Friday, September 24, 2021

Why do we keep ignoring violations of journalists’ rights in Kashmir?

 Broken News

Published in on September 16, 2021


When the news broke about two Afghan journalists being detained and subsequently brutally beaten up by the Taliban for covering a women's demonstration in Kabul recently, there was international outrage. And rightly so. After all, the two men – photographer Nematullah Naqdi and reporter Taqi Daryabi from Etilaat Roz – had not committed a crime; they were simply doing their jobs.

In Indian mainstream media too there was outrage, and the photographs of the two men with their injuries were reproduced. Yet, as several senior Kashmiri journalists like Gowhar Geelani asked on social media, why was there no such outrage in mainstream Indian media when similar violations of the rights of journalists take place in Kashmir all too frequently? Such as the beating up of journalists and photographers covering a Muharram procession in Srinagar on August 17.

This is as good a time as any to focus on the state of the media, journalists and press freedom in Kashmir. There is no better illustration of how impossible it is for journalists to do even their routine jobs when you see the response of the administration following the death of the chairman of the Hurriyat, Syed Ali Shah Geelani on September 1. Not only were journalists prevented from going anywhere near his home after news of his death spread, as this report by Shahid Tantray in the Caravan describes, but they were even stopped from filming the huge presence of security forces outside his home. Additionally, internet services were suspended yet again, crippling the media even if it wanted to report on developments.

The absence of any independent source of information, which would have been facilitated had the media had access, has left the public with two conflicting narratives about Geelani’s funeral: one of the family alleging that the police forcibly took the body and buried it without the immediate family present, and the other of the police which claims that the last rites of the Kashmiri leader were performed properly.

If you look back over the last two years since August 5, 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir's special status ended and it was split into two union territories, there are innumerable and frequent incidents illustrating the continuing pressure under which journalists and the media have to function there.

Priya Ramani, in this detailed piece in Article14 titled “The dangerous profession of journalism in Kashmir”, has recorded many of these incidents. She outlines not just the impact of the media policy for Kashmir of last June that essentially allows the administration of the union territory to control the media in multiple ways, but also reports the string of instances of journalists apprehended, jailed, charged, interrogated, detained and threatened if they deviated from the script the government now expects from them. That, according to the media policy, is to create “a sustained narrative on the functioning of the government in media”.

Ramani begins her report with the experience of a young photographer, Kamran Yousef, who was jailed for six months because, according to the National Investigation Agency, he had "never covered any developmental activity of any Government Department/Agency, any inauguration of Hospital, School Building, Road, Bridge, statement of political party in power or any other social/developmental activity by state government or Govt of India."

In other words, for not doing what the government expects, a journalist can be charged under the UAPA and jailed. Yousef got bail in 2018 but the following year, he was beaten up by the police while taking photographs in Pulwama in southern Kashmir.

Since then, there has been no change in the attitude of the government towards journalists. The latest incident took place on September 8, when the police raided and searched the homes of four Kashmiri journalists – Hilal Mir, Shah Abbas, Showkat Motta and Azhar Qadri – and confiscated digital devices and travel documents.

In an atmosphere where you can be apprehended, and even jailed, for any number of reasons, how can journalists function? How different is this from the challenges that journalists in other countries, such as Afghanistan, face today? The difference, of course, is that we insist we are a democracy where the freedom of the press exists, even though India's ranking in indices measuring this freedom is steadily plummeting.

The intimidation of journalists is not the only way to control the media. Another well-known tactic is to squeeze finances by withdrawing government advertising. In many parts of India, newspapers and local TV channels are heavily dependent on advertisements from the government. Since the pandemic and the downturn in the economy, this dependence has grown. Indeed, it is striking to see how much government advertising appears today in major mainstream newspapers. In Jammu and Kashmir, this is a well-honed tactic, one that the government has used to good effect to silence any semblance of criticism from the media.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

From climate change to healthcare: Why is there no space for these issues in Big Media?

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on September 3, 2021


So, "the longest war", as the US media insists on calling their country's engagement in Afghanistan, has ended. But is this really the end of the story? And has war and conflict really ended in a country ravaged by both for decades?

As you scroll through the extensive coverage in the international media leading up to the American withdrawal, there is next to nothing about another war that Afghanistan has been facing well before the takeover by the Taliban.

Of course, the repatriation of Afghans wanting to move out of the country will continue to engage the international media and, to some extent, what happens to women's education and employment. But alongside this is the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding in the country even before the Taliban took over on August 15. How will Afghanistan's economy, so heavily dependent on foreign aid, survive? Who will be hit the hardest by this drastic downturn?

