Friday, February 26, 2021

Why Disha Ravi’s arrest should worry independent media platforms

 Broken News     

Published in Newslaundry on Feb 18, 2021


We should not have been surprised that the Delhi police arrested a young environmental activist, Disha Ravi, on February 13 for helping put together a “toolkit” in support of the farmers protesting against the Narendra Modi government’s new agriculture laws. An early warning that something like this might happen had been given by no less an authority than the prime minister himself.

Speaking in the parliament, Modi denounced “andolanjeevi” who spent their time protesting and agitating. The country needed to be protected from such “parjeevi”, or parasites, he declared. Narrowing the definition further he said it was the Foreign Destructive Ideology – FDI – to which such people adhered that posed a danger to the country.

As the columnist Sugata Srinivasaraju rightly observed, young Disha fits the definition perfectly. She is an “andolanjeevi”, in that she is known to participate in protests, particularly those connected to the environment and animal rights. As part of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future movement in India, Disha has been active in campaigns around climate change. And her link to an international movement sets her up to be part of Modi’s version of FDI.

Given this statement by the prime minister, it is not surprising that the Delhi police went ahead with their far-fetched conspiracy theory. They were following the playbook, or should we say “toolkit”, that has now been publicly endorsed by Modi. Whenever there is dissent, agitation, protests against the government, seek out “andolanjeevi” and spin a conspiracy theory about what they had planned. It doesn’t matter if they were even present when the supposed crime took place. Moreover, in this era of “atmanirbharta”, or self-reliance, any association with a “foreign” organisation automatically makes you a suspect.

The international conspiracy theory, or the omnipresent “foreign hand” from Indira Gandhi’s days, is nothing new in India’s political discourse. What is new, and ominous, is the determination with which it is being pursued by the government. Even young environmentalists, expressing their concern for what ought to be non-controversial, that is the advent of climate change, have now come on the radar.

While the media has still to fully unravel how the Delhi police zeroed in on this “toolkit” to fashion its case over the January 26 violence at the Red Fort, the most remarkable story of the last fortnight has to be the investigation by Meghnad S and Shambavi Thakur of Newslaundry into the Hindutva toolkit. This is not a figment of the imagination. The two journalists successfully infiltrated chat groups set up by the BJP’s Kapil Mishra and exposed how that toolkit works. It comes as no surprise, but is worrying because it functions with impunity, confident that there will be no case against the perpetrators of this hate machine.

The media will also have to think about the real import of the 113-hour raid by the Enforcement Directorate against the digital news platform NewsClick. Was this a one-off action? Or is it a precursor to more such moves against the dozen or so other independent digital platforms?

In a media landscape where much of the mainstream media is either choosing to remain uncritical or believes wholeheartedly in this government, the few spaces left for dissenting voices, for reports that seek to present what ordinary people feel, and to raise critical questions are on a handful of digital news platforms.

Over the last decade, digital news organisations such as NewsClick, Newslaundry, Wire, Scroll, News Minute and others have carved out a space that’s different, and far more independent, than the mainstream media. Even with their relatively meagre resources, they are often ahead of their larger, older counterparts in print.

In some ways, these platforms have become the equivalent of the smaller newspapers and magazines that were able to question the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency of 1975-77 despite censorship. They could do so because of their ownerships. They were either run by small trusts or by individuals who were prepared to take risks. In some senses, they were islands of independence in an authoritarian sea. Today, that is what some of these digital platforms represent.

Their existence is always precarious because of their financial structures. Yet, so far, they have survived and even grown, suggesting that there is a demand for an independent and courageous media.

Although there have been hints that the government plans to bring in regulation that will restrict and control these outlets, so far this has not happened. In fact, it was this possibility that led some of them to come together to form the DIGIPUB News India Foundation last year with the aim to “help ensure the creation of a healthy and robust news ecosystem for the digital age”.

The challenge posed by these organisations is neither their size nor their reach. It is the fact that they can choose not to toe the government line, as much of the mainstream media is doing. And they can also report on matters that are ignored or overlooked by the legacy media.

As a result, these portals have created an invaluable digital record of recent people’s struggles such as the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act through late 2019 and early 2020, and the ongoing protests by farmers.

Furthermore, these reports and records are available to anyone outside the country looking for an independent account of such movements. Researchers as well as mainline media platforms abroad regularly cite work done by these digital platforms. That is something this government does not appreciate as currently anything critical written anywhere in the world about it is considered an international conspiracy to tarnish India’s image.

You would think that a party with such a comfortable majority in the parliament and with a leader who apparently remains popular despite disastrous policies – demonetisation, the new citizenship law, the manner in which the lockdown to check the spread of Covid was implemented – wouldn’t worry about these news outlets.

