After Modi's Speech on Media, Senior Journalists Question Government's 'Doublespeak'

Speaking at the platinum jubilee event of the Daily Thanthi, the PM quoted Gandhi to say the misuse of power by the media is "criminal".

Narendra Modi, addressing an event to mark the platinum jubilee of Tamil daily Daily Thanthi in Chennai

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the event to mark the platinum jubilee of Daily Thanthi in Chennai. Credit: Twitter/Narendra Modi

New Delhi: Addressing an event to mark the platinum jubilee of Tamil daily Daily Thanthi in Chennai on Monday morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reminded the media about its role in a democracy. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he cautioned the media against misuse of its power.

“Editorial freedom must be used wisely in public interest. The freedom to write, does not include the freedom to be ‘factually incorrect’. Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘The press is called the Fourth Estate. It is definitely a power, but, to misuse that power is criminal,'” he said.

In a veiled dig against selective selection of news in newspapers, he said jocularly, “I have often heard people wonder as to how the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.”

He also said that the media should focus less on politicians and political reporting, and instead should cover stories and achievements of 125 crore Indians.

While Modi’s words, at face value, are unexceptionable, editors who have themselves been critical about the state of the media believe there is a huge gap between what he preached and what he practices.

The Wire spoke to a few senior journalists and here are their responses.

Mrinal Pande, former editor of Hindi daily Hindustan

Mrinal Pande. Credit: Twitter profile

“I feel one should not use sophistry to pick on media. You find in his speech that the entire media is being painted, more or less, with the same brush. I think, given the difficult circumstances, a section of the media is doing a very brave job. That ought to be conceded when one is speaking in public. The prime minister could have named and shamed those, if you had evidence of any wrongdoings within media.

Instead of that, he just scarred the entire media, and that to me is not fair to many media houses which are doing a good job.

He talked about editorial freedom and that it should not be misused but there are instances of such misuse in all the four pillars of democracy. The media does not say that the entire judiciary or the entire executive are remiss. The media takes pain to substantiate the criticisms with actual facts which are available in the public domain. Should the prime minister not substantiate his observations?

It reeks of vendetta against the messenger which is bringing you unwelcome news. The prime minister should realise that if the media loses its credibility because of such unsubstantiated allegations, then you are just stopping all verifiable news. Then you will be dependent only on social media which is an open platform for all kinds of mischief makers.

So, I think one should be very circumspect in needling traditional, professionally-run media in public like this. If there are instances of wrongdoings, certainly expose them. But it is time the media turned around and told the government – alright if you are stigmatising us, where are the facts? Can we slap a defamation case against you? The insistence on slapping all kinds of libel suits against the media is very undemocratic, and I think the government is only supporting such practices.”

B.R.P. Bhaskar. Credit: Twitter profile

B.R.P. Bhaskar, senior journalist

“I remember Indira Gandhi talking in the same vein as Narendra Modi on the media and its workings just before the emergency. Since politics impacts the lives of the 125 crore people of India, it is an area on which the media has a professional and moral responsibility to focus attention. The evil politicians’ deeds have wrought havoc on the people’s lives more than anything else. And that makes it all the more necessary for the media to stay in the field, and not divert its attention to secondary issues.”

Rajdeep Sardesai, Consulting Editor, India Today group

Rajdeep Sardesai. Credit: Twitter/Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai. Credit: Twitter

“On first principles, whatever the prime minister said is unexceptionable. No one amongst us will deny that we need to raise the bar, ensure greater accuracy, focus on areas that go beyond politics. But I would like the prime minister to, every now and then, tell us more about his stand on, say for instance, the Rajasthan government’s ordinance to gag the media. Where he stands on the more contentious issues like governments – some of them belonging to the BJP – consciously trying to muzzle the press. I would like his views on criminal defamation. Does the prime minister of the country believe that a colonial statute, which has even been removed by the British courts, should be on the Indian statute books? Does the prime minister believe that the kind of ordinances the Rajasthan government brought about recently, are healthy for democracy? Does the prime minister believe that advertising revenues of regional channels and newspapers should be dependent on government largesse?

Would the prime minister tell me how he responds to the fact that senior journalist Gauri Lankesh’s killers have still not been found? Where does he stand on an issue like the media polarising public opinion between Hindus and Muslims, catering to more extremist voices? I want him to send a firm message.

I would like the prime minister to use occasions like this to tell me where he stands on these issues so that we feel strengthened by what he says.

Nobody says that editorial freedom should be misused but does that mean that abuse of power by those in power is correct. Taali do haath se bajti hai. Yes, the media needs to introspect but will the government course correct? Advertising revenues, for example, can be determined by factors like how close you are to the government. As a speech, no one would object to what the prime minister said at the end of the day, but I want my prime minister to give me a sense of reassurance on issues that concerns journalists today.”

Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor, The Caravan

Hartosh Singh Bal. Credit: The Wire

On the face of it, the prime minister has pointed out some things which the media needs to adopt – greater accuracy, acting with responsibility and so on.

But his words become rather interesting considering the nature of his regime. One, he talked about cross-checking information. Now, this is a prime minister who never answers questions of the media; his is a government which has problems with the Right to Information Act; it never responds to media enquiries. He wants to close down the transfer of information. Basically, the government is not interested in media which is trying to cross-check facts. It wants a one-way transfer of information, which is provided by the officials of the government in its own interests.

Basically, the government does not provide the means through which journalism can be done with responsibility. Coming from a person whose followers on social media have only abused journalists and one of his ministers has even gone to the extent of coining the word “presstitutes” for journalists, his speech is rather interesting. I do not know how his speech will be taken seriously but I do believe media should focus on greater accuracy and ethics.