Apart from the economic crisis, according to this Reuters report, Afghanistan has been reeling under a severe drought. An estimated 12 million people, out of a population of 36 million, are facing “a food security crisis of not knowing when or where their next meal will come from”. This is in addition to rising food costs across the country. So, irrespective of the political developments or the kind of government that is eventually formed or whether it is recognised by the world, the harsh reality facing millions of Afghans will be finding food for their next meal.

The healthcare system in the country is also close to collapse. A representative of Médecins Sans Frontières is quoted in this report saying: “The overall health system in Afghanistan is understaffed, under-equipped and underfunded, for years. And the great risk is that this underfunding will continue over time.” As a result, the existing health facilities are already running short of supplies, even in the cities. One can imagine how much more dire the situation must be in the rural areas.

With the media restricted, will we ever know the suffering of ordinary Afghans who live away from the cities? According to Reporters Without Borders, less than 100 of the 700 women journalists in Kabul are still working. “Women journalists are in the process of disappearing from the capital,” it notes as many Afghan journalists, women and men, are leaving the country. At the same time, the international media have drastically reduced their presence. So, who will write these stories?

It is perhaps inevitable that geopolitics and speculation about what the Taliban will do will continue to dominate the news. This is, in any case, a given in most countries, including in India. Here, political news and government pronouncements hog news space while reports about drought, floods, hunger, and environmental crises are barely reported, if at all.

For instance, even as newspapers were spilling over with advertisements and sage pronouncements about “India at 75”, marking the beginning of India's 75th year of independence, an estimated 2.25 lakh people in 15 districts in Assam were affected by floods. Just going by numbers affected, this is newsworthy. And even if floods are an annual occurrence, in the past, such natural disasters would be reported and featured in the "national" pages of newspapers. Today, you have to work hard to find such news except in the newspapers of that region.

Then take healthcare. One of the positive outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic has been that health coverage in the media has been given importance. In the past, reporters assigned the health beat scarcely got any recognition. Today, many of them, the majority of them being women journalists, are names we recognise for the excellent and persistent coverage they have done of the pandemic.

But there are other diseases too that afflict and kill Indians at all times. Many of these diseases, such as malaria, dengue and encephalitis, are closely linked with the appalling sanitary conditions in which millions of people live in cities and villages. The boastful advertisements and statements about the success of campaigns like Swachh Bharat, etc have failed miserably to make a dent on innumerable fetid open drains and sewers around which poor communities live because they have no option to move elsewhere. These are the people who struggle each monsoon with vector-borne diseases, and the poor state of our health infrastructure makes their lives even more precarious.

This distressing report in Newslaundry of an apparent “mystery illness” that has already killed 34 children in Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh, is just one of similar reports you can find in the media if you look hard enough. The media's neglect of these stories compounds the crisis as governments, like that of Yogi Adityanath in UP, can get away with boasting about what a superb job they are doing in looking after the health of people living in their states.

Then take another perennial, the impact of global warming. This is drawing considerable attention worldwide, partly due to the increase in forest fires in Europe and the US, as also flash floods and now hurricanes. The environmentalist Bill McKibben, who has been writing and campaigning on the links between global warming and the continuing burning of fossil fuels with extreme climate events, reiterates yet again in a piece in the New Yorker that the latest hurricane to land on the shores of the US is the result of simple physics. No one can put it better than he does when he writes:

“Hurricanes...draw their power from heat in the ocean. If there’s more heat, the hurricane can get stronger. Physics. Warm air can hold more water than cold air can. So in warm, arid areas you get more evaporation, and hence more drought, and hence more fire. Physics. The water that’s been evaporated into the atmosphere comes down: more flooding rainfall. Physics. The earth runs on energy. We’re trapping more of it near the planet’s surface because of the carbon dioxide that comes from burning coal and gas and oil. That energy expresses itself in melting ice sheets, in rising seas, in the incomprehensible roar of the wind as a giant storm crashes into a city of steel and glass. It’s not, in the end, all that complicated.”

But in India, our coverage of the impact of climate change remains sporadic. In Mumbai, for instance, the municipal commissioner is quoted as saying that 80 percent of Mumbai's Nariman Point (a business district), and Mantralaya (seat of the state government) will be underwater by 2050. He was speaking at the launch of the Mumbai Climate Action Plan website. He also said that in the last 15 months, Mumbai had been hit by three cyclones.