Yet, as the events since January 26 have shown, the government is rattled. Its totally illogical actions, culminating in the arrest of a 21-year-old climate activist for an imaginary “international conspiracy”, suggest precisely that.

This is why the few remaining independent spaces as well as independent journalists have something to worry about. For there is no doubt that this government has a clear strategy to silence or subvert independent and critical voices, as outlined by Kavitha Iyer in Article 14.

One way to rein them in would be by mounting the kind of attack that was used against NewsClick where, as the editor Prabir Purkayastha pointed out in an interview with Caravan, the very process is the punishment. Organisations with little to fall back on in terms of finances can be finished by protracted court cases. It’s the simplest way of dealing with them.

The last two weeks have made it clear that it is not just “andolanjeevi” that need to be worried. Any media platform that dares to interrogate, expose, or simply do the job of honest newsgathering is being closely watched. What NewsClick went through could be the precursor for more such actions given the heightened and visible paranoia of this powerful government.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Questioning the state’s version of events is not a crime. It’s the media’s job

 Broken News

Published in on Feb 4, 2021


Even as the world of social media, and our ministry of external affairs, jumps through hoops over tweets by two "outsiders", the singer Rihanna and the climate activist Greta Thunberg, on the ongoing farmer protests in India, there are weightier issues that continue to confront this nation.

There is, of course, the continuing protest by farmers, not just a handful as the ministry would like the world to believe, but by thousands stretching across northwest India and supported by farmers' groups in other parts of the country. Talks between their representatives and the government have hit a roadblock, hopefully not as impregnable as the trenches that the Delhi police is busy digging on all roads leading into the national capital.

For the media, there remain several questions that have come into focus due to the farmer protests and the events that took place in Delhi on Republic Day.

The most recent issue being debated concerns FIRs filed by the police in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh against several prominent journalists and a member of parliament, invoking sedition, conspiracy, and promotion of enmity between different sections. All this for tweets and statements on TV relating to the death of one of the protesters, Navreet Singh, on January 26.

A video clip was circulated on social media showing Navreet Singh's tractor overturning after it hit a police barricade; his family and some eyewitnesses claim he was shot first and thereafter lost control, as this follow-up story in the Caravan reports. The people against whom these FIRs have been filed include Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, India Today anchor Rajdeep Sardesai, author and senior journalist Mrinal Pande, and Caravan editor Vinod Jose.

Their crime: tweeting the version about Navreet Singh being shot, or carrying stories that questioned the police version that it was an accident, as in the case of Siddharth Vardarajan of the Wire.

If inaccurate reporting deserves cases of sedition to be filed against journalists, there would be hundreds of candidates every single day. It is the nature of breaking news that sometimes leads to inaccuracies, or half-baked versions being transmitted. But more often than not, these are corrected, as happened in this case too. In any case, while the official version of what happened should be reported, it can also be questioned. Doing so is not a crime; it is the job of the media.

The problem of inaccurate news has been exacerbated in this time of social media and the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle. In the old, slow news days of print, journalists had a whole day to check and double-check before their stories were printed. They also had support from the desk, whose job it was to do such checking.

Although the structures still exist, the sheer volume of information coming in as well as versions floating around social media sites makes the job of the desk in media organisations even more challenging today.

These challenges were apparent on January 26 when what was expected to be an orderly tractor rally turned into a violent confrontation between some protesters and the Delhi police. The media does need to analyse where mistakes were made in the coverage. Inevitably, the dramatic trumped the more mundane. As a result, the memorable images from that day will remain the violence and drama at the Red Fort, whereas the "people's" Republic Day parade by the majority of the protesting farmers will be virtually erased from the record, except on some social media sites.

Yet, even if mistakes were made, surely this should not invite the charge of sedition. As also the assumption that the inaccuracy was deliberate.

The fallout of the 2021 Republic Day has been not just the FIRs against these prominent journalists, but against dozens of others including leaders of different organisations participating in the protests. These actions should remind us, yet again, that in the last few years, especially since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the centre and in several states, hundreds of journalists have been arrested, charged, harassed and intimidated.

In its report "Behind Bars, Arrest and detention of journalists in India" released in December 2020, the Free Speech Collective documents cases of 154 journalists against whom cases were lodged in the last decade. Of these, 67 were just in the last year and of the total, Uttar Pradesh had the highest number of cases, 29.

Should the media be especially worried following these latest developments?

A retired judge, writing in the Indian Express, does not think so. He accuses the media of "false martyrdom". Responding to an editorial in the newspaper that termed the FIRs against the journalists as "bizarre", SN Aggarwal suggests that the "profession at large must introspect, not stand by those spreading fake news".

