Monday, January 24, 2022

When benevolence turns hostile: Why press clubs shouldn’t depend on government patronage

Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on January 20, 2022


The Kashmir Press Club is dead, killed in its infancy. The dramatic events around this have drawn our attention, yet again, to the dire state of media freedom in Kashmir.

How significant is the development around the Kashmir Press Club within the larger story of endangered press freedom in that region?

What happened on January 15 is now well known. First, a group of journalists, reportedly close to the administration, barged into the premises of the press club accompanied with armed personnel (apparently assigned to protect some of these senior journalists) and literally took it over. Then, following the outcry by journalists, including the elected committee that had managed the club, the administration decided that it had become a battleground between “warring” groups and hence must be abolished altogether. On January 17, it cancelled the lease to the space occupied by the club and reverted it to the estates department.

Most non-journalists have little idea what function a press club serves. It is presumed that it is simply a meeting place for journalists, where they also get subsidised food.

Yet, these clubs are not just watering holes. They are also intensely political spaces. Every election for a managing committee is closely fought; journalists group around those who have similar political leanings. This is no secret.

Also, depending on who gets elected, some clubs are proactive on issues like press freedom as well as the welfare of journalists. They also provide a space for open discussion on a range of issues, including politics and culture. As they are usually centrally located, they also turn into alternative offices or meeting places for independent journalists.

Could one envisage something like what happened in Srinagar taking place in say Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai? Perhaps not. But one factor is common to all these institutions. They function out of spaces provided by the government. That makes them vulnerable to pressure from governments, direct or indirect.

This kind of government patronage was extended at a time when it was viewed as benign and not a lever that governments would use to get the media to fall in line. But even in the best of times, this was a fine line, and the journalists managing these spaces were well aware of the risks.

In the context of Kashmir, there have been attempts in the past to set up a press club with mixed results as reported by Rayan Naqash in this piece in Newslaundry. In each attempt, the key factor was whether the government of the day was willing to allocate space for such an institution.

In 2018, the government led by Mehbooba Mufti finally allocated a space. Perhaps if Kashmir's status had not changed so dramatically on August 5, 2019 when Article 370 was read down, the club would have been just another institution. But since then, its importance for local journalists has grown.

On August 5, 2019, all journalists were suddenly deprived of the basic tools of their trade, access to the internet. Although this was partially restored, journalists were compelled to work from a crowded government-run media centre. Once the internet ban was completely lifted, journalists found the Kashmir Press Club an ideal base from where they could work and interact with other journalists.

The media in Kashmir has been under pressure on many fronts including financial, as I outlined in an earlier column. Many publications have either closed, or reduced their staff. The majority of publications that have survived now toe the government line given their dependence on government advertising.

In this scenario, younger journalists have been left with no option but to operate as freelancers or stringers, writing for multiple publications in India and abroad as and when they can sell a story. For them a space where they can work, get access to the internet, and also meet other journalists is essential. The press club provided that and became something of a hub for independent journalists, including many women journalists.

Yet, the closure of the Kashmir Press Club is only a small part of the larger story of how systematically, the media has been forced to fall in line. As one editor told me, “Journalism in Kashmir has been criminalised; it is virtually on its deathbed.”

But unlike the outcry about the closure of the press club – with strong statements by the Editors' Guild of India and several press clubs including Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai as well as journalists' unions – we hardly find statements of solidarity for the Kashmiri journalists who are harassed, interrogated, surveilled and jailed, for no other crime except that they are doing their jobs.

Take the latest case, that of Sajad Gul, an independent journalist and media student, who was picked up by the police from his home on January 5 and detained. His crime apparently was posting a video on social media of women shouting anti-government slogans after an encounter between security forces and a militant. Even as he got bail in this case, he was arrested again for an earlier case under the draconian Public Safety Act, under which he can be held without trial for at least six months.

Gul has had several run-ins with the police in the past for his stories. Like him, many journalists are interrogated on the phone shortly after they file a story, or share information on social media that the administration finds offensive. But Gul's arrest takes that level of almost routinised surveillance and intimidation to another level.