Yet, the city's municipal corporation that he heads is hell-bent on building a coastal road that will increase fossil-fuel guzzling privatised transport, benefit only a small percentage of the population, and add to the city's existing burden of air pollution besides contributing to global warming. There has been practically no discussion in local media questioning the municipal commissioner or debating how India's financial capital will survive if large parts are submerged in just 30 years.

Apart from the impact of global warming, a report by the University of Chicago's Air Quality Life Index finds that India is the most polluted country in the world. Air pollution, it states, could cut life expectancy by nine years in north India and 2.5 years in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. While organisations dedicated to environmental issues like the Centre for Science and Environment have been campaigning for action, mainstream media also needs to find ways to illustrate how this will affect the lives of people, particularly the poorest and most marginalised. Without that, there is little hope of policy makers feeling any kind of pressure to take action.

Even if subjects like climate change, pollution, health care, sanitation, and nutrition don't grab headlines, they affect the survival of millions of people. And just on those grounds, they are “newsworthy”.

Unfortunately, given the nature of the dominant media India, namely television news, the concept of what constitutes news has been so distorted that not just the subjects that I've mentioned, but entire regions and populations of this country, are being permanently obscured. Unlike in Afghanistan, there are plenty of journalists in India who can cover these stories. But the space for them to report on these issues is shrinking by the day.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Media lessons from Afghanistan: Look at processes, not just events

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on August 19, 2021


Images define events. They are the markers of memory of momentous events.

There is no question that of all the images from Afghanistan – following the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban and the capitulation of the US-backed Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani – the one that will remain as a tragic reminder of what is unfolding is this video. It shows desperate Afghans running alongside a US Air Force plane at the Kabul airport. People are clinging to the wheels and anything they can hold.

Despite this, the plane takes off. Additional recordings reveal at least two bodies falling from the plane. The story of those two men was pieced together by Vijayta Lalwani of Scroll who managed to speak to the man in Kabul on whose roof the corpses fell.

Afghanistan has been, and continues to be, the dominant story in international media, and less so in Indian media. What is being called the "stunning" and unexpectedly quick takeover of the country by the Taliban, with practically no resistance from the established government or its US-trained and funded forces, has left experts and politicians asking questions as to how this happened.

As expected, the focus of much of the reporting is not only on the desperation of those who want to leave the country, particularly people who had worked for western governments and who fear reprisals, but also the future of women. For in the last two decades, the status of Afghan women has been one of the major justifications for the continued presence of the US and other forces in the country, given the severe restrictions the Taliban had imposed on them during its previous reign.

For the media, the story of Afghanistan, particularly over the last two decades after the US invasion and the removal of the previous Taliban government, holds out several lessons. These apply not only to how we cover conflict, and post-conflict, but also whether we listen to, and report the voices of those who do not automatically come forward to speak.

For instance, one of the questions being asked post the Taliban takeover is whether the coverage by the media, particularly international media, gave us an adequate understanding of the processes underway in a country of huge contrasts between rural and urban and a range of ethnicities. Academics who have studied Afghanistan closely point out that the Taliban was growing in its reach quietly in the last decade and that it was also changing in its composition from being largely Pashtun to a force that included many more of the multiple ethnicities that are part of their country.

Another question is whether the international media conveyed the growing disillusionment in the countryside with the incumbent Afghan government and the high levels of corruption. The New York Times, in an editorial titled "The tragedy of Afghanistan", writes, "The corruption was so rampant that many Afghans began to question whether their government or the Taliban was the greater evil." If that is so, was this reported? If it was reported, then why are people surprised that the Taliban were accepted without a fight?

Peter W Klein, executive director of the Global Reporting Centre, writes in the Columbia Journalism Review about how he thinks journalism failed in Afghanistan. Looking critically at conflict reporting, he writes, "Many of us who have reported on the war stepped into the trap reporters often fall into, entranced by the drama of battles and the spin of military leaders."

He writes of how "a giddy excitement burns through newsrooms when there’s talk of a military action. War has built-in drama, pathos, characters, heroes, villains, patriotism, action – not to mention gripping images, the kind civilians will never witness firsthand”. And yet, Klein writes, "What we often fail to do is step back and reflect on the meaning of the larger war, and its likely legacy. Patriotism plays a part, especially if a reporter is covering troops from their own country."

Only a detailed study of media coverage of Afghanistan over the last two decades can confirm this, but it would be fair to say the dominant focus in most reports by the international media was on the continuing conflict, and not necessarily on what was happening on the ground away from the capital city of Kabul.

