New Delhi: The Uttar Pradesh government has issued an order directing officials to probe ‘negative’ news items published by media outlets.
The order said officials concerned must seek explanations from the media houses if the facts in the story were found to be “twisted” or “false” in order to tarnish the image of the government.
Akhilesh Yadav, the main Opposition leader in Uttar Pradesh, has accused the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party government of conspiring to finish off democracy and gagging press freedom after it asked officials in the state to investigate “negative” news items that were tarnishing the image of the ruling dispensation.
The Samajwadi Party president – while responding to questions in Fatehpur on Friday by media on the Uttar Pradesh government’s controversial step to keep a tab on press reports – said, “This is a conspiracy to finish off democracy. Today, they are obstructing your freedom. Tomorrow, they will even prevent you from speaking.”
In a move further raising serious questions on its tolerance for media freedom and criticism, the BJP government has asked all district and divisional administrative chief officials to keep track of and investigate “negative” news stories and seek explanations from the media houses if the facts in the story were found to be “twisted” or “false” in order to tarnish the image of the government.
Interestingly, the order addressed to all divisional commissioners and district magistrates does not refer to false or twisted news if they depict the government in a good light. Sanjay Prasad, principal secretary to the chief minister, who issued the order on August 16, did not respond to a text requesting him for an interview to clarify the content of the said order. A copy of the order was widely shared on social media.
In the order, Prasad says it was necessary to investigate the facts in “negative” news reports expeditiously as they tarnish the image of the government.
“If it comes to your notice that any daily newspaper or media house publishes negative news on the basis of twisting facts of an event or falsifying information and attempts to tarnish the image of the state government or district administration, the concerned district magistrate must send a letter to the manager of the newspaper or media house asking for a clarification…,” said the order.
A copy of the letter would also be marked to the state Information Department, which handles accreditation of media persons, advertisements, and other routine approvals and passes required by journalists for coverage and access in the official circles and at events. The negative news reports would be registered and uploaded on the IGRS portal (Integrated Grievance Redressal System) and sent to the respective official for action.
Although this is the latest order on the part of the Adityanath government to ‘control’ the media months ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, the truth is that the Uttar Pradesh government under Adityanath has been accused of suppressing media freedom with lawsuits and criminal cases from 2017, when it assumed office.
A report published by the Committee Against Assault on Journalists in 2022 said that ever since Yogi Adityanath took over as the head of the state, at least 48 journalists had been physically assaulted and 66 others had been booked or arrested.
In 2021, the Lucknow office of locally-influential Hindi news channel Bharat Samachar and the homes of its owner-editor Brajesh Misra and the state chief were searched by the Income Tax Department for alleged tax evasion. The channel alleged that the IT search was a price it paid for reporting on the government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, the Editor’s Guild of India wrote to Adityanath urging him to address the issue of declining press freedom and ensure the rights and safety of journalists in the state. The EGI said there had been “compelling cases of intimidation (and) harassment by authorities” of journalists working in the state. “Many of them have been unjustifiably arrested on spurious charges,” the EGI said then, listing half a dozen such cases.
Commenting on the Uttar Pradesh government’s latest move, Yadav asked journalists to remain cautious. “If you happen to write anything against the government, there will be action taken against you,” he said. Later, while addressing a public meeting in Fatehpur, Yadav elaborated on the state of journalism in the country’s most populous state.
“My journalist friends, if you show the truth, police will come knocking on your doors at 2 am. If you get scared, your news story will be altered. But if you do not change your story, you will become a news item yourself, as you will be sent to jail,” he said.
The Congress state unit also took a dig at the BJP government over the media gag order. “All newspapers and media portals, either rest on the godi (lap of the government), or should just keep quiet. Otherwise, be prepared to face Baba’s (Adityanath) rage,” the UP Congress tweeted in Hindi.