New Delhi: A day after PTI quoted the Indian ambassador in Beijing saying that Chinese troops needed to move back to their side of the line of actual control in Ladakh – a statement that contradicts Prime Minister Modi’s claim that “no one has intruded” into India – the government’s broadcasting network has called the news agency “anti-national” and threatened to cut all links with it.
India hopes China will realise its responsibility in de-escalation and disengaging by moving back to its side of LAC: Indian envoy to China
— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) June 26, 2020
Though neither ambassador Vikram Misri nor the Ministry of External Affairs has denied the accuracy of PTI’s tweet nearly 24 hours later, Misri’s quote has embarrassed the government because it runs counter to what the prime minister said to the all-party meeting held last week on the border standoff.
A second news flash from PTI quoted Misri saying “China has to stop the practice of transgressing and trying to erect structures on the Indian side of the LAC”.
China has to stop the practice of transgressing and trying to erect structures on the Indian side of the LAC: Indian envoy to China
— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) June 26, 2020
This too ran counter to Modi’s claim that China had not intruded earlier.
It would seem that a modus vivendi of sorts between the MEA and PTI prevailed after the version of the interview put out by the news agency on Saturday evening fortuitously made no reference to these particular statements by Misri. Nevertheless, the ruling establishment, already upset with PTI for earlier interviewing the Chinese ambassador, appears to have decided to shoot the messenger.
On Saturday, officials at Prasar Bharti told reporters that the public broadcaster – which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio – was sending a “strong letter” to PTI ahead of its next board meeting expressing “deep displeasure on anti-national reporting by PTI”.
The official said, “PTI’s anti national reporting makes it no longer tenable to continue [the] relationship”. He said that the public broadcaster “has been supporting PTI with huge annual fees running into several crores, since decades”, and that the news agency had “rigid” on revising its charges upwards since 2016. “Now in totality of PTI’s conduct, Prasar Bharati is reviewing its relationship with PTI. [A] final decision on the same will be conveyed soon.”
Asked what the trigger for the decision and the “anti national” charge was, the Prasar Bharati official said “China coverage”. To a follow up on whether this related to PTI’s interviews with the two ambassadors, he said, “Yes”.
Earlier this week, PTI scooped the rest of the Indian media by landing a much sought-after interview with the Chinese ambassador in Delhi, Sun Weidong, on the recent standoff and clash at Galwan in Ladakh.
With the Chinese embassy putting out a truncated version of the interview on its website, PTI came under a barrage of criticism from commentators who had not seen the full version, a fact PTI pointed out. Lost in the din was the right of people in a democracy to know the arguments key news makers are making – including the ambassador of a country with which India is currently locking horns.
The MEA responded to some of Ambassador Sun’s statements the next day. And on Friday, the news agency’s Beijing correspondent, K.J.M. Varma, interviewed Misri.
A third news flash put out by PTI on Twitter based on the interview had also annoyed South Block and was deleted Saturday morning, though again neither the MEA nor Misri has said he was misquoted. “Only way to resolve [m]ilitary standoff along LAC is for China to stop erecting new structures: Indian envoy to China Vikram Misri to PTI”
Varma is a veteran journalist who has a reputation for accuracy. With long tours of duty as PTI’s correspondent in two sensitive and difficult overseas stations – Islamabad and Beijing – he is also familiar with the nuances of India’s bilateral relations with Pakistan and China.
For the past week, the Indian government’s official messaging at home has been that the situation with China is de-escalating, that troop deployments are thinning and that there has been no Chinese intrusion, let alone, occupation of territory on the Indian side of the LAC through the erecting of structures of any kind.
However, defence writers, quoting Indian military sources, have painted a different picture – of continuing Chinese pressure at different points along the LAC, from Pangong Tso and Galwan up to Depsang.
On Friday, Lt General S.L. Narasimhan, head of an official China think-tank housed in the MEA told Karan Thapar for The Wire that these reports were inaccurate and exaggerated. But the two quotes from ambassador Misri that PTI flashed on Twitter appear to suggest that may not be so.
Earlier attempt to restrict PTI
Prasar Bharati’s pressure on PTI is a reminder of efforts the Modi government made back in 2016 to get the news agency to hire an official nominee upon the retirement of its long-standing editor-in-chief, M.K. Razdan.
As The Wire reported at the time, the PTI board rebuffed the attempt the late Arun Jaitley made to have one of three journalists picked for the crucial job – TV commentator and columnist Ashok Malik (who is now a special advisor in the MEA after serving as media advisor to President Ram Nath Kovind), the Hindustan Times‘s Shishir Gupta and K.A, Badrinath of the Financial Chronicle. All three nominees were seen by the board as being close to the political establishment and not considered for the job, which went eventually to Vijay Joshi, a veteran news agency editor.
Though PTI has functioned as a ‘quasi official’ news agency for decades, it is an independent body that has learnt to keep its distance from the government without unduly ruffling official feathers. From 2014, however, this tight-rope walk has become more challenging. The Modi establishment has not hidden its impatience with PTI for taking seriously its mandate to serve Indian media outlets who subscribe to its service with accurate news and information free of political bias and influence.
Note: The story was edited after publication to add details of a third tweet put out by PTI at 8:39 PM on June 26.