Apart from the frequent clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces that were reported, what else was the militant group up to in the last two decades? According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the Taliban had created a PR machine as far back as 2008 and the tools it used to spread the message included DVDs, pamphlets and cassettes as well as sermons in mosques. It is possible that because the media mostly focused on episodic clashes, such a strategy would have slipped under the radar.

The reason these questions have relevance not just for international media but also for us here is because reporting on conflicts within this country is also an important part of our job. Yet, we tend to report the event, and sometimes miss out on informing our readers and viewers about the context, or the processes that led to the conflict.

As an example, take Northeast India. The younger generation in the rest of India, referred to by people in the Northeast as the "mainland", would probably not be aware that for decades, several states in the region were dominated by different kinds of clashes -- between the Indian government and militant groups, between different ethnic groups within the states, and conflicts between the states. In contrast, today the region appears peaceful, but only on the surface. And when something bursts through that veneer of peace, people are surprised.

So when six Assamese policemen died in a clash on the border of Assam and Mizoram recently, most readers in the "mainland" would have been puzzled. Why should there be border wars between two Indian states? While the clashes were reported, only a handful of print newspapers and digital platforms took the trouble to explain the background to the clash and why the tension had persisted. As happens so often in these cases, the explanation was not simple. It included history but also issues concerning livelihoods, forests, clashing ethnicities, and politics.

Then, on August 15, the relatively peaceful and picturesque capital of Meghalaya, Shillong, was shaken up when masked men dressed in black drove around the city in a stolen vehicle brandishing guns and even threw petrol bombs at the chief minister's residence. They were protesting the alleged "encounter" death of a former militant in his home two days earlier. The city was placed under curfew. The state's home minister resigned. But who would have even known that there was militancy in Meghalaya?

In fact, as in every other conflict, there were reasons behind this sudden outburst in the relatively peaceful state of Meghalaya as this article points out. Yet, as several journalists from the Northeast have often complained, such processes are often ignored or cursorily reported by the mainstream media in India.

Both the Assam-Mizoram border clash and the developments in Shillong indicate that there are developments on the ground that we in the media largely ignore or fail to understand and report. Event-oriented and sporadic reporting of regions like the Northeast reinforces ignorance and misunderstanding about the people and their problems. As the Indian Express rightly pointed out in its editorial of August 19, "The Northeast has a long history of governance failures widening fault lines and leading to divisive ethnic mobilisations and violence...The administration has been swift and successful in containing the violence, but these localised events do point to insecurities on the ground. The government needs to recognise, and be sensitive to, the numerous fault lines that shape ethnic, regional and political relations in the region."

Given the nature of the Indian media, with its obsession with "breaking news" and the dominance of television news as well as social media, it is virtually impossible to negotiate the time and space required to do the kind of reporting that heeds the silent processes that precede spectacular events. Yet, the recent developments in Afghanistan should remind us of the importance of keeping an eye on processes, not just events.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Mumbai’s mochis are back!

 Written on August 14, 2021


A day before we have to suffer speeches reeking of hypocrisy to mark our Independence Day, I was reminded yet again that words like freedom, independence, even nation have a different meaning depending on where you’re situated in life.


One of my preoccupations during the serial lockdowns has been to walk the streets and observe what’s the same and what’s changed in the city.


In early June, I saw an interesting small poster hanging on a wall near Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, an institution established by K. M. Munshi. It read:’ joota Japani ho ya Hindustani, toot hi jaata hai. Layen mochi ke paas’. (Your shoe might be from Japan or India, but it will break. Bring it to the mochi’. Except that there was no mochi in sight. 




Today I walked past the same spot and there was Ajay from Jabalpur. He’s been in Mumbai, sitting in this spot for 8 years, a job he felt compelled to do after his father, who was also a mochi, died. He says he’s studied up to 11th standard but couldn’t complete his studies. 





He now has a gleaming new poster with his mobile number. Services include ‘chain mixing’ which he explained meant repairing zips! He also repairs umbrellas and all manner of chappals and shoes.




Meeting this young man, and visualising his precarious existence, was a reminder of how many thousands of such stories need to be recorded in this city of extreme riches and extreme poverty. 


Let me add a footnote.  For some reason, everyone -- the government, politicians, even the media -- believes and is talking about "India at 75".  India gained Independence from the British in 1947.  In 1948 it completed one year as a free country.  By that calculation, this year it completes 74 years not 75.  Next year, that is 2022, is completes 75.  I should know as I was born in 1947!



