer and educator Shahidul Alam in Dhaka under the provisions of the Information and Communication Technology Act of Bangladesh. It said Alam’s detention was “arbitrary and unreasonable” and noted that highlighting the peaceful protests by school children and young people in Dhaka against the malpractices in the transport sector, resulting in deaths, was not a crime. It demanded Alam’s immediate and unconditional release from detention.