What about the growing band of women journalists, many of whom are being recognised and rewarded for their work in Kashmir under these circumstances? Read this wrenching piece by Quratulain Rehbar describing the challenges she faces as an independent woman journalist:

“Even though you know about the intimidation of journalists that happens in Kashmir, and are aware of your colleagues going through the same or worse, nothing prepares you for your own interrogation. They ask for your name, the name of your parents, and how many people are there in your family. They asked me, ‘What is your ideology? Who do you write for? How much do you earn? How many brothers do you have? Has anyone gone to Pakistan? What’s your Facebook ID?' For someone with elderly parents and two brothers, these questions are chilling. It is a nightmare that you never wake up from.”

Incidentally, Rehbar was one of the over 100 Muslim women who were targeted by the misogynistic, Islamophobic and dehumanising "Bulli Bai" app that sought to "auction" them by using their social media profiles.

Or read about the experience of Anuradha Bhasin who runs one of Kashmir's oldest newspapers, Kashmir Times. Bhasin challenged the internet shutdown by filing a case in the Supreme Court. In October 2020, the estates department, without notice or explanation, locked up her Srinagar office which operated from Press Colony.

Since then, she has struggled to keep her newspaper afloat. The central government had already stopped advertisements for the paper. After Bhasin moved the Supreme Court on the internet ban in 2019, even state government advertising vanished. As a result, the newspaper has shrunk to just eight pages. Her paper remains one of the diminishing critical voices in the state.

Although Bhasin too is pessimistic about the future of journalism in Kashmir, she says that there is some hope because of the quality of the younger journalists who, despite the intimidation, have continued to write and report.

These developments in Kashmir around the media should be a wake up call for the rest of us. If a government can arbitrarily take back what it gives, by way of offices, residences, or club premises, what is to stop other governments in the rest of the country resorting to the same tactics?

It has been clear for some time that the Modi government believes that the media is free to do what it wants as long as it sings only one tune. And by choice, or due to financial compulsions, most of the media has already done that. In Kashmir, the centre has gone a step further and experimented with additional ways to make this happen. In addition to the arrest and intimidation of journalists, the arbitrary closure of the Kashmir Press Club is an extension of this experiment.

Perhaps this is as good a time as any for press clubs in India that believe they have a role beyond being meeting places for journalists to think of alternative ways to fund themselves and not be dependent on government patronage. Given the developments in Kashmir, there is no guarantee that this apparent benevolence will not turn hostile in the future.


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

How a section of media passes off the government’s ‘official version’ of events as news gathering

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on January 7, 2022


Even as the rising numbers of people infected by Covid-19 is once again front-page news, we have before us another example of how easily mainstream media amplifies the official version of an event.

I am referring to reports about the “massive security breach” in Punjab on January 5. The story is still unraveling.

However, there are some aspects of the coverage in print media that are in some ways similar to the so-called ”botched” security operation in Oting in Nagaland's Mon district on December 4 that resulted in the death of 14 civilians.

The similarities are not the details. They lie in the ease with which mainstream media reproduces the official version of an event without so much as a question mark or quotation marks. It takes several days for other versions of the event to appear, if at all. By then, the majority of readers have already made up their minds about what happened based on the initial reports. (Tellingly, some newspapers did start using quotation marks around the phrase “security breach” two days later or adding the word “alleged”.)

In the case of the prime minister's cavalcade being stranded on a flyover on its way to the National Martyrs Memorial at Hussainiwala in Punjab, the similarities in the front-page stories on January 6 is startling. The outlier, as usual, is the Telegraph which states an opinion in its choice of headline – “Hubris waylaid, Modi goes back” – and then the lead story, “Beating a retreat with 'zinda laut paaya' parting shot'”.

While the Hindu modifies the “security breach” phrase in its front-page headline by attributing it to union home minister Amit Shah – “PM's car caught in Punjab stir; unacceptable breach, says Shah” – the Indian Express uses the phrase as a given, even without quote marks: “Security breach leaves PM stranded on flyover in Punjab; bid to harm him: BJP”. Similarly the Times of India leads with “In security breach, PM stuck on Punjab flyover for 20 min”.

The point here is not whether what happened qualifies as a security breach or not. That is being investigated. But when you have on record the