Friday, August 06, 2021

Dalit child’s ‘rape’ in Delhi shows all that’s wrong with our country

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on August 5, 2021


In his engagingly written August 3 frontpage story in the Indian Express, about the Indian Women's hockey team at the Olympics, Mihir Vasavda wrote, “Each player has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to reach this far: prejudice, poverty and patriarchy." Those three words encapsulate the story of Indian women, not just the remarkable lot wielding hockey sticks in Tokyo.

Prejudice, poverty, patriarchy. All three came together on August 1, when a 9-year-old Dalit girl, the only child of poor parents, went to a nearby crematorium to fill cold water from the cooler there. She never returned. She was dead by the time her mother saw her. Told that her only child had been electrocuted, the mother watched helplessly as the priest at the crematorium proceeded to cremate the child. “Don’t shout,” he allegedly told her.

This happened in India of 2021, in its national capital, in a week when the parliament was in session, when the most powerful politicians of this country were present in the same city where this little girl lived and died.

Can we then discuss the state of the nation or its politics, or even the state of India's media, without addressing what this horrific crime represents for India and what it reflects about our society?

There are many layers to the story of this alleged rape and murder in Old Nangli village in Delhi. One of the first, and so far the best, report on it was by Nidhi Suresh of Newslaundry who was on the spot, spoke to the parents, the police, and witnesses. Her reporting, including the video, is heart-wrenching and chilling, especially as it reveals that the priest, who allegedly forcibly cremated the little girl's body, is one of the four men charged with her murder and gangrape.

The report also brings out the sense of entitlement and impunity that men like this priest have that they could confidently instruct the family of the child to cremate her rather than go to the police.

This incident also brings back memories of January 2018, when an eight-year-old Bakerwal girl, the daughter of shepherds in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, was gangraped and killed. The crime took place in a religious place, and the priest was one of the men charged with rape and convicted.

The Kathua case led to nationwide protests. The court had to intervene to remind the media that neither the name nor the photograph of the child can be used when reporting crimes against minors under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. The media fell in line after the court's orders. By then, her name and face had already been splattered across publications.

This time, the media has followed the law, including ensuring that the faces of the girl's parents are obscured when they are interviewed on camera. In the past, even if the media did not name the victim, they gave away plenty of clues by naming the parents, identifying the exact locality where they lived and other such details. In other words, everything that would identify the victim barring her name.

As the girl was Dalit, inevitably comparisons are being drawn to the gangrape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, in September 2020. In both cases, the body was cremated without the consent of the family; in Hathras by the police and in Delhi by the priest.

Apart from the similarities between this crime and other cases in the past, there are several aspects that are notable, especially where the media and politics are concerned.

The site of the atrocity, the national capital, inevitably draws far greater attention in terms of both the media gaze and politics. Although Dalit women are raped and killed in numbers every year, the few cases that come to light are those that the media can access, or chooses to do so.

While this unequal media gaze distorts the reality of the extent of crimes against women, in the past it has been helpful. Media attention pushes governments to act, at least in the short term. We have seen this repeatedly in rape cases, and most dramatically in 2012 after the gangrape in Delhi. That led to the appointment of the Justice Verma Committee and substantial changes in the law, including the introduction of the death penalty (which incidentally was not recommended by the committee). The media focus following the rape and murder of the eight-year-old in Kathua also resulted in the death penalty being introduced for rape of minors under the POCSO Act.

Yet, the experience of the parents of the 9-year-old in Delhi reminds us yet again that, despite the changes in the law, the systemic problems in the criminal justice system remain. Not only were the parents treated insensitively by the police when they went to register the complaint, the police booked the four men accused of their daughter’s rape and murder under fairly minor provisions of the law. Only once the case was publicised did they agree to add the stringent provisions under the POCSO Act and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act.

The incident also reminds us yet again that despite the introduction of the death penalty for rape, the incidents of rape have not declined. The latest National Crime Records Bureau figures (available only up to 2019) show 32,033 rapes in one year. This figure is likely a gross underestimation as it is now well established that the majority of rapes that take place inside homes, or are committed by men known to the survivor, are never reported.

We have to wait and watch whether this time the media will focus on the crime or, as in the Kathua and Hathras cases, politics will dominate, making what happened almost incidental. This is already evident in some of the television talk shows since August 1 where the debate centres on whether this or that politician ought to have gone to meet the child's family and also whether her being Dalit is the trigger for their concern.

