Monday, January 11, 2021

In India, to question is to be ‘anti-national’

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on January 7, 2021


To question or not to question. That is literally the question that the media, and citizens, face in India.

In a democracy, the media is expected not just to speak truth to power, but also to question those in power. In the India of 2021, the bulk of the media does neither. And yet, for the moment at least, we are still considered the largest democracy in the world.

As for citizens who do either or both, speak the truth and question, there is hell to pay. This is evident in the number of students, activists and intellectuals who have been arrested and remain incarcerated without facing a trial in the last few years.

The Modi government has made it clear for some time that it does not like to be questioned. It bears repeating that from May 2019, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre till today, the prime minister has not held a single press conference. No questions. The media must listen, and regurgitate. And much of it does just that.

Over time, the government and the BJP have successfully sold the line that they are coterminous with "the nation". Therefore, to question them is "anti-national".

Why only question, today you are not even allowed to make a joke about politics or politicians. Stand-up comics have been targeted as never before by various state governments, mostly run by the BJP. The latest is Munawar Faruqui's arrest in Indore on January 1.

Barely have we entered 2021 – leaving behind a year many would like to forget but which will remain embedded in our memories and consciousness for a long while – and we have been reminded again that the government and supporters of the BJP will not accept questions, or jokes.

While Faruqui's arrest on the very first day of 2021 reminded us that having a sense of humour is not appreciated in much of India, the right to question government actions and policies has also come into focus.

The issue at hand is the advent of a vaccine to protect people from the coronavirus. The world over, there is a mixture of apprehension, and relief, at the prospect of vaccines halting the continuing spread of the virus and its recently discovered variants.

Yet, the process of certifying the safety and the efficacy of the vaccines is central to ensuring that people are willing to get vaccinated. Here both the government and the media play a role.

In India, the process of granting approval to two vaccines that are expected to be rolled out soon has raised several important and relevant questions. The vaccines being considered are Covishield, a variant of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine already approved for use in the UK, which is being produced by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India. The other is Covaxin, a product of Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech.

Controversy has arisen around the way in which an expert panel of the Drugs Controller General of India decided to give its approval for emergency use of Covaxin on January 2. This was within a day of the same group having asked for more data as the vaccine was still going through Stage 3 human trials considered essential before clearance, as this piece by Arunabh Saikia in Scroll points out.

A range of epidemiologists and experts have raised doubts about the process, as Priyanka Pulla explains in her story. Such doubts have been widely reported in the media, mostly print and digital. The issues appear technical. But when explained simply, as the well-known vaccine expert Dr Gagandeep Kang does in this long interview with Karan Thapar in the Wire, it is clear that the principal demand is for transparency from the government.

Dr Kang sums up the basic issue when she says: "Well, I think all of our governmental authorities should be more available to answer questions, because the concerns that people have are really important. And, I’ve said this before, the more open and transparent we are with why we make decisions the way we make them – if we seek to address questions, even if they sound obvious or silly, that makes all the difference in having people trust the interventions that we are offering. That applies, you know, I think, to masks as much as it does to vaccines. So, the more openness, the more transparency, the more answering of questions, the better."

Not only has the process of giving approvals to the two vaccines for emergency use been opaque, but what should also worry us is the accompaniment of celebratory political statements that followed the announcement by the DGCI. The prime minister and members of the governing party lauded the "made-in-India'' vaccines, reflecting this government's policy of self-reliance or atmanirbharta. But here we are talking about a medical intervention. The crucial issue here is safety and efficacy, and not whether it is "home-grown" or imported.

Inevitably, those casting doubts, particularly on the conditional clearance given to Covaxin, are being labelled "anti-national". A minister in Madhya Pradesh even suggested that anyone expressing doubts must be a part of the "tukde-tukde gang". This is an all too familiar narrative. When you don't want to address uncomfortable questions, cast aspersions on the questioner.

There are other issues too relating to vaccines, namely informed consent during the trials. This is an old story that tends to repeat itself in a country where many people are not aware of their rights if they volunteer for clinical trials. In the current case, stories have appeared in Caravan and NDTV about people living near the now-closed Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, who have been part of the trials without fully comprehending the nature of the trial.

In the polarised times in which we live, it is unfortunate, and dangerous, for the people in power to actively discourage fair and reasonable enquiry into its actions and its motives. The majority of the media is pliant, and only a few continue to believe that these questions need to be asked.

This government equates trust with obedience. Yet real trust in the government, or institutions, is built when there is transparency. And that is one attribute that has been sorely missing in the last six years. The approval process for the vaccines is yet another illustration of this.

The tragedy is that in the context of the health emergency we face, trust and transparency are actually central to dealing with the crisis. In the past, there have been instances where citizens have distrusted the government's motives because of its actions.

Take, for instance, the manner in which compulsory sterilisation was implemented during the Emergency (1975-77). The government's health machinery was diverted to forcibly rounding up men, as well as women, most of them poor and unlettered, to undergo forcible sterilisation. There was no question of consent. Or even follow-up.

The distrust this generated in the government's health machinery had long-term consequences. When the government changed and genuinely wanted to provide basic health care in these areas, poor people ran in the opposite direction when they saw a government health van.

Vaccinations are generally not distrusted in India and getting children vaccinated is a long-established norm. Yet, according to R Prasad, science editor of the Hindu, a study in 121 districts in India conducted in 2018 revealed that 24 percent of children did not get vaccinated because their parents feared adverse effects.

