'We Cannot Get a Call from Amit Shah': Media Group Caught in Self-Censorship Vice

Has Vice global taken a conscious decision to pursue only politically 'safe' stories given that its plan for launching a TV channel in India has to pass the gauntlet of official licensing?

New Delhi:Is it okay to be gay (and in the far-right)?” Vice asked in a story on its British website earlier this month. In the soon-to-be-launched Indian avatar of this once-edgy but now suits-run American media brand, that is one question its editors have been told they can’t ask. Senior staff at Vice India learnt this the hard way when corporate bosses, citing fears of litigation and violence, shot down a story on an ABVP activist who is gay.

The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad is the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The decision to pull the plug on that story, which was written with the consent and participation of the ABVP activist, has placed a big question mark over Vice’s impending India operations. Citing editorial interference from management, its managing editor, Rishi Majumder, and news editor Kunal Majumder resigned last week, laying out in their resignation letters the extent to which a website known around the world for its willingness to take risks has decided to play safe in India and avoid offending the Narendra Modi government.

The two Majumders, who aren’t related, led Vice India’s editorial team in the wake of Pragya Tiwari’s sudden resignation as head of content in February.

“We cannot get a call from Amit Shah”

Kunal, who resigned on March 12, 2018, claiming unfair treatment of his story about the gay ABVP activist, wrote, “I am deeply saddened by the way my story on a gay member of ABVP is being treated. Two days ago Rishi informed me that Samira and Chanpreet have ‘questions’ about my story and it might be put on hold. This was followed by an email from Chanpreet and detailed mention in the launch catch up call today. None of these calls or emails specify why this story is being targeted. If this is a legal concern why is it not coming from our lawyer and why am I not being given the space to defend the story?”

Chanpreet Arora is the CEO of Vice India and Samira Kanwar is its ‘chief of content’.

Kunal Majumder’s resignation letter

“Chanpreet repeated something she has said earlier – we cannot get a call from Amit Shah. I cannot work in an organisation that takes a call on stories based on double guessing what the ruling party’s president will like. There is nothing in the story that is against ABVP – the profiled character only defends the organisation … I find it disturbing that an editorial conversation that should ideally take place between an editor and the writer is now taking place between the management and the writer, and that too marked to non-editorial staff,” he added.

In his resignation letter a couple of days later, Rishi, too, expressed concern over management and legal teams taking editorial decisions without involving the editor or the writer of the piece. He also offered a point by point rebuttal to the legal concerns flagged by the company’s lawyers.

Printed copies of Kunal and Rishi’s resignation emails were delivered to The Wire by sources at Vice who said they were disturbed by recent developments.

Rishi Majumder’s Resignation Email by The Wire on Scribd

“When Hosi met the editorial team (including staff writers and desk editors) for the first time, some months ago now, we were all told by Chanpreet that we should never be taken to court,” he added. Claiming that “all journalists can do is ensure they are on the right side of the law, journalistic ethics, and documentation,” he wrote that this sweeping guideline had a chilling effect on the editorial process.

Hosi Simon is the CEO of Vice Asia-Pacific.

Vetting by ‘political and cultural sensitivity committee’

In his resignation letter, Rishi strongly objected to Vice India corporate’s decision to set up a ‘Political and Cultural Sensitivity’ committee that would “clear sensitive stories” already approved by the editors.

Such a committee doesn’t even exist in Vice newsrooms in Russia and China, which, at 148 and 176, rank worse than India’s score of 136 in the World Press Freedom Index.

“The Vice India CEO [Chanpreet Arora] added yesterday that the stories on our slate that she sees as being really problematic are ones that deal with Hindutva”, Rishi Majumder’s resignation letter notes.

“I am well aware that many media outlets today are crawling when they are being asked to bend,” he said, reprising the phrase made famous by L.K. Advani about the behaviour of the Indian media during the Emergency. “But having a committee vetting Hindutva stories for political and cultural sensitivity, keeping in mind all the time calls from Mr. Shah, would amount to much worse,” he added. “A series of back-flips would be an appropriate metaphor, perhaps. I see no better one for our discussions, however tacit, on whether to put in cold-storage/drop an interview with an ABVP member who is actually championing Hindutva, simply because he is gay.”

‘Writing about gay ABVP member would be offence under Section 377’

In his resignation letter, Rishi reproduces the legal opinion Vice corporate secured to justify killing the story on the gay ABVP member, along with his responses.

“Two hours after Kunal sent in his resignation yesterday I received an email from [the lawyer who] flagged issues with three pieces, one of them the piece on the gay member of the ABVP. Here below are his comments and my questions and comments in-line:

Lawyer: Gay ABVP: The headline is required to be changed since the same may be considered defamatory. The piece discloses the commission of an offence under S. 377 of the IPC which is a cognizable offence and thus you may be required to reveal your source for the same (whatever name has been disclosed to you).

Question: Section 377 criminalises ‘anal/unnatural sex’ between men and women. But does it blanket-ly criminalise being gay? nowhere does the interview discuss ‘unnatural’ sex taking place between two individuals. It merely discusses relationships shared and feelings which the subject has had.