What then is the role of the media? To document. To get all sides. To try and fill holes in the narrative. But more importantly, to follow-up and not let the story die once the political spotlight moves from it. Many of these stories are multi-layered. Each layer tells us about our society, about prejudice, about patriarchy, about the criminal justice system and its constant failures, and about poverty.

The media must avoid falling into the trap of whataboutery: what about other rapes all over the country, why only this one, etc? Every crime of this nature is precisely that, a crime that must be acknowledged and addressed. In an ideal world, every such crime ought to be noted and reported. But if we can report, investigate, follow up even one like the August 1 incident, without giving more pain to the family of the victim, without reinforcing stereotypes, without obfuscating about the real issues of caste and the reality of child sexual assaults, we will have done a lot.

I have deliberately chosen to focus on only this issue in this column for several reasons, principally because it brings out so much that we fail to acknowledge about this country.

It shows us how technology, economic growth, even education are not making a dent in either caste prejudice and hatred or patriarchy. That despite the uproar that followed the 2012 Delhi gangrape, the changes in the laws, the subsequent change in the POCSO Act following the Kathua rape, our criminal justice system repeatedly fails the poor and marginalised castes. That even as we celebrate the few medals our athletes have won in Tokyo, mostly by women, we must remember the real face of the country we inhabit is represented by the struggles of these women in sports, and the death of girls like the 9-year-old.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

From denial to claims it ‘maligns’ India, the government’s response to Pegasus is predictable

 Broken News

Published on July 22, 2021 in Newslaundry



The government wishes it would just disappear. It will probably try, as it has done in the past, to come up with a diversionary tactic. But Pegasus is here to stay. The unraveling story of the spyware sold by an Israeli company to "vetted governments" that could have infected as many as 50,000 mobile phones in several countries around the world cannot be pushed under the carpet. It is simply too big, and too important.

With daily exposures, some more sensational than others, how has the Indian media responded to this story? The independent digital platform the Wire was one of 17 international media partners, including Washington Post and the Guardian, in 10 countries that collaborated to bring together the Pegasus Project. It was based on material sourced by the Paris-based non-profit journalism organisation Forbidden Stories and assisted by Amnesty International's Security Lab. The vast trove of telephone numbers were suspected to belong to persons of interest to their respective governments, although proof that all these phones were hacked has not yet been established.

The story broke in India on the night before the Parliament reconvened on July 19 for the monsoon session. Typically, on day one, the Indian media's response was lukewarm. While Indian Express, for instance, gave it front page lead, given that amongst the 40 Indian journalists whose numbers were listed as possible targets of surveillance were three from the paper, the Hindu was more cautious, running it on an inside page without mentioning that one of its own correspondents had also figured on this list.

It was when the next tranche of names was released, which included Rahul Gandhi, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa, and current IT and Railways minister Ashwini Vaishnaw amongst others, that the media woke up and took note.

Since then, the major national dailies have featured the daily revelations prominently. They also cannot ignore the story, as the Opposition has been vociferous in the Parliament demanding an independent inquiry or a joint parliamentary committee. However, Shashi Tharoor, the MP who heads the parliamentary standing committee on information technology, has said that they will take it up and that at the moment a JPC was not needed.

Several newspapers in editorials have also made demands for an independent inquiry. Amongst them is the Indian Express, which asked for an investigation and held that "trying to snoop unlawfully is what maligns Indian democracy". But then, it also asked for "the department of dirty tricks" to "come clean". That's a contradiction in terms as a "dirty tricks" department is precisely that, because it is not "clean".

The Hindu too emphasised the need for an inquiry and deplored the fact that "state agencies can trample upon the lives of citizens in such a manner while elected representatives plead ignorance is unsettling for a democracy. This is antithetical to the basic creed of democracy." And it asked the question that the government has still not answered: "Has any Indian agency bought Pegasus?"

What we have to constantly remind ourselves is that apart from the prominent individuals that featured in the list of 300 names from India whose mobile phones could have been compromised, phones belonging to the woman who accused the former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment, and her relatives, were also on the list. If it is confirmed that a spyware designed to help governments deal with terrorism and crime has been used against ordinary citizens, then every citizen has reason to be concerned, not just journalists or politicians.

Also, amongst the 40 journalists whose phones were identified, although not all have been checked to ascertain whether the spyware was planted, are people like Rupesh Kumar Singh from Jharkhand, a journalist who spent six months in jail for exposing the attacks by state actors against adivasis. It would appear that you don't have to be a Delhi-based journalist working for a prominent media organisation to be targeted. If you simply do your job of exposing the wrongs in our society through your journalism, you are a potential target for surveillance.