The developments in this last week that arose from the last-minute reversal in the approval policy, and some of the statements by the vaccine producers, have done little to instil confidence in the public about the Covid-19 vaccines.

The one positive fallout is that the media did ask questions, instead of routinely repeating the celebratory rhetoric of politicians and policymakers.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Farmer protests have some lessons for the national media

Broken News

Published on December 3, 2020


The last month of this strange year will be remembered not just for the ongoing and unrelenting Covid pandemic, or the upcoming (hopefully) vaccine against it, but images of thousands upon thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and other states camping out in the chill winter nights on the national capital's borders.

The abiding image we will take back with us are the water cannons, and the trenches and barricades erected on the five roads leading into New Delhi, to prevent the citizens of a democracy from exercising their right to protest and make their voices heard.

The "farmer", of course, is not an undifferentiated category. Yet, all farmers, rich or poor, landed and landless, women or men, only come into our line of vision when there is a natural disaster, like drought or flood, or enough of them choose to die by suicide to be noticed, or when they are angry enough to come out and protest. What happens the rest of the time is something most readers and viewers of the media in India would not know.

There was a time when newspapers had "agriculture" correspondents. Some still do. But "agriculture" as a regular beat does not exist just as "labour" has also disappeared, even though the problems faced by workers have not. In fact, with joblessness and increasing informalisation, and the decline of organised unions, the problems of workers have grown exponentially as their ability to make their voices heard diminishes.

Given that the largest section of the protesting farmers at the moment are from Punjab, this would have been a perfect opportunity for the media to educate readers and viewers about that state, thereby disabusing the ridiculous charges by supporters of the government accusing "Khalistanis" of being behind the protests.

This piece by Pheroze L Vincent in the Telegraph, for instance, gives us the necessary background of how Punjab has seen many struggles for land rights and farmers' rights going back decades to 1907. Also this by author Amandeep Sandhu in Mumbai Mirror, whose book Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines has recently been released.

Also useful is this by Abhinandan Sekhri, sub-titled "The shrine in Amritsar offers a lesson in how opposing narratives can coexist in harmony." He writes, “You would be hard-pressed to find many Sikhs in rural Punjab today who see Bhindranwale as a terrorist even if they don’t consider him a hero either. Yet, there are people who revere him as a hero, even a saint." This is the moral ambiguity, he points out, that is the result of social friction arising from religious faith, something that needs to be understood in the historical and cultural context of Punjab.

Instead of even attempting to understand this, we have heard not just the usual suspects in the BJP but even so-called liberal journalists lecturing protesters on how they should avoid saying anything that could be construed as pro-Khalistan. How is offering such unsolicited advice even journalism?

Apart from missing out on context and background, although there are a few newspapers that continue to provide this, the protesters have made some important points about journalism and the media that we ought to heed. We also need to think about what is "local" news and who decides what is "national" news.

Apart from demanding that the government rescind what they call "black laws" — namely the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 — the protesters have made it a point to turn their faces away from the cameras of what they call "Godi media" (lapdog media), a term made popular by NDTV India's Ravish Kumar. They insist that they want to be covered by the "national" media but not by Republic TV, Aaj Tak or Zee News, because they believe these channels have misreported their protest and distorted their intent.

Newslaundry has been doing regular reports on these distortions by certain news channels. What is worth watching and reading is this video and this report by Nidhi Suresh of Newslaundry.

The video, in particular, is essential viewing for journalists who want to understand how ordinary people now understand mainstream media. For not only are the men the reporter speaks to angry about the way certain TV channels have covered their protest, they also make some important points about what journalism is and should be.

Suresh quotes a "local" journalist from Punjab who says, “I believe the issue is simple. Do your job, be a journalist, and report what you witness. Isn’t that what journalism is, anyway? We local reporters have been doing that from day one. For us local reporters, this agitation is two months old, unlike for national media, for whom this protest is only four days old.”

He is making a point that will resonate with people beyond Punjab and Haryana. People in northeast India, for instance, are always puzzled by how "mainland" media, as they refer to our so-called "national" media, prioritises what will be covered and what can be ignored in the hierarchy of news.

If you really want to know what is going on in the "regions", you have to seek out regional media, as "national" newspapers have drastically reduced such coverage. There was a time, for instance, when the reports from Assam and the northeast in the Hindu by veteran journalist MS Prabhakara were essential reading for any journalist setting out to cover that region. And they appeared in all editions.

This dichotomy between what is local and what is national is not a new debate. It existed even in the 1980s, well before economic liberalisation and media houses transforming themselves into profit centres where readers are their "market" and news is whatever sells.

In fact, in the early 1980s, when I moved from Delhi to Bombay while still working for the same "national" newspaper, a colleague seriously advised me against the move. "How can you leave national journalism?" she asked. Clearly, even if you wrote on national, or even international issues, for a national newspaper, your location at the heart of the nation, ie New Delhi, was all that counted.

That perception is even more entrenched now. Today, "national" is what media houses, mostly headquartered in New Delhi, decide it is. It is also dictated by proximity to their base.

Thus, whether it was the 2012 protests after the Delhi gang rape, or the 2013 anti-corruption campaign led by Anna Hazare, or more recently the Shaheen Bagh citizenship law protests, the "national" media was available to report and amplify.

Yet, early in 2019, when over 40,000 farmers from 23 districts in Maharashtra took out a Kisan Long March to Mumbai, it did not receive this kind of blanket coverage. It was "local" because their demands were addressed to the state government.

