New Delhi: One can begin with a belief that those who oppose INDIA’s list naming 14 ‘journalists’ who will be boycotted by the opposition bloc are genuine defenders of press freedom. Driven by the grand ideals of journalism, they are concerned about the list and its repercussions. One can, nevertheless, examine the merit of their argument.
Rajdeep Sardesai termed it “an ominous sign for democracy”. “To me it is something that is not done,” he said.
His concern is legitimate, but he skips the unsettling questions. He is on the payroll of an organisation that has been sent the maximum number of names for the list of journalists boycotted by the alliance. So what’s his take on his colleagues and their ‘journalism’?
When the organisation suspended him for two weeks and docked his salary for a false tweet, and sacked some others for their tweets critical of the government, did he point out to the management those numerous instances when his colleagues were found peddling hatred and falsehood?
His audience is waiting for him to say, “What my organisation is doing in the pretext of journalism is ominous for democracy.”
(Disclosure: I quit the organisation days after joining it.)
Post-2014 BJP has discredited the media
Shekhar Gupta raises a perfectly valid point that the list will not be the last one, and may set a dangerous precedent. But his other points negate his concern.
It requires naiveté to say that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), most brazen in its assault on press freedom, is “more sophisticated”. Its Union ministers popularised the term “presstitute”, as the party went all out to discredit the media. The right-wing troll army, legitimised by the prime minister who duly follows many of them on X (formerly Twitter), bullies and tarnishes journalists.
When the previous governments had any issue with a news story, the topmost people tried to persuade the beat reporter. Now, a nondescript saffron flag holder directly calls and threatens editors.
True, the Congress or the Trinamool Congress don’t have a shining record about press freedom, but any journalist who has covered the Union government or the BJP before 2014 knows that other parties are several light years behind the current BJP. The BJP has been in power in several states for decades now, but its approach towards the media has drastically changed since 2014.
In July 2012, immediately after the killings of 17 Adivasis in CRPF firing in Bastar, a weekly placed a photograph of the then-home minister with the corpses and asked on its cover: “How can Chidambaram sleep well at night?”
Manipur has been burning for several months, with the death toll many times more than the Bastar incident. How many media houses can now give a similar headline?
What enabled the media to directly name the senior-most UPA leaders? With all their flaws, they at least had the humility to accept their failures. Following a deadly Naxal attack in 2010, P. Chidambaram repeatedly said “the buck stops at my desk”.
Can the incumbent home minister ever say so during a press conference on Manipur?
Freelancers versus established houses
Several of those opposing the list have asked for calling out the bad names. They can look within. How many stories have they done to call out the ‘journalism’ of these 14 or countless similar names or their media houses?
The duty to expose the hateful agenda of these media houses is largely fulfilled by new fact-checkers, whom the established names are not even comfortable admitting into their pantheon of journalists. There wouldn’t be any fact-checking organisations comprising a handful of young people, had the bigger institutions taken it upon themselves.
Veterans often express the need to cleanse the media. But who will do it, if not they?
This column doesn’t at all argue that all those who oppose the list are either complicit with the government or have been cowed down. But a division between two broad sections in Indian media is discernible.
One has accepted, let’s believe grudgingly, restrictions on their pen in order to adjust themselves to the present political climate, and hence will ask fewer questions and avoid naming or targeting certain people.
The others wouldn’t accept any such restrictions that dilute their press freedom under Article 19 of the constitution. To know more about the adjustments, just check their journalism record before 2014.
The former comprises mostly established institutions with honourable bylines and impeccable editorial expertise, and the latter are mostly those with limited resources but who have done exemplary work in the last decade.
It should, therefore, raise a question for the former: why is it that the majority of investigations concerning the Union government, spanning from coal deals and Adani to electoral bonds and hate speech, have originated from freelancers or organizations with limited budgets?
It is the tragedy of Indian journalism that most of these freelancers have a body of work behind them, but they find themselves not merely unemployed, but unemployable under the present political climate.
Nearly 80% of those working in the media and publishing industry have lost their jobs in a span of five years, says the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. The industry employed over 10.3 lakh people in September 2016, which came down to a mere 2.3 lakh in August 2021.
India now has fewer journalists to hold the government accountable. Unemployment in the media sector dilutes a citizen’s right to know and damages electoral democracy.
The list is an opportunity to cleanse one’s home
The list has come at a time when journalism stands threatened because a large section of the media community has chosen to shelve their quiver, and opted to adjust and accommodate. Personally, I don’t support any boycott of journalists, but I acknowledge the exceptional circumstances under which the list has arrived.
Those opposing the list should ask: Was there any option left with INDIA? Why did the great names of Indian media allow such ‘journalism’ to go uncontested? What stopped them from investing their resources into uncovering these hateful newsrooms?
A large section of the Indian media failed to keep its house in order and succumbed to the ruling party. The opposition alliance has shown us our compromised and distorted face. Instead of grandstanding, take it as a reality check, an opportunity to cleanse our home.