The government's response to the Pegasus story has been predictable: outright denial, obfuscation and the usual trope of this being a "bid to malign India". It also continues with the well-worn strategy; attack is the best form of defence. So instead of answering a direct question about whether it has used the spyware, the government skirts around it and instead attacks those who ask the question. And, not surprisingly, pro-government television channels have followed the same line.

So, did this government buy the Pegasus software and for how long has it been in use? According to this story by Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar in the Wire, WhatsApp had alerted the government in 2019 of attempts by Pegasus to break its encryption in as many as 121 accounts and that it had succeeded in hacking 20 accounts. Furthermore, in response to an RTI filed by Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the ministry of communication, electronics and information technology had acknowledged that WhatsApp had informed them about this attempt to break their encryption. Yet, in the Parliament, the newly appointed IT minister Ashwani Vaishnaw stated that there was no "factual basis" to reports about WhatsApp and the use of Pegasus.

As this column is being written, there are more revelations emerging. And apart from the Opposition, at least some in the media are asking the questions that need to be asked. They are demanding that the government explain whether and when it has bought Pegasus from NSO, the Israeli company, how much it paid for it, to what use has it been put, and what are the systems set up to govern how it will be used. The answers to these questions are crucial, irrespective of whether there can ever be conclusive proof that it was the Indian government that was behind the targeting of individuals with this spyware.

It is also important to remember that although most governments conduct surveillance at various levels, this particular spyware is deadly because it mines all the information people have on their phones, not just their voice calls or location. And it can do this in such a way that the uninitiated would never be able to detect its presence. Given that ordinary citizens are also on the list of potential targets, this is something that would concern more than just journalists, or people in public life.

Several Indian newspapers have done well to explain the process of how the spyware works with graphics. Readers also need to know the background of NSO, and how Pegasus has been used elsewhere. The Guardian provides useful background in its "Today in Focus" podcasts where it is focusing currently on the Pegasus Project.

The bottom line, as far as the media is concerned, is that this government really does not need sophisticated spyware to bully it to fall in line. The largest circulating Hindi newspaper, Dainik Bhaskar, has been consistently calling out the government's lies on the pandemic, especially the underestimates in the death count as well as the shortage of oxygen during the second wave. It has also prominently displayed the Pegasus story on its front page. As if on cue, on July 22, income tax raids were conducted on its offices in Bhopal and elsewhere.

This government's attitude towards individual journalists, or media houses, that attempt to do their jobs as guardians of free speech and expression, is an open secret. Hence, the fact that neither the prime minister nor anyone else from the government had the grace to issue a statement about the killing of the talented, award-winning Indian photojournalist from the Reuters news agency, Danish Siddiqui, in Afghanistan earlier this month comes as no surprise.

Danish's brilliant and evocative photographs will live on, calling out every lie uttered by this government, especially about the impact of the second wave of the pandemic, the mismanagement, the toll on ordinary people, and the deaths. These images cannot be erased. That is the power of an image, truly greater than thousands of words. And this is the uncomfortable truth that the Modi government simply cannot digest.


Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Will mainstream media show the same attention to the Bhima Koregaon case as it did to Stan Swamy’s death?

 Broken News

Published on July 8, 2021 in Newslaundry


In a time of constantly breaking news, when events such as the recent dramatic cabinet overhaul in the Modi government tends to sweep all other news off the front pages, it is imperative that the implications of Father Stan Swamy’s death in judicial custody are not forgotten.

On the afternoon of July 5, Father Stan, 84, died at the Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai. He was still in judicial custody in the Bhima Koregaon case, one of 16 who have been incarcerated without trial, charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Father Stan's death represents more than the passing of a fine human being who gave his life for the welfare of Adivasis in Jharkhand, which he considered home. It forces us to think about the callous and cruel nature of the criminal justice system in this country as illustrated in this piece in the Wire by Susan Abraham, one of the lawyers fighting for the Bhima Koregaon accused and the wife of accused Vernon Gonsalves. It also ought to make us question the manner in which laws like the UAPA are increasingly being used to suppress all forms of dissent and interventions for the rights of the most marginalised.

While the Bhima Koregaon case itself has drawn sporadic interest in the media since 2018, when the first arrests were made, Father Stan's death has provoked an unexpected and strong response from national English language papers.