The demands of the farmers marching to Delhi today are not that different. The reason they targeted Delhi is because the Centre has decided to intervene in matters that were largely dealt by state governments earlier. The “national” media mostly ignored these farmers when they protested in their states. They are visible now because the Delhi-based media cannot avoid their presence.

One final point. There are thousands of farmers who are also women. We have seen pictures of women cooking and some women have featured in interviews. But on the whole, all you see is literally a sea of men, reinforcing the dominant image that the "farmer" is a man.

That is not true, as this, this and this story about Harinder Bindu, who has been a farmer for 30 years, emphasise. Women farmers are intrinsic to these struggles. Yet, journalists often do not notice them, leave alone spend time listening to them.

Our job, as the protesting farmers hovering outside Delhi are telling us, is to report what we see and listen to what people are saying, instead of manufacturing motives and conspiracy scenarios that are now the well-established modus operandi of a government that has chosen to be hearing impaired.


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Why the media has a duty to separate truth from untruth

Broken News

Published on November 19, 2020



Srinath Yadav sells bananas on a pavement in Mumbai. Originally from Allahabad district in Uttar Pradesh, Yadav has lived on the same patch of pavement where he has had his stall for 20 years. He had no desire to return to Uttar Pradesh during the lockdown like others from his state, he told me.

"What would I do there?" he asked. Instead, he waited and then went back to selling bananas.

I asked him what he thought about the lockdown and the pandemic. His response was instant: "It's a conspiracy to kill off the poor.”

Yet, I countered, the poor still vote for the same people you’re now accusing. "They win only because the machines are fixed in advance," he stated with unflinching confidence. By "machines", he meant the electronic voting machines, or EVMs

So, where do people like Yadav get information that results in such opinions? He does not possess a smartphone, nor does he access social media. Perhaps he reads a Hindi newspaper, although I doubt it. In all probability, his information comes from fellow migrants, like the taxi drivers who mill around his stall.

This deep-seated suspicion about EVMs is nothing new. It came up again during the Bihar election with Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal suggesting that there was something wrong because a large number of his party's candidates lost by narrow margins.

The EVM story echoes a similar distrust of mail-in ballots during the recent US presidential election. President Donald Trump claims he has not lost — though he has — and that there has been election fraud. And it’s not just him: millions of his followers believe the same.

How did this suspicion about mail-in ballots spread and become so entrenched as to virtually divide an entire nation and keep it in thrall while it waits to see whether the incumbent will concede defeat and make way for the new president?

That is a question that the US media is asking even as the Trump presidency limps to an end. And about how the US media has covered his four years in office. By focusing so closely on him, both by way of critical comment and praise, some are now wondering whether the mainstream media gave him what he wanted above all: more publicity and to remain the centre of attention.

Margaret Sullivan, the media critic at the Washington Post argued that the mainstream media "never quite figured out how to cover President Trump, the master of distraction and insult who craved media attention and knew exactly how to get it, regardless of what it meant for the good of the nation."

She wrote of how television gave live coverage to all his speeches and rallies, much as our media does here when it comes to the prime minister. But as a result, even the "misinformation", as she called it, in his speeches was able to "pollute the ecosystem". And, she added, "we took far too long to call his falsehoods what they often were: lies".

Sullivan also questioned the way the media treated both sides of a controversy as equal, even though one side indulged in lies. In an earlier era, she said, this might have been acceptable, but not in the Trump era.

Sullivan's analysis has more than a little relevance for our media even though the media in the US and here are different in many ways. The American media has the protection of the First Amendment that the Indian media does not. It is able to criticise and even lampoon the head of state, or any public figure, without fear of being charged with criminal defamation or sedition as happens here.

Yet, according to a detailed study of the US media by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, the mainstream media actually played a key role in amplifying the half-truths and lies that were made by the president either in his speeches or in his tweets.

The centre analysed 55,000 media stories that appeared online, five million tweets, and 75,000 posts on Facebook that referred to mail-in voting between March and August. This is the period when Trump had already begun to cast doubts on this type of voting, suggesting that it facilitated widespread voter fraud that has never been proven. But because the president said it, this was reported all across the country through various forms of media.

The conclusion, according to an article by Yochai Benkler in the Columbia Journalism Review in October, is:

"Contrary to most contemporary analyses of disinformation efforts in the American political-media ecosystem, our findings suggest that the disinformation campaign that has shaped the views of tens of millions of American voters did not originate in social media or via a Russian attack. Instead, it was led by Donald Trump and the Republican Party and amplified by some of the biggest media outlets in the country; social media played only a secondary, supportive role."

In the Indian context, there has been considerable discussion about the role of social media in spreading misinformation, or shaping public discourse on issues such as the elections, or the opposition parties, or civil society dissenters.

Is it possible that here too, the mainstream media — knowingly, as in the case of media houses that make no bones about being supporters of the BJP and Narendra Modi, or unwittingly, by those not beholden to any political group — has helped build Modi's profile and amplify the messages of the BJP?

Take, for instance, the latest ploy of the BJP to delegitimise its political opposition. Home minister Amit Shah has been widely quoted calling the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration in Jammu and Kashmir, or the Gupkar Alliance, as the "Gupkar gang" in the run-up to the District Development Council election that the PAGD has decided to contest. The very use of the term "gang" suggests notoriety and illegality.