Perhaps the media does need to introspect, as also suggested by the editorials in Indian Express and the Hindu. But there is a presumption in Aggarwal's argument, that errors and "spreading fake news" are the same. To be sure, some media can be charged with spreading fake news. Remember the doctored video telecast by Zee News during the agitation in JNU in 2016? No FIRs were filed against the channel.

So, what then is worrying about the latest police action against journalists? Are we speaking up only because these journalists are prominent? Or is this part of a larger pattern of undermining the credibility of the media, and especially of those sections of the media that continue to do their job of questioning and digging for the truth?

Several organisations have come out in support of the journalists. At a meeting at the Press Club in New Delhi, there were references to an "undeclared emergency", comparing what is happening today to the period between 1975-77 when Indira Gandhi had imposed pre-censorship on what was then mostly the print media and arrested journalists, including editors like Kuldip Nayar.

There is, in fact, no parallel. What is happening today is more insidious and far more dangerous. Without resorting to any overt actions, the government has succeeded in reining in criticism in the media. The handful of newspapers, TV channels, digital platforms, and journalists that continue to raise questions are constantly reminded that they are under watch.

Kanwardeep Singh, a journalist from the Times of India – hardly to be considered a constant critic of the government – told the Guardian that he was warned and received threats for reporting the allegations about Navreet Singh being shot. “Messages are being sent through senior journalists that either I stop writing and stay safe or be ready to live my remaining life behind the bars,” he said. “I am aware that the government may attempt to harm me or my family to any extent but I will continue to investigate.”

If this can happen to a journalist reporting for India's largest circulating English language newspaper, what about those working in Indian language media, or independent journalists like Mandeep Punia, who has been released on bail after being arrested while covering the farmer protests? On his release, he tweeted: "The police interfered with my work. That is my regret. Not the violence that I faced. This incident has strengthened my resolve to continue with my work, that is reporting from the ground the most dangerous and yet the most necessary part of journalism."

We should also not forget that lesser known journalists are being virtually forgotten as they languish in jail without trial for the crime of pursuing a story. Such as Siddique Kappan from Kerala, who was on his way to Hathras to report the gangrape and murder of a Dalit woman when he was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police.

This government does not need to declare an emergency or impose pre-censorship. The mainstream media is mostly pliant. Not only do they toe the line, a good number of them are uncritical and enthusiastic supporters of anything and everything this government does. Critical scrutiny of government actions, pronouncements or policies – as seen in most other functioning democracies – is becoming increasingly infrequent.

Also, as long as an outdated colonial law like sedition continues to be on the statute, any government can weaponise it to deal with those it finds inconvenient, as this government is doing. In its editorial on the FIRs, the Times of India points out, "Repurposing sedition against journalists negates our democracy’s founding tenets recognising the rights of news media to report without fear or favour."

A database compiled by the portal Article 14 reveals that there has been a 28 percent rise in sedition cases since 2014. For the long-term survival of any semblance of a free press, a prerequisite is the scrapping of this draconian colonial law, as Samar Harlankar points out in this fine piece in Open Democracy.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Freedom of speech in India is slipping down a slippery slope


Broken News 


Published in Newslaundry on January 21, 2021




The good news we were all waiting for in these bleak times came with India's sensational win in the cricket Test series against Australia in Brisbane on January 19. But even as we celebrated good times for Indian cricket, the bad times for Indian journalism and freedom of speech and expression continued.


On the very day we celebrated India's cricket victory, a court in Kutch, Gujarat issued a non-bailable warrant against senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.  He was reportedly charged under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code relating to defamation.


Other journalists, most notably in Kashmir, continue to face arrest and harassment and have been charged under various laws.  So why should we take note of this particular warrant against Guha Thakurta?


As this piece in Newslaundry explains, Guha Thakurta had been slapped with a defamation suit by the Adani group for an article he wrote in Economic and Political Weekly in 2017 alleging that the Adani group had benefitted to the tune of Rs 500 crores because the Modi government had altered special economic zone rules.


Earlier in the year, he had co-written another article on the Adani group which had raised questions about the group evading taxes of up to Rs 1000 crores.  It is the second article that invited legal action. The governing board of the journal chose to have the article pulled down from the website.  This led to Guha Thakurta's resignation after a short two-year stint as editor.


The same article had also appeared in The Wire, which was also charged but chose to contest it. The case was finally dismissed in 2019 after Adani unconditionally withdrew proceedings. Although the case against  The Wire, its editors and his two co-authors were withdrawn, those against Guha Thakurta remained.