Not only were reports of his death on the front page of practically every leading national daily newspaper, but there were also strong editorial comments. While the Telegraph held that "the State is responsible for Stan Swamy’s death. But the shame of it and the loss it signifies are the Indian people’s", Times of India held the criminal justice system responsible and argued for revisiting provisions of the UAPA. The Hindu saw in the treatment meted out to Father Stan in prison "institutional oppression" and wrote that his death "will weigh on the country’s collective conscience for long". And Indian Express called the attitude of the courts in delaying and denying his legitimate plea for bail on medical grounds a "dark blot"; it concluded that his death "has left the highest institutions of India’s justice system diminished".

At the same time, it must be noted that on the whole, barring routine reports about the cases for bail filed by the 16 (now 15) men and women in the Bhima Koregaon case, the mainstream media did little to highlight the injustice meted out to them or investigate whether the case had any basis.

It was the Washington Post that broke the story about the malware planted on the laptops of Rona Wilson, one of the accused, and subsequently another report about the malware on the laptop of Surendra Gadling. If this is true, then the very basis on which these arrests were made will be proven as baseless. Neither of these stories created more than a ripple in the national media, although Sreenivasan Jain of NDTV did report on it in his programme Reality Check.

The point I am making is that the coverage given to this tragic death of an 84-year-old priest, cannot end with some reports and a few editorials. There is clearly a larger story that needs to be pursued, not just about the Bhima Koregaon case but also about the rampant misuse of the UAPA. Only weeks before Father Stan's death, Akhil Gogoi, who was elected to the Assam assembly while still in jail under the UAPA, was exonerated of all charges. Bashir Ahmad Baba from Srinagar was released after 11 years in prison after being acquitted under all charges under the UAPA. We also have the Delhi High Court judgement granting bail to Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Tanha that draws attention to the misuse of this law.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, only two percent of those arrested under the UAPA between 2015-19 have been convicted. The rest, one can assume, are still in jail. Each of them has a story that needs telling. Will at least those newspapers, which were moved to comment strongly after Father Stan’s death, take this on?

There is another death that took place a few weeks before Father Stan's that also calls for a pause and introspection about the kind of society we live in. That is the death of a 22-year-old woman in Kerala.

Vismaya from Kollam had been married for only a year to Kiran. Yet, despite complaining about the violence she experienced within the four walls of her home, she was persuaded to remain and give her marriage to an abusive man a chance. It ended with her death.

Within hours of the news about Vismaya, there were reports of a 24-year-old woman's death in Thiruvananthapuram. In both cases, there was a link to dowry.

The giving and taking of dowry was made illegal by the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961. That made no difference. After campaigns by women's groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when newspapers particularly in Delhi carried routine reports about young brides dying in "accidental" kitchen fires, Section 498A was introduced in the Indian Penal Code making the unnatural death of a woman within seven years of marriage a cognizable offence.

Even this has made no difference. Despite the increasing levels of literacy amongst women, and their participation in the workforce, the scourge of dowry remains, and perhaps has become stronger if you go by this well-researched report by Haritha John in the News Minute. What then does this say about Indian society that in the 21st century, a woman's worth continues to be determined by the amount of gold and other "gifts" that her family sends with her to her marital home?

According to this article in Article 14, "Over 38% of murders of women are committed by current or former partners finds the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), and Indian women account for 36% of global female suicide deaths, finds the Harvard School of Public Health despite making up less than 18% of the world’s female population. Suicide is a leading cause of death among women aged 15-29 in India."

The article in the News Minute also raises several important points about the role of the media in perpetuating the prevalence of dowry. In the opinion of Burton Cleetus, an assistant professor of history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, "When we enforce conventional marriages, the fundamental factor in it is wealth transfer. Though we romanticize marriage, it is basically a market for this wealth transfer. It is the same people and media who speak against the dowry system, who run matrimonial sites. It is the same media that promotes a luxurious lifestyle which creates a desire in people, a desire that is above our income. So on one hand, they promote consumerism, and on the other, they criticise these systems. This is pointless. All these are causes of the problem in a larger perspective.”

Whether one agrees with this analysis or not, it is evident that Vismaya's death has reminded us again how a woman's worth is calculated in modern day India. Economic progress, education, pro-women laws have failed to dent the patriarchy that ensures that most marriages remain a transaction. And the price for an unsatisfactory deal, as viewed from the man's side, is always paid by the woman. For every one report that comes to light, there would be thousands that are never reported.

These are the truths about our society that the media needs to report. Of the thousands unjustly incarcerated under laws that have no place in a democracy. Of an unjust, cruel and callous criminal justice system that denies bail even to the old and ailing. And of the way regressive, patriarchal values continue to ensure that women are treated as little more than a commodity.