While most of the English language press has been restrained in its headlines, the coinage is likely to find ready acceptance on television channels that have proven to be more propagandist than journalistic. In time, it could get the same currency as the "tukde tukde gang", coined to criticise student activists of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Or, for that matter, "love jihad", which has surfaced once again as BJP-run states formulate laws that will restrict the constitutional right of men and women in this country to choose who they marry and what religion they practise.

There is a choice that media outlets can make, especially in the headline, as in the case of print. The Hindu headlined its report on Shah's speech: "Gupkar alliance an unholy global gathbandhan: Shah"; the Telegraph: "Amit Shah brands Kashmir alliance a ‘gang’"; Hindustan Times: "Shah aims at Gupkar Group on ‘foreign link’"; and Indian Express: "Calling Gupkar alliance a gang, Amit Shah says it and Congress will bring terror back". None of them used "Gupkar gang" in the headline, although it is mentioned in the copy.

A study of mainstream media in India is needed to understand, as in the US, the role it has played in perpetuating the narratives of the BJP. Another example is the way the media reports on the prime minister. His Diwali visit to the troops in Jaisalmer, for instance, would have been the subject of some mirth, as indeed it was on social media, given Modi's attire, and the fact that he was waving to no one in particular while riding on a tank in the desert. Instead, we heard poker-faced live reports on some television channels while pro-BJP channels had predictably glowing and adulatory reports.

Irrespective of the difference in tone or headline, the message that got through was precisely what was intended: the image of a leader who will fight off any invader on Indian territory. Forget minor details such as what really happened in Galwan during the recent incursion by Chinese troops. It is the image that is important. And it continues to work, as was evident in the recent elections in Bihar.

Just as the American media is questioning its reporting during the Trump era, the Indian media too must reconsider how it reports on political leaders.

A report that sets a standard for how to integrate reporting with fact-checking is this one by Scroll’s Rohan Venkataramakrishnan. He interrogated the widely reported statement made by Narendra Modi after the Bihar election, where he claimed that the BJP was the only party that increased its seats even after staying in power "for three terms". There's an obvious inaccuracy there, that Venkataramakrishnan called "plainly wrong", as the BJP was not in power for three consecutive terms in Bihar. The report also contested the assumption that the BJP's vote share has grown since 2015, because it has not.

Perhaps people do not read the fine print in newspaper reports. But it is worth doing it for the record rather than leaving it to specialised fact-check sites like AltNews to point them out.

If those in power go unchallenged when they publicly state half-truths, or untruths, they will continue to do so with impunity. And the result will be the acceptance by many millions of people that these untruths are indeed proven facts, as we are currently witnessing in the US.



Monday, November 09, 2020

Arnab Goswami’s arrest isn’t about freedom of press, it’s about the state’s misuse of power

 Broken News

Published on November 5, 2020



What should one make of the unexpected and sudden concern expressed by union ministers, ranging from home minister Amit Shah to textile minister Smriti Irani, about the freedom of the press in India? Invoking images of the Emergency, they are telling us in the media that not speaking out against the arrest of a journalist is equivalent to supporting fascism.

Their concern is obviously not for just any journalist. It is, as Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath called it, for "a leading journalist of the country”, namely Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Republic TV. Clearly, journalists not as prominent do not merit the same concern, given that under Adityanath's watch, journalists have been bullied, harassed, beaten up and arrested just in his state.

The ministers and prominent members of the Bharatiya Janata Party expressing their distress at Goswami's arrest have never been bothered about the dozens of men and women in the media, literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, who have been targeted while doing their jobs as journalists. So, excuse us for not being moved by this concern for press freedom and the rights of journalists.

Goswami was arrested on November 4 by the Mumbai police for a case of abetment to suicide that had been closed in 2019. His arrest triggered a debate amongst journalists about whether this constitutes an attack on the freedom of the press.

On the face of it, it does not. Journalists are also citizens. If they are arrested for crimes unrelated to their journalism, then it is difficult to assert that it is linked to freedom of the press. Do we support journalists charged with sexual harassment, or sexual assault, or murder?

At the same time, journalists who become a thorn in the side of the establishment, irrespective of its political colour, can be harassed by way of cooked-up cases that are not linked to their journalism. Such actions are not unknown.

In Goswami's case, the arrest is for abetment to suicide. Anvay Naik, an architect, and his mother died by suicide in 2018 in Alibaug after leaving behind a note that said the reason was the money owed to them by Goswami and two others. The case was closed in 2019 when the BJP was in power in Maharashtra. It has now been reopened, reportedly at the behest of the family.

That is what the Maharashtra government and the police would like us to believe. Yet, clearly it is not that straightforward. There is a motive. And that is to try and teach Goswami a lesson after his concerted attacks in recent months on members of the current state government and against the Mumbai police. In his now famous hectoring style, Goswami has run a virtual campaign on his channel that has led to several cases being filed against him. None of that has apparently deterred him.

While it is impossible to condone Goswami's style of what he chooses to call "independent" journalism, we cannot also back police action at the behest of their political masters. After all, it is precisely this kind of police action against journalists doing their jobs, and without the profile of a person like Goswami, that is regarded as the real threat to press freedom in this country.

An example is India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh. In the last six years, since the BJP took office at the centre and in the state, multiple journalists have been charged, assaulted or arrested. During the Covid lockdown alone, there numbers were 55 across India until June, of which 11 were in Uttar Pradesh. The latest was a journalist from Kerala, Siddique Kappan, who was picked up on his way to Hathras to cover the gang rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in September. Not only was he arrested, he has been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and sedition.