If S. 377 were indeed to be interpreted so broadly as to criminalise being gay, and consequent feelings and relationships, it would have been impossible to publish any LGBTQIA+ story in the media, whereas the media is swamped with stories on such issues.

Lawyer: Secondly, the piece may be considered defamatory in case you do not have the original documentation for the interview.

Comment: We have the original documentation for the interview.

Lawyer: Thirdly, the entire piece is extremely politically sensitive and may result in violent outbursts from the parties named therein. Vice must be circumspect while dealing with such politically and culturally sensitive matters. If legal proceedings for defamation are initiated, the same may yet be defeasible. However, the factum that certain elements of the society may take offence at this article and harm Vice and its employees as a result of the same is of much greater concern. This article is red flagged.

Clarification: It does seem strange that a lawyer is offering advice on political sensitivity, while clarifying that we may well win this case if it comes up in court, but he is following directions given to him in an email on Saturday.”

The email Rishi referred to was sent by Chanpreet Arora to him, Hosi Simon, Samira Kanwar and the company’s lawyers. It spells out the company’s plans to firewall itself from legal and political troubles:

As discussed with you (individually), here our (sic) the urgent action points

  1. VICE India Editorial (led by Rishi) to share a story tracker with [the lawyers] by Sunday. The legal team to respond with review on Legal comments and additionally highlight any cultural or political red flags
  2. VICE India to put in place – Political/Cultural Sensitivity committee/team for clearance of sensitive pieces. Rishi/Samira to suggest 2 names each. ALL MEMBERS NEED TO BE INDIANS.

Though he objected per se to the idea of such a committee to clear ‘sensitive stories’, Rishi Majumder also objected to the fact that members of Vice’s global content team would be excluded from the conversation by the requirement that committee members be Indian. This, he said, went against Vice’s global practices.

Apart from these concerns over content and self-censorship, Vice India has also been bogged down by its association with the Times Group.

The ‘Times’ intervention

While they were running way behind schedule – Vice India was supposed to launch operations in India in Q1 of 2017 – all seemed fine till late last year while a small editorial team headed by Tiwari in Delhi and a video team headed by Samira Kanwar in Mumbai worked on stories and original video content for the website as well as the TV channel.

Rumours of tension between the management and editorial started floating after Arora was hired as Vice India CEO in late 2017. Arora, who had served as head of revenue strategy and sales operations for two years at Times Internet Limited, the Times Group’s digital arm, joined in January 2018.

Clock-wise from top-left: Pragya Tiwari, Samira Kanwar, Derek Mead, Chanpreet Arora and Hosi Simon.

At an editorial meeting soon after she took charge, Arora announced, “We should not get a call from Amit Shah”. The website’s editors saw this as meaning Vice India should avoid publishing content that might embarrass the ruling party.

Responding to Arora’s ‘editorial guideline’ in his resignation letter, Rishi listed stories Vice India was planning to publish after the launch that might offend the BJP.

He said, “Mr Amit Shah may take offence easily and at everything that is inconvenient to the ruling party and the RSS. What would he think, for instance, about our story prepared after reporting for over three months on the BJP UP CM’s Hindu Yuva Vahini in Bundelkhand? What about profiles of youth who are heeding the Bajrang Dal’s clarion call for 40 lakh Hindu ‘warriors’ in one state? Would it concern him to read of the stress 100 young Muslims we have spoken to, from across the country, are experiencing in these times? What about issues faced by Dalits? What would he make of our data and testimony filled report on civil engineering, once India’s most vied after profession, providing no real employment opportunities for youth? We are planning a series on such employment – or rather, unemployment – related fields. But should we? Even if I could predict what Mr. Shah might like or not, I am not comfortable using that as an editorial standard.”

Multiple individuals with knowledge of Vice India’s ‘story deck’ confirmed to The Wire that all these ideas had been approved by the global team, including Vice’s global editor, Derek Mead, in December 2017.

In an editorial meeting soon after Arora joined Vice India, Hosi Simon, too, echoed her views and told the team that they “don’t want any litigation”. Although taken aback by Arora’s interference, Vice India editors did not baulk at the decision to hire a team of lawyers to vet their stories. It should be noted that this is a common practice in newsrooms, especially in India where one can be sued easily for bizarre reasons.

At Vice India, though, sources familiar with the organisation’s processes told The Wire, legal vetting quickly became a cover for self-censorship of stories that might be politically sensitive.

Media watchdogs and commentators in India and abroad have noted how a major section of the Indian media has been pulling its punches when it comes to coverage of the BJP government and its leadership, especially Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Apart from the pro-government editorial slant that is evident in its flagship TV channel Times Now,  the Times Group has, on multiple occasions, removed stories critical of the government from its websites without offering any explanation to readers.

Given Vice’s global positioning as a feisty, in-your-face media platform, Vice India’s conservative editorial guidelines prompted speculation within the organisation about where the self-censoring impulse was coming from.

