'Overarching Climate of Fear in the Media Ecosystem': N. Ram of The Hindu

In an interview with The Wire's Arfa Khanum Sherwani, the chairman of The Hindu publishing group talks about the Modi government's recent threats over the media's Rafale coverage.

Earlier this week, the Narendra Modi government, through attorney general K.K. Venugopal, informed the Supreme Court that a set of documents concerning the controversial Rafale deal were stolen from South Block. The usage and publication of those documents, the attorney general warned, could be punished under the Official Secrets Act.

This was a warning to news organisations like The Hindu, which over a series of articles, had done exactly that to shed light on the negotiation and pricing details of the fighter jet deal.

In an interview with The Wire’s Arfa Khanum Sherwani, N. Ram, chairman of The Hindu publishing group, talks about the role that secret documents play in investigating potential wrong-doing and the government pressures that accompany such journalism. 

Edited excerpts:

The attorney general says that the documents you published in The Hindu were stolen from the defence ministry, which is a punishable offence under the Official Secrets Act, and that the government wants a thorough enquiry and investigation. 

We have not stolen the documents from anyone. We have not paid for these documents and we are fully protected by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian constitution – the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

We are also protected by section 8(a)(1) and 8(2) of the Right to Information Act which has overtaken the Official Secrets Act of 1923 – that’s what I have been legally advised.

This is not the first time that documents that have been leaked – Mr Prashant Bhushan himself has done that in cases like the coal block allocation case and so on. The courts have looked into it and accepted them. So they are not stolen.

But I also note from the statement by the Editors Guild of India that they are condemning his (attorney general’s) comments before the Supreme Court and the threat to go after the media and The Hindu in particular. He later clarified that they are not contemplating any investigation or prosecution against journalists and lawyers who publish this information. So if that is true and confirmed, then it’s good. We are not concerned about it because we are fully protected and we have done the right thing.

This was published in public interest. This matter was suppressed and this information was suppressed.

You can say this information wants to be free (*chuckles*) because they were on the price of fully fledged combat aircrafts, on parallel negotiations, on dissent within the Indian negotiating team, on doing away with anti-corruption clauses, the presence of commission agents, the deal or influence, or denying access to the books of the companies.

Remember that these are not demands made on the French government so much. They are made on commercial supplier like Dassault Aviation and MBDA France – the weapon-fighter supplier. So why on earth would you do away with standard anti-corruption clauses on which penalties are laid down in case of violations?

And finally, the issue of bank guarantees which was discussed in the fifth article.

But they are saying that this goes against national interest. They have gone to the extent of saying that this has actually, in a way, compromised national security. Do you think by raising this issue to this level and making headlines – even if they do not go further with it – they have done their job? Which is primarily making people aware that they are capable of doing that… that they can intimidate and threaten journalists.

Yes, that is a good point, and I think it is that point which the statement by the Editors Guild of India makes. Despite noting this clarification, they say that they condemn the comments made by the attorney general before the Supreme Court. And also made the same point about sending a message out so that there is a chilling effect on independent and especially investigative journalism. So I agree with you on that.

But on the other hand, we must contest this. People should not be afraid because there is an overarching climate of fear in the present ecosystem of media in this government, more than there was at any time in recent memory.

We have to go back to the Emergency days to see this kind and scaled oppression. I am not comparing that with this but in recent times, no attempt has been made this way to create a climate of fear.

I would also like to add that the major media organisations have brought it upon themselves – to play a propaganda role.

This reminds me of some famous lines about British journalists by Humbert Wolfe. It runs like this:

You cannot hope

to bribe or twist,

thank God! the

British journalist.

But, seeing what

the man will do

unbribed, there’s

no occasion to.

I think these lines apply very much to many sections of our mainstream media –  major media organisations, particularly television channels; many of them – not all of them but many of them which are involved full scale in propaganda role for the government on major issues.

Very briefly, my last question is about the politics around Rafale. After Pulwama and these airstrikes in Pakistan, it seemed that maybe the government was hoping that Rafale would not longer be an issue. But now their nervousness shows that the government still thinks that it is an important political issue which may decide or may impact their fate in May.

Yes, I think that after the Pulwama terror strike and the Balakot action – whatever it was – by India, by the Indian Air Force, I think the BJP thought it could take control of the narrative to some extent, which may have worked particularly in the Hindi speaking region because you have all these hyper-nationalists, jingoists, rhetorics, ‘teach them a lesson…we know what to do’ and so on. Not just macho, but jingoistic. So they think that this will affect the mood, and to some extent, it may have.

My understanding is that corruption is never the top issue in an election. Whether it was Bofors or the 2G spectrum issue, which finally turned out to be a damp squib in court. It was never the top issue. The top issues are shown in a number of public opinion polls, including the last India Today poll which was quite a serious poll. Usually, issues come around unemployment, underemployment, agrarian distress in a period of high inflation, the price rise, and so on.

Also read: Rafale Deal: The Mystery of the 3-Billion-Euro Price Hike

Corruption figures in the top three or four, I would say. If there’s a focus on major corruption issue – a scandal – it serves as a catalyst. It gives a lot of emotional power to the opposition to take it up, and that I see seems to fit the case. And I would say that Congress president Rahul Gandhi has made full use of this. His aggressive stance is being absolutely uninhibited in campaigning on these issues, bringing it out repeatedly.

I think that would surely have an impact because the Congress still matters in this country. And it’s perhaps in some phase of revival. So I think they are determined to make this an issue and independent media should also be on the job.

I appreciate the role of, particularly the digital-only and independent media organisations – The Wire, The Caravan, Scroll, and so on. I think they are doing a good job. In this case, The Hindu has taken a lead – [as] in the Bofors.

But I see this not as the work of one particular media organisation. On the one hand, there is competition, but there is also some sort of collective effort. You build on what other people have.

I think you also have to credit other organisations for information. For example, I used notes from The Wire – the sanitised notes which were shared with the parties before the Supreme Court in the petition filed by Prashant Bhushan the others. I think The Wire had the full text. Even if it was sanitised, it had some interesting information. The Caravan likewise had materials on the benchmark price.

I have also seen M.K. Venu’s articles, Siddharth Varadarjan’s editorials, and so on. I think we need to compete on one hand, but on the other hand, it’s a collaborative exercise.

I think that’s how journalism proceeds. You saw that with The New York Times and The Washington Post – at the peak of their investigative efforts, where they were talking about the Pentagon papers.

Later Watergate, WikiLeaks in which The Hindu had a role along with others. That’s the point I want to make here on those sections of the media that are still independent in the very difficult and corrupt media ecosystem. This role can be played and has to be played in the near future, including in the upcoming elections.