The Uttar Pradesh police would not have taken this action without the consent of the chief minister. No union minister tweeted that this arrest was a strike at the freedom of the press. Yet Adityanath also joined the chorus of union ministers in support of Goswami.

What I am arguing is that while one must condemn the manner in which the police is used by the politically powerful to arrest and harass anyone who is inconvenient to them, including journalists, all such cases cannot be seen purely as an attack on freedom of the press.

Siddique was on his way to perform his duty as a journalist. Hence, his arrest is linked to the rights of a journalist. Goswami has been targeted by the Maharashtra government and police for his personalised attacks on them and it would appear that the arrest, in a case not linked to his journalism, is motivated by that. It is part of an ongoing political battle between the BJP and the Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra government, as this editorial in Indian Express points out.

What is common in both cases is the way the police, and some provisions of the law, are being routinely misused against citizens — activists, academics, students, journalists and many others. And that it is not just the BJP but even parties ostensibly opposed to it, such as those that have come together to rule in Maharashtra, who use the same tactic. We cannot and should not forget that it is this very Maharashtra police that played a part in foisting cases under UAPA against more than a dozen men and women in the Bhima Koregaon case, people who continue to be imprisoned without bail for more than two years now.

What we should also question is the misuse of the provision of "abetment to suicide" by the police as and when it is convenient. While in this case, there was a note naming three individuals, we know that the absence of a note, as in the Sushant Singh Rajput case, or even earlier in the Sunanda Pushkar case, did not prevent the police from pursuing this strategy if it chose to do so. And in each instance, there was a political backstory to the decision to proceed, or not to proceed.

To come back to Goswami, he has few supporters amongst his peers, or amongst those working for him. In fact, it is unfortunate that thanks to his style of journalism, men and women who work for him have also attracted FIRs from the Mumbai police, an action that is deplorable.

Goswami has single-handedly lowered the tone and tenor of television news to the point that the credibility of all who work in that medium is challenged. His popularity — although that is now in question in the case of the apparent fiddle in ratings that is being investigated by the Mumbai police — has also resulted in mini-Arnabs on many channels, anchors who have adopted the same hectoring tone that is his trademark.

The Maharashtra government, and its police, has succeeded in making a martyr out of a man who has used his power in the media to target, and even demand the arrest of, many who had no voice. Think of students from JNU and Jamia, the women protesting at Shaheen Bagh, Sudha Bharadwaj charged in the Bhima Koregaon case, Rhea Chakravarty in the Rajput case, and many others.

Goswami's arrest will make no difference to the state of media freedom in India, which has been battered and assaulted by the government in Delhi and in many states in India. What it does is to send out a message yet again: that ultimately the state will not tolerate anyone who is inconvenient and is politically on the other side. That even journalists with powerful political backers are not immune. It is this misuse of power by the state that threatens freedom, including freedom of the press.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

What’s wrong with the Indian media’s election coverage?

Broken News (Published on October 22, 2020)



Elections are always challenging times for the media. Also exhilarating.  For they give us the opportunity to go out in the field and get a sense of not just the political temperature but also more specifically how India lives, and dies.


This year, with the imminent elections in Bihar, field reporting has posed many challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite that, it is heartening that at least some newspapers, websites and television channels are running stories that go beyond politics in Bihar.


These however remain the exceptions.  The bulk of the reporting, predictably, is on the political persona, what they say, and the permutations and combinations that always give grist to the political mill in India. Bihar, in addition, has that other element -- caste; it takes specialised knowledge for people in other parts of the country to get a handle on the many acronyms of castes and sub-castes that come into play in Bihar's politics.


The absence of women's voices from even routine reports on political rallies, for instance, is striking.  In fact, given that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has made women so much the focus of his government, we are not hearing enough from the women in Bihar.


Beyond the rallies and public events, far fewer this time, is the reality of the lives of the people in Bihar.  Supriya Sharma of captures this in a report from Muzaffarpur. She chooses to speak to the poorest, the Musahars, and writes: "The Musahars live on the brink of hunger even in the best of years. But this year hunger is all pervasive in Bihar. Everywhere you go, it is the same refrain: 'Koi kaam nahi, ghar baitha hain.' There is no work, we are sitting at home. 'Ek time kha raha hai ek time nahi kha raha hai.' We are skipping meals every other day.

In such a calamitous year, the state is holding assembly elections in early November."


Particularly heart-breaking is the photograph of a young girl, a widow, holding up the photograph of her 22-year-old husband who died. She looks no more than 12 or 14 years old. Yet, she already has two children.  Child marriage? Underage pregnancies?  This is the kind of reality check election coverage can provide.


Another such story is this one from Newslaundry titled, "Sushil Modi says Bihar is open defecation free. If only he looked outside his door."  The report debunks these claims and reminds us yet again of the wide gap between official claims and the reality on the ground. In this case, the residents of a Dalit colony that is half a kilometre from the Deputy Chief Minister, Sushil Modi's house in Patna, are compelled to defecate in the open because the toilets are unusable.


Routine "developmental" reporting, as it was once called, is now history.  Only when there is a calamity, or elections, do media houses send reporters out to find out what's going on beyond the obvious range of media reach.  As always there are exceptions.  Often such stories are by independent journalists with a passion to write about the voiceless.  They struggle to get their pieces published.