Had Vice global taken a conscious decision to pursue only politically ‘safe’ stories given that its plan for launching a TV channel in India has to pass the gauntlet of official licensing? Was Arora making these decisions on behalf of the Times Group, which has its own commercial reasons to tread carefully? Or is this is just another case of an ‘over-enthusiastic manager’ hoping to avoid getting in trouble because of ‘righteous journalists’?

Representational image. Credit: Reuters/Files

In his resignation letter, Rishi Majumder said that Arora had told him that “the stories on our slate that she sees as being really problematic are ones that deal with Hindutva… Chanpreet explained that the problems may not arise with regard to the stories on Hindutva themselves but, rather, by virtue of the fact that these stories may prompt offended parties to file suits on us for other stories, such as ones on sex or drugs.”

The only way to resolve such a concern, Rishi noted, would be stop covering Hindutva altogether. But this would be “as weird as … an American publication pretending Donald Trump doesn’t exist.”

Despite multiple attempts by The Wire, Kunal Majumder, Rishi Majumder and Pragya Tiwari remained unavailable for comment. Questions sent to Chanpreet Arora, Samira Kanwar, Hosi Simon and Derek Mead remain unanswered.

Teething problems in ViceLand

Vice Media had announced its plans to enter India in June 2016. In partnership with the Times Group, the company planned to launch a paid TV channel and a website. None of the projects have been launched yet. Tiwari was hired by the global team in August 2017.

Subscription-based news website The Ken reported earlier this month that trouble in obtaining a TV licence from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had become a source of frustration between Vice and the Times Group. “A lot of water has flown under the bridge, as far as this channel is concerned. It’s no longer a procedural issue, but a willingness issue,” a person aware of Vice India’s operations told them. “The Jains [owners of the Times Group] have enough clout to get the license if they wanted to.”

While the exact nature of the agreement between the two companies is unclear, multiple Vice India employees told The Wire that they were promised from the beginning that there will be “no editorial involvement by the Times Group” and that Vice’s global team will “run the show”, including hiring and setting the tone for editorial content in India.

Sources at Vice India told The Wire that whenever they raised concerns about Arora’s interference, fearing their stories will be killed, Tiwari told them to “ignore her”. Meanwhile, sources in the Mumbai team confirmed that the video team got significant pushback on a documentary on censorship in India.

On multiple occasions, the Vice India staff was also “forced to share their story deck with the Times of India‘s editorial staff”. However, The Wire couldn’t independently verify if that was done just to get feedback from TOI editors or as part of a deeper process of interference with Vice’s editorial matters.

On March 21, the Times of India reported that Vice India had officially announced the appointment of Chanpreet Arora as chief executive officer and Samira Kanwar as head of content. Arora and Kanwar will lead the charge as Vice India officially goes live next month, a company press release was quoted as saying. The company also unveiled its “partnership” with PepsiCo brand Mountain Dew in a collaboration on a mountaineering feature.

Vice’s commercial sponsorships have increasingly come under media scrutiny for the manner in which they have affected editorial independence. As Paul Farhi noted in the Washington Post,

“At times, the company has blurred the lines between reporting and advertising. It has removed or altered some of its work after advertisers complained that the material put them in an unflattering light. On at least two occasions, it wove documentary footage into promotions for advertisers. In another instance, a months-long investigative project was killed, apparently out of concern about its effect on a major sponsor.”

No lessons learnt?

The Times Group’s partnership with the Huffington Post in India collapsed in October 2017 after the latter cited editorial interference from Times Bridge’s head of content strategy Thane Richard. “The staff started facing editorial strategy interference from Richard in August shortly before editor-in-chief Sruthijith K.K. announced that he would be stepping down from HuffPost,” reported MediaNama.

HuffPo staffers are said to have objected to an email Richard sent, asking them to articulate in writing, their views on the questions like these:
1) What is HuffPost today? Talk about style, voice, coverage, quality, market perception, etc. Assume I have never heard of the HuffPost brand
2) Why did you come to work at HuffPost? Are you getting what you came for? Elaborate on why or why not (strengths and weaknesses)
3) Why are you a journalist? What do you want to be doing in your work as a journalist? If you are not on track with that vision right now, what would it take to get on track?

A former senior member of Huffington Post India’s staff also pointed out that in the months before the partnership was dissolved, there were disagreements over how the website’s coverage should evolve, in particular over whether it should expand reportage. This, sources at the website said, had consequences for its budget and staffing size.

With the severing of the partnership, HuffPost India will now operate on its own. Aman Sethi, formerly The Hindu‘s Africa correspondent, has taken over as HuffPost India editor since then, while most of the original staff has resigned.

Reportedly, other Times Bridge partnerships with Business Insider, Tech Radar and Gizmodo are also not performing as well as expected. Interestingly, till November 2017 Times Internet Limited had the same person head three competing global tech brands in India – Gizmodo, TechSpot and PCMag.

With additional inputs from Anuj Srivas.