“Journalists who try to portray themselves as right- wing are in effect mouthpieces of this government”

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This piece was first published by The Citizen

Hartosh Singh Bal

In the second year of the current government some of the trends of the first year have deepened, have been ingrained and are actually showing up in terms of how the media landscape is defined today.

I will just go back and talk about specific stories and specific ideas and how they play out in the public because I think that’s a good illustration of what is happening.

If I look back at the last year, there are three stories in the Caravan that stand out for me and that are illustrative of what is happening around us. These three stories were early on, and I’m talking about the last year. One was a profile of he who shall not be named Arun Jaitley. Arun Jaitley is today the Finance Minister and I&B Minister; this combination itself is telling. We haven’t seen this happen before and it illustrates exactly the problems that confront the media in this government.

The pressure doesn’t have to be direct in the media landscape, where there is corporate ownership. The finance minister as I&B minister may want certain messages to come across and who is going to be stupid enough to refuse if you are large enough as a media house. I mean the message is clear.

So we published a story — a detailed profile from which I will just give you one little snippet to tell you the kind of impact this has on the media, and this was before he got this power. Because Arun Jaitley is also a big lawyer, he sat on the board of one major newspaper, and was the lawyer for the other. There was a young sub-editor in the Hindustan Times when Arun Jaitley was contesting the elections from Amritsar . Of course the very fact that Arun Jaitley decided to contest elections from Amritsar raises some questions about his political acumen, because it took some doing to find a seat from where he could lose a seat in that year, and he managed to find that.

This young sub editor printed a little snippet — in the middle of a story about the Amritsar elections — saying that ”Arun Jaitley is in trouble”. She lost her job. And this was before he came to power. I myself have stopped going to Times Now. They stopped calling me after they requested that I tone down what I have said about Arun Jaitley and I said that’s not possible.

We did another story on Esaar and I think the Essar story was done by several organisations — the Express was there, others followed it up. We did a very detailed story of how Essar — through patronage in corruption — had a network of bureaucrats, of politicians, of journalists. And, this kind of ability for corporates to control and influence news is so prevalent that it extends across everything.

Again, to me the one thing that I found most shocking in the story, and it was not followed up at all and it resulted in no action, was that we published a letter from the President’s office — Pranab Mukherjee’s office with his seal — wanting to know from Essar what was being done to place the President’s granddaughter in London and what stipend would she earn.

Neither the Congress or BJP is interested in making this into an issue; they are all participants in it. At the end of this whole Essar fiasco, the only people who lost their jobs were a few journalists who had taken taxis may be costing Rs.5000. Senior editors went unpunished, politicians went unpunished, bureaucrats went unpunished.

So in that sense I say that for all our problems and for all the things people say about the media — the mid level journalist struggling to make a living is probably still amongst the most accountable. Who lost the job because of Jaitley? It was a young journalist sitting somewhere who wrote a little bit of truth. Who lost the job in this case was a journalist who took a taxi of Rs.5000 and that was considered deviation from the norms of a profession in a country where things like this happen in other professions almost daily. So I am saying the problem in our profession lies at the top; at this middle level there is still a huge amount of accountability.

The third story we did — and this brings it all together — was on NDTV. Obviously we received a lot of charges along the lines of ‘why are you going against your own?’. I don’t understand this business — what is our own and what is not our own? I think in the media the question is that you should have everybody up for scrutiny. And the problem with NDTV is very extreme; their funding is very very questionable. There is Rs.400 Crores of a known corporate’s money parked in the same way it was parked in CNN IBN which was converted into ownership. So there you have this big corporate house, in effect actually already exercising control over NDTV.

Look at the monopoly here; look at the power that has been conferred to Reliance if it controls both TV18 and looks after NDTV. Because you have these funding issues, you are all the more amenable at very crucial points. Because NDTV is seen as a liberal bastion it becomes more dangerous too when it fails to speak out; at times it can’t and it can be silenced very easily because you have just money problems and you have a Finance Minister who’s the the I&B minister. So it is clear to see how this control works… how it is exercised.

So to me these stories — the Essar, Jaitley and NDTV stories — illustrate what the problem is and how the government makes use of it. This government is actually very, very astute. The message that a young journalist losing her job sends to other journalists is already clear: toe the line otherwise you will have problems. The message to a channel that if you behave yourself when it matters, we may let you go in terms of scrutiny that is available — that message goes to the channel. And corporates of course are going to do as a Finance Minister suggests and corporates exercise very, very strong influence over the media.

So let’s see how this has played out over the last years in some of the stories that we have seen. Take the whole Ishrat Jahan case, it has come back into the public eye not because there have been any legal development in the Ishrat Jahan case but because once again we had the David Headley testimony play out. A suggestion that she was part of the Lashkar was made in a way that can never be admissible in a court of law; which was dragged out of Headley deliberately in the course of cross questioning with words put in his mouth. T

This was then beautifully magnified through the media and social media to take away from the essential question – terrorist or not? The evidence all points to the the simple fact that the 19 year old was in custody with the help of the IB. She had been caught alive even if she was a terrorist. She was not running away anywhere. If she was guilty. you should have brought her to a court of law and exposed the network that was available. She was shot dead, somebody is liable for it. Instead of being liable for it, you see DG Vanzara walking out of jail as a political hero and the media is echoing that message.

A recent issue of India Today had a visual of Vanzara. That visual speaks of Vanzara in full regalia holding his official sword. It was disgusting. And the magazine chose to publish it at this point of time. This itself suggests that the man who is writing from there — Uday Mahurkar — who writes as the correspondent of India Today, and I’m sorry if I’m getting into details but it’s important for people to know the details of what happens.

In 2005 I had gone to report — at a time when Tehelka was not what it is now — I had gone to report on Narendra Modi to Gujarat and I had gone to the VHP office and they told us there was an important state level meeting going on, please sit outside. We sat outside with my local correspondent, Mahesh Langa, a very good journalist who was a Gujarati speaker. They made us sit outside so that we could hear whatever was going on inside that meeting. And the meeting was about how the VHP should be handling the cases which were pending in court about Modi. And the man giving advice, suggesting strategies, leading the media was Uday Mahurkar, in that meeting of VHP. Now, he is the man who writes for your leading national news magazine about DG Vanzara. What do you expect?

So this is one case, take what happened when the JNU thing broke out. We have all now spoken about doctored videos but there was a smaller incident that points to something interesting. There was a tweet supposedly send out by Hafeez Sayeed which suggested that he was behind what has happened in the JNU campus. But, it would be good if he is reduced to this but that tweet was first brought into public attention by one of the journalists — Gaurav Sawant — of the India Today Group. I had been trying to ask ever since, where did he get that tweet from and what led him to believe that it was a tweet from Hafeez Saeed? You put it out in the public by India Today channel and the channel called it breaking news. It’s there — available publicly. How can you not hold a journalist accountable for something like this?

 

The suggestion here is grotesque that a leading terror operative is behind what is happening on a campus in India. It’s a joke, but the fact is it was made as a serious suggestion by a leading journalist and that journalist can get away without being asked how this happened and why this happened.

And in that sense, it can be noticed that a number of journalists who will try to portray themselves as right wing, but in effect are mouthpieces of this government — speaking right when the time is right, in certain ways amplifying certain messages, saying what needs to be said so it suits the government — have become important players in every major news organization. These are journalists who may be directly linked to Arun Jaitley, they may not be. They may be linked to other people in power but they are sitting there. They have a great amount of following on social media. They have the ability to put out stories and they have no accountability as I told you in this case. This is what allows the messaging to be built.

I’ll point out the effect of that messaging in another case that has come up as a story recently. On Malegaon we have seen two things happening in regard to Hindutva terror. Eight muslim men were finally released early this year. It’s also true that Sadhvi Pragya Thakur was also released this year. What is the notional parallel that has been drawn in both cases? This is the procedure of the court — that if you allow one you allow the other, support one support the other and this is what the media is letting be said is actually endorsing.

But look at actual circumstances. Those eight Muslim men were finally released after the NIA opposed their acquittal. The NIA did this, despite the fact that NIA itself had filed a chargesheet naming other people for the crime so these people were not even guilty of the crime — that the NIA itself admits. It opposes this and the court finally goes against the NIA and says no, you’ll have to let these people out. This is the legal procedure.

What happens at the Sadhvi Pragya case? Sadhvi Pragya case is very simple. Her motorcycle was the motorcycle on which explosives were placed in Malegaon. Hindutva terror was traced because it was so easily identified that while they were dangerous, they were stupid. And the claim that has been made today is that the Sadhvi Pragya Thakur had given the motorcycle to somebody a few months ago… earlier before the blast so she could not be held accountable for what was done with the motorcycle. But, she had given it to somebody who was close to see it to first, who was also a part of the Sangh Parivar, of the extended parivaar, who was a part of the same network. And she has been removed from the case not by the courts but the NIA has removed her from the case. So the legal procedure has not come into it at all.

And what has been done by removing Sadhvi Pragya Thakur from the case is the linchpin — because it’s her motorcycle, she is the one who put people contact with the others — has been removed. This means that you will be not able to prosecute anybody involved if the person who carried the conspiracy out, who was at the centre of this planning, is not in the chargesheet.

What chance do you have of proving the case against anybody else? And then we will hear on social media, on pages of newspapers and everywhere, that the court has let these people off. The court has not let these people off. The entire system of constitutional procedure of justice is being manipulated. Enough noise has not been made by the simple fact that the NIA chief today, Sharad Kumar is serving a one year extension.

But that one year extension is an extraordinary case unprecedented in Indian bureaucratic history. He is not on an extension, he is a contract worker. He is not an IPS officer. He has not been given an extension under the All India Service rules. He is not bound by the All India Service rule norms. He is a contract worker to this government who can be hired and fired at will if he does not deliver what they want. Obviously, he is going to deliver according to the expectations of the government and much of this again had not been reported.

This is what I mean by the consensus that is forming, the control this government has through institutional mechanisms of corporate control, individuals like Arun Jaitley and the subservience and the weakness of the media itself.

In this context, I guess one last point which is not directly related to this but which is related to the drought and may have something to do with a larger change we are undergoing. I was actually posted as State Correspondent in Madhya Pradesh in 2002-2004. In the area Shivpuri — I had extensively spent time there travelling for months — reporting for The Express, but travelling to Baran also because the Rajasthan correspondent was not there and we reported on the drought in detail.

I think the drought is being reported today as well but I think there is a difference in sensibility that has been brought to the reporters of drought. I think this has something to do with the fact that this is the first time we are getting a post-liberalization generation, that is looking at the drought in a different way. Whatever and wherever their hearts and minds will be, they actually have grown up in an atmosphere where there is very little understanding of what lies outside the metropolitan India. I often come across journalists who have spent have their entire lives — they have been born in Delhi, they have grown up in Delhi, they have taken up their job in Delhi, they get promoted in Delhi, they occasionally travel outside Delhi and report from the rest of the country — but they haven’t lived for any period of time in any other place.

For them the idea of a ‘tehseel’ or ‘tehseeldaar’ or a ‘thanedaar’ is an alien idea. So, I think much of drought reporters that I read, the copies I read is almost internal orientalism. The kind of stuff that foreign correspondents would write at a point of time is now being written by our own journalists because they actually have no real awareness about what is happening and I think that is what I find disappointing about the drought coverage. There is a huge distancing and huge exoticization of the drought that is happening in the stories.

(This is the text of a presentation made by HARTOSH SINGH BAL at the “Idea Of India” Conclave on “Two Years Of PM Modi: State Of The Nation.” It has been transcribed and edited by MITHIL KUMAR).

The opinion above was first published by The Citizen (Photo: Newslaundry)

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