Yet, in the 1980s, "development" was actually a beat. Hindustan Times, at that time headed by the redoubtable B. G. Verghese, had adopted the village Chhatera, not far from Delhi in Haryana.  Reporters were sent out regularly to write about it.  Every fortnight, a full page titled "Our village, Chhatera" appeared in the paper's Sunday magazine.  It ran from 1969 to 1975 and only stopped when Verghese was sacked by the paper just before the Emergency was declared.  His editorial, questioning the Indian government's action of annexing the former kingdom of Sikkim had earned the ire of Indira Gandhi, who was then the prime minister.


In Indian Express, where I worked in the 1980s under the same editor, a special correspondent was assigned to travel anywhere in India to write about health, education, and other issues linked with people's survival.  Even if times have changed, as has the media, the issues that affect the poorest in this country remain unchanged. 


Every story that appears about the India outside the media glare reminds us of this. Such as this distressing report in Indian Express from Madhya Pradesh where a 45-year-old woman bled to death before giving birth to a still born 16th child. Her 23-year-old daughter could not persuade her to have a tubectomy two years ago, when she was pregnant for the 15th time, because the husband would not agree to it.  Hard to believe that in the India of 2020 this is happening. Or perhaps not.


Furthermore, as the story points out, there is no gynaecologist in the nearest hospital, a mere 5 km away.  The nurses are trained to conduct routine uncomplicated deliveries, but if there is a woman in a high-risk pregnancy, like this woman, there is no one around to intervene.  Qualified help is available at a hospital 40 km away.


On the importance of field reporting in these times, The Print carried this article by Ashutosh Bhardwaj.  Writing on what he calls the crisis in Indian media, Bhardwaj states:


"Journalism plummeted when social media became the preferred mode of journalistic expression and hashtags hijacked field reporting. The slide continued when the follower count started determining the worth of a journalist, and instead of toiling away in the field, they increasingly opted for provocative opinions in a few characters. It reached its nadir when selfies became an obsession, a complex reportage brought fewer rewards than Twitter outrage, and the holy adage ‘you are as good as your last byline’ stood replaced by ‘you are as good as your last tweet’."


While his general point is valid, I don't think the "hashtag journalists" he is referring to are the reporters who are still out in the field doing their job, such as those mentioned above.  Field reporting has suffered because media houses have decided it is not worth investing in this kind of in-depth reporting. On television in particular, opinion is much cheaper than reporting. Print media still devotes substantial space to reporting but if you scan newspapers from the 1980s or even 1990s, you will notice the stark difference.


With so many reporters being laid off as media houses downsize, we really cannot put the blame on reporters.  And if a small section of high profile journalists, living in the bubble created by social media, choose to resort to hashtag journalism, this is not a reflection on all journalists.


The crisis in the Indian media requires a much longer and detailed discussion. And it goes well beyond reporting, from the field. It is a crisis that has been exacerbated by a government that has made life impossible for any media choosing to report the reality.


Most shocking and condemnable has been the attack on the editor of Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal. This is the oldest English language newspaper in Kashmir, founded by her father Ved Bhasin, one of the most respected editors in India.


In the last month, Jamwal has had to face a physical intrusion into her home in Jammu, a place allotted to her as a journalist.  People forced themselves into her house claiming it had been allotted to them, turned things upside down and stole her personal belonging.


As if that was not enough, this week, the office allotted to Kashmir Times in Srinagar's Press Enclave was sealed by the Estates Department. All this because Jamwal remains an outspoken critic of the government's actions in Kashmir. She rightly calls this a "political vendetta".


The message this sends out to all media, not just in Kashmir, is clear.  If you cross a line, there is a price to pay. Either toe the line, or perish.








Saturday, October 17, 2020

Welcome to Broken India, where indignity and injustice for the marginalised is the norm

Broken News

Published Oct 8, 2020



Perhaps I should rename this column "Broken India". For that is what we have experienced in these last three weeks.

The Hathras Horror, as it has come to be called, will live with us for a long time. The alleged gangrape by four upper caste Thakur men of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras on September 14, has all the elements that expose the sickness in Indian society.

First, the rape itself. It signifies that age-old dictum that when men wage war, it’s the women who are often the collateral. From what we have learned so far, the handful of Dalits in the victim’s village have long feared the dominant Thakurs and have been at the receiving end of threats and violence from them. To show the Dalits their place, rape their women – it is a ritual observed even in the India of 2020 with an average of 10 Dalit women raped every day across the country.

Second, we have witnessed how the criminal justice system continues to fail the most marginalised Indians. The family of the victim was forced to wait for several days, even though she was severely brutalised and close to death, before the police recorded her statement. How often have we heard this story? Not just in UP, this happens all over the country. And no change in law appears to make a whit of a difference. In fact, it appears as if all these laws are unknown to the police, or they selectively and deliberately choose to ignore them when the victim is poor or from a marginalised community.

Third, after the woman died in a Delhi hospital, the UP police transported her back to her village at night, didn’t allow her family to see their daughter one last time, and cremated her in the early hours of the morning without their consent. This surely will be remembered as one of the most horrific and patently illegal acts by a police force tasked to implement law, not break it.

And if all this was not enough, the police – who take their directions from the home minister, who happens to be the chief minister – barricaded the village, rushed hundreds of personnel to create a virtual fortress around this nondescript village, and stopped the media as well as opposition leaders from meeting the family.

