Editors Guild's Failure to Name Modi Underlines the Fear Within Indian Media

The obvious inference from the lack of clarity in its statement is that the Guild itself is frightened. What other explanations can be there for this soft approach to government bullying?

The Editors Guild of India “condemns the manner in which the right to practice free and independent journalism is seen to undermined by a combination of forces – 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”.

This is the opening paragraph of the Editors Guild’s statement, issued on August 8. And it starts as it means to go on. Nowhere are the names of the media owners mentioned, nor do we know which government where is putting pressure on whom. It could be about anybody, at any time in history. In the times in which we now live – and the headline for the statement establishes that (“challenging environment for the freedom of the press”) – we need much more from one of our premier journalists’ associations.

The obvious inference from the lack of clarity in the statement is that the Guild itself is frightened or at least has decided that discretion is the better part of valour. What other explanations can be there for this soft approach to government bullying?

For those who have missed the details, last week, editor Milind Khandekar and journalist and anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai quit ABP News. Anchor Abhisar Sharma was taken off air by the news channel and apparently told to stay off social media, where he is very vocal, for two weeks. Bajpai has written a long article for The Wire, where he made it clear that he was asked by the owner not to criticise – or even mention – Prime Minister Narendra Modi by name when he took on the government in his primetime show, Masterstroke. The trigger was a show in July where Masterstroke contradicted statements and claims made by Modi in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ radio talk.

Left to Right: Abhisar Sharma, Punya Prasun Bajpai, the ABP News logo, BJP president Amit Shah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi

All this has been reported in newspapers and websites and discussed on television. Therefore, it is only reasonable to expect the Editors Guild to name the protagonists of the whole “manner in which the right to practice free and independent journalism is seen to be undermined”. It is not as if the Guild has held back in the past. In a strong and detailed investigation into coverage of the Gujarat riots of 2002, the Guild had chastised newspapers like Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh and also interviewed then chief minister Modi.

But that was then, this is now. In comparison to that 2002 report, it is not hard to see why many within the media feel that the Guild itself seems held back by some “covert and overt pressures” (its own words) of its own. Because why else would it seem unable to name the Modi-led government, the BJP and party president Amit Shah?

And let it not be forgotten that this statement has come after much chivvying from journalists and after several other associations have reacted. This mealy-mouthed recalcitrance does not do the Guild’s reputation or the journalists it represents any favours. Earlier too, the Guild statement on the Cobrapost sting which showed up the willingness of media organisations to support an ideology or do anything for the right price was full of equivocation and came down heavily on sting operations rather than media integrity.

A number of journalists have lost their jobs or been silenced for criticising the Modi government. Those who have investigated industrial houses close to the Modi government like Ambani and Adani, have paid a heavy price, with legal cases filed against them and the attendant legal harassment. Even using information from government reports is seen as “treason” against this government. The Guild cannot be unaware of all this. The network of fear goes further. People who question BJP’s affiliate organisations or the culture of Hindutva are also threatened. Journalists and writers have been killed by organisations associated with Hindutva. Followers of the Hindutva ideology and of the government appear to take great pleasure in stalking journalists, especially women, on social media, threatening them with rape and death.

There are further problems with the statement, not just its wording. A “cease and desist” notice from an unnamed company to stop the media from writing about an unnamed defence deal is “decried”. The statement says this attempt to block coverage of this important deal is unacceptable. If the Guild itself cannot name Anil Ambani’s defence company or the Rafale deal, then all the Guild is doing is underlining the fear prevalent within the media.

Two words are repeated throughout the statement: “decries” and “disconcerting”. Indeed, one can decry the statement and find its inherent cowardice disconcerting. It is bad enough that we are blessed with any number of “neutral” commentators who try to deflect attention from the current toxic atmosphere by pointing to historical atrocities done by the BJP’s political rivals. How does it help journalists struggling today to be endlessly reminded that the Emergency was very bad, for instance? The events of 1975 to 1977 are well-documented. The role played by the media and media houses are well-known. They do not cover us in glory.

But instead of trying to find excuses for the BJP to get away scot-free because of the Congress’s failures, what journalists and media associations like the Guild need to do is make sure that such a thundering blow to media freedom never happens again. For that, we need courage to take on the government for its transgressions. And to take on those who are attempting to destroy our democratic institutions and our constitution. Even if they are affiliated with the BJP.

The history of journalists’ associations in India is long and complicated, by ego, circumstance and geography, and that is why many are toothless and disregarded. The Guild was seen by some as a premier association and looked up to even. But by its lack of courage and seeming inability to address the challenges in front of us, it leaves journalists, especially the young and enthusiastic, looking for support and a strong voice within the media, bereft.

Ranjona Banerji is an independent journalist who writes on media and politics. She tweets @ranjona