A case that lay dormant since 2017 has suddenly found a new life in 2021 and the question everyone is asking is, why now?  There could be a simple explanation. On the other hand, this case could be something like a warning being sent out to other journalists digging into the functioning of a powerful industrialist who also happens to be a close ally of the prime minister. A few months ago, some questions were raised in the media about the Adani group taking over the Mumbai airport after it also acquired six other airports in India.  But nothing more has emerged about these acquisitions.


We also cannot forget the continuing incarceration of the young stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui. Picked up by the Indore police on January 1 for allegedly hurting religious sentiments (although the police admit they have no evidence to support this), he continues to be in jail along with five other friends. Each application for bail is turned down despite the lack of evidence as this story on the portal Article 14 sets out. And as if that was not enough, he now faces another case from Uttar Pradesh, for allegedly hurting religious sentiments. These are virtually copycat complaints, filed by members of the Sangh Parivar in states run by the BJP.


It is not hard to figure out why Faruqui is being targeted.  Had his name been Suresh or Ramesh or Surinder, would he have received the same treatment? Clearly not.  States like UP and now MP make no bones about sending out a message to all Muslims that they must behave, or else.  They cannot marry or even be seen out with a Hindu girl, and they must not be even suspected of cracking jokes about religion, lack of evidence notwithstanding. Freedom of expression, or freedom of choice, are clearly rights that are available only to some, not all, under these governments.


These two cases, especially that of Faruqui, should have set off alarm bells in this country amongst people who believe that the right to freedom of expression is central to our democratic values.  But sadly, with all else that is happening, this could be one more case that will be forgotten.  And who knows how long Faruqui and friends will languish in jail for a crime they did not commit. They are joining a galaxy of such individuals across India.


Freedom of expression, and freedom of the press, were also the subjects that featured in an important judgement delivered by the Bombay High Court just a day before the warrant against Guha Thakurta.  This was in response to a slew of public interest litigations by a group of former police officers and activists against the "media trial" conducted by some television channels on the Sushant Singh Rajput case.


The 251-page judgement contains much that ought to be debated within the media. It raises important questions about the importance of freedom of expression and how far it can be stretched. It discusses whether the media, particularly the electronic media, has been able to self-regulate as expected.  And it sets out some guidelines for media coverage, especially of cases involving death by suicide as in the Rajput case.


The court singled out two channels, Times Now and Republic, finding their coverage of the case, "prima facie contemptuous" and stated that they played the role of "investigator, prosecutor as well as the judge".  The judgement is scathing when it writes:


"In an attempt to out-smart each other (for reasons which we need not discuss here), these two TV channels started a vicious campaign of masquerading as the crusaders of truth and justice and the saviours of the situation thereby exposing, what in their perception, Mumbai Police had suppressed, caring less for the rights of other stakeholders and throwing the commands of the CrPC and all sense of propriety to the winds."


But that said, the court held that it would not be useful to pursue contempt proceedings against the two channels. Instead it discussed why the guidelines that had already been laid down by the Press Council of India (PCI), on coverage of death by suicide (which apply only to the print media), and the advisory sent out by the News Broadcasters Authority (NBA) last year, were not being followed.


The judgement concludes that the self-regulatory authority set up by the NBA has failed to check the channels that violate these guidelines. It also faults the government for not stepping in despite complaints that clearly related to violations of the provisions of the Programme Code set out under the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act.


It recommends that until such time as a proper and effective way to regulate the electronic media is set up, the PCI guidelines on coverage of cases relating to death by suicide should also apply to the electronic media.  And it also outlines guidelines for the media and that violating these could invite contempt of court. 


It remains to be seen whether such a judgement will tone down the hysterical reportage in some channels on such cases.  However, the question that the media as a whole must discuss is whether courts should be laying down guidelines for media reporting.


In the light of the Faruqui case, I will leave readers with the following passage in the judgement, that quotes from the Supreme Court's ruling in the LIC vs. Manubhai D. Shah (Prof.), reported in (1992) 3 SCC 637.  I believe it has a particular relevance for these times:


"The words ‘freedom of speech and expression’ must, therefore, be broadly construed to include the freedom to circulate one’s views by words of mouth or in writing or through audio-visual instrumentalities. It, therefore, includes the right to propagate one’s views through the print media or through any other communication channel e.g. the radio and the television. Every citizen of this free country, therefore, has the right to air his or her views through the printing and/or the electronic media subject of course to permissible restrictions imposed under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The print media, the radio and the tiny screen play the role of public educators, so vital to the growth of a healthy democracy. Freedom to air one’s views is the lifeline of any democratic institution and any attempt to stifle, suffocate or gag this right would sound a death-knell to democracy and would help usher in autocracy or dictatorship."



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.