When they lifted the siege, the story did not end. Top police officials claimed there was no evidence of rape as the forensic examination had not found any semen in the victim’s body. For the police, who ought to be cognizant of the law, including the changes in it, such a statement was extraordinary. A detailed report in Newslaundry explains the law and also what the family went through trying to get the police to act in accordance with it.

It is hard to believe that the police did not know that the victim's word that she was raped was enough in the eyes of the law. That they should speak of the absence of semen in the forensic report as casting doubt on rape was even more unbelievable. Any kind of penetration, even by an object, is defined as rape after the changes made in the law in 2013, in the wake of the 2012 gangrape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi. So the absence of semen, that too after the woman has been in a hospital for over a week, has no relevance as Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover explains in a useful video on the Wire.

The victim's statements have now been appended in an affidavit filed by the UP police in the Supreme Court, where the matter has come up, as also in the Allahabad High Court, which took suo motu cognisance of the case after reports in the media of the late night cremation.

Apart from the police, the UP government, and the family of the victim, the other player in this story is the media. How did it conduct itself after September 30 and the late night cremation by the police?

Much has been written about the hustling and aggressive tactics of Indian TV journalists, particularly in the Sushant Singh Rajput case.

In Hathras, the determination of the India Today reporter Tanushree Pandey has been acknowledged as important because she succeeded in filming the illegal cremation of the victim's body. Her report is heartbreaking and deeply disturbing. But her persistence paid off as this evidence, apart from other reports, compelled the Allahabad High Court to take notice and demand an explanation from the UP police. Without it, the police might have succeeded in spinning its yarn that the cremation was done at the behest of the family.

Just as the victim's family struggled for days to get the UP police to proceed with the case, the media too was slow to wake up. The first reports appeared almost 10 days after the assault. It was only after her death on September 29, and the next day, when the UP police brought her back to her village late at night from the Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi, that the media became part of the story.

Once again, it is print and digital that have to be relied upon to place this kind of atrocity within context. Reports such as this and this in the Indian Express, for instance, give us a sense of the victim's family, the village, its caste make up and the history of trouble between the family of the men who are accused of raping her and her family.

This tragic quote from the mother in the first story speaks to the stark reality facing millions of Dalit families in this country: "She had to cross the highway just to get to the primary school. Trucks and buses moved at such speed…We pulled her out of school when she was in Class 5. We never let her go alone, we were afraid she might come under a car, or that someone might kidnap her…What we feared has come true. We couldn’t protect her.”

On that fateful day, the young woman had stepped out to help her mother collect fodder.

Much of the electronic media, unfortunately, went into its usual feeding frenzy once the barricades were lifted. As this video by Kavita, who is a reporter with the remarkable rural news portal Khabar Lahariya shows, reporters showed no sensitivity towards a grieving family as they thrust mics repeatedly in the faces of the mother, father and other relatives, trampled all over the house, sat wherever they could, did not even pause to consider that this family needed not just privacy but even just the space to conduct normal activities like cooking for the children.

One can’t only blame the reporters given they are all under immense pressure from their bosses to generate exclusives.

Yet, given that this behaviour has now become almost the norm for television reporters, is it time to retrain journalists on how to behave when approaching people who have suffered loss? Persistence might pay off in getting information, but surely insensitivity towards people who have already been beaten down cannot be justified.

The Hathras Horror is not just a crime against one woman. It is a reminder to us all, including in the media, of how little has changed for women in India. It’s also another reminder of the deep fault line of caste that persists in this country. And above all, it illustrates how the state and its law-enforcing arm, which is supposed to protect people, treat those without voice or political power. This is indeed a broken India.


Friday, October 02, 2020

Is it time to redefine what journalism means?

Broken News


At a time when we have witnessed mockery of what we prided in calling ourselves – a parliamentary democracy –  when thousands of farmers are protesting the passing of bills that were rammed through the parliament, when the precious few rights that the Indian working class had have been snatched away by new laws, when Covid-19 continues its deadly dance of death and despair, when incessant rains are bringing even big cities to a standstill, not to speak of remoter areas, what is the big story on India's mainstream electronic media? No prizes for guessing that it continues to be Sushant-Rhea-Kangana-Payal-Anurag and now even Deepika. 

Enough has been said and written about this determined effort of India's mainstream electronic media to keep its gaze firmly on a non-story, defying even the most basic norms of what constitutes journalism.


Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is still hearing arguments in the Sudarshan News case on whether regulation of some kind is needed to rein in electronic media. The outcome will not necessarily solve the problem because the trajectory of the electronic news media in India has gone so far in one direction, based entirely on what sells, that it is difficult to imagine a time when some kind of equilibrium will be restored. 


The important question raised by this case, in my view, is whether what appears on channels such as Sudarshan News can even be called journalism. Do such media outlets even pretend to follow any of the ethics, values or principles that one is taught comprise the bedrock of journalism in a democracy? How then can what they broadcast be equated with what appears in media outlets that are still trying to do journalism as it was meant? Should such channels even be considered as journalistic enterprises? Or do we need another term to define them?


Also, by pegging our hopes on a ruling about one channel that is at an extreme end of the spectrum, are we missing the larger picture of where journalism stands in India today, and whether it can be set right merely by devising ways to regulate it?


I would still argue that a reasonably large section of the print media, the majority of the digital news platforms as well as a handful of TV news channels follow the rules of journalism as we have known them. That the attention-seeking hijinks of the popular TV news channels cannot make us throw up our hands in despair and give up on the project of providing the people of this country fair, objective, coherent, relevant and credible journalism.


The real danger to this kind of journalism in India, I would argue, lies not with these TV channels, but primarily with the attitude of this government and its different arms. Just as it has demonstrated its complete disregard for any notion of fairness or established procedure when it comes to the functioning of the parliament, we cannot and should not expect that it will push back in its desire to ensure that the media sings its tune.


You only have to witness what has been happening in Kashmir this last year to see how this can, and probably will, happen. Kashmiri journalists have to keep reminding us that journalism is not a crime. Yet, for doing their jobs as journalists, they are being surveilled, harassed, questioned, beaten up and imprisoned in Kashmir.


This article by Priya Ramani in Article 14 is a devastating recounting of the way in which the very process of doing their jobs as journalists has been rendered a hazardous occupation in Kashmir. Ramani spoke to a cross-section of journalists in the state, women and men. Journalists told her that they were asked why they didn't do "positive journalism" or when they questioned the actions of the state against journalists, they were told, "Instructions have come from the top”. Bashaarat Masood of the Indian Express said it had become "impossible to report from Kashmir". These are highly qualified, experienced journalists who have worked in the most stressful conditions for years. And this is what they are saying today.


Perhaps the most telling quotation is from Qazi Shibli, the founding editor of The Kashmiriyat, a news website. Shibli spent nine months in jail, charged under the Public Safety Act.  He was released in April. He tells Ramani, “They’ve polarised the public of the nation into nationalists and anti-nationals. They've divided us into good journalists who follow their line and bad journalists who don’t.”


That just about sums up the state of the media in India today. Those who question, expose, basically just do their jobs and necessarily do not follow "the line" of the government are "bad" journalists, liable to intimidation and even arrest. According to a report by the Rights and Risk Analysis Group released in June, 55 journalists were arrested, booked, summoned, assaulted and threatened during the lockdown that began on March 24. All this for reporting on what was really going on in the country during this pandemic. Of these, 11 were from Uttar Pradesh.


The short point is that in the process of defanging every institution that can act as a check on the power of the executive, this government has not spared the media. While the majority of media houses have fallen in line following the slightest nudge, or voluntarily because they are convinced that the current regime is the best thing that could have happened to India, the real price is being paid by individual journalists and the smaller, independent publications and websites that are doing what they are required to do in a democracy. 


What happened in the parliament last week is an ominous signal of what more will follow. Even the pretence of following procedures and democratic norms has now been set aside by the government. To hope then that a judgement or some idea of self-regulation will salvage the situation of the Indian media is probably unrealistic.


We are witnessing today in Kashmir what the state can do to make the media toe the line without imposing censorship. This is the pattern that will be replicated in the rest of the country, even as exhortations about respecting the freedom of the press will be pronounced from the pulpit.

The crime that had no name


Column for Mathrubhumi 


(Translated in Malayalam)



For a long time, it was a crime without a name.  Women suffered in silence. They never spoke of it. And they blamed themselves.


Now there is a name. I am referring to sexual harassment. And there is a law that deals with sexual harassment at the work place. Yet, despite this, there is generally a silence that continues to surround this crime.


The reason is usually because there is inequality in the power balance.  The harasser is powerful, and the one being harassed is powerless.  As a result, even though there is more open discussion today about sexual harassment, and greater awareness about the steps that can be taken by women subjected to it, the majority of cases are still never reported.


The reason is that the power balance has not changed. And by and large, society is unwilling to believe the woman who complains. She's always asked: Why now? Why did you not complain when it happened? Did anything really happen, in that were you sexually assaulted? Perhaps you misread the gestures of your superior, etc. In other words, the tables are always turned when the woman complains and she has to justify her actions rather than questions being asked about the motives and the actions of the harasser.


When a person with some power and importance gets named, then this dimension of powerlessness hits you in the face. For example, a few months ago, there were complaints about two of the famous Gundecha brothers from the world of Hindustani classical music. Students learning from them in their academy in Bhopal came out with these complaints.


As a result, and also due to the publicity that followed, a committee has been formed to look into these complaints.  That is an important step, even though questions have been raised about the composition of the committee.  Yet, it is a beginning because it respects the need for due process to address the problem. 


However, each time the names of individuals who also run institutions or head an institution, comes up, there are larger questions that often remain unaddressed.  This is the point that the well-known Carnatic singer T. M. Krishna raised in relation to the Gundecha brothers.  He emphasised that there had to be a change in the very system that allowed for blind obedience to a teacher, or master, to the point that you were afraid to raise questions about his actions even when they contravene the law.


The main challenge, I believe, is how we empower our girls, right from when they are in school, to understand their rights.  This is when we can help them grow up to believe that they do not have to accept sexual abuse or sexual harassment, that they are entitled to speak up and demand justice. But sometimes, as in these academies where young people learn the arts, and in our educational institutions, there is too much emphasis on blind obedience. Those who obey without questioning are considered "good" while those who question are seen as "trouble-makers". This attitude is the exact opposite of what is needed to make young people, and especially girls, feel they have the right to raise objections, ask questions and demand their rights.


If the law were properly implemented (and it is not), girls and women would feel more confident to speak up about sexual harassment. Unfortunately, that is not enough unless it is also accompanied by a change in societal attitudes and in the way we bring up our young people.  In the long-term, the only way to deal with such crimes is to work towards building a gender just society. It is difficult, I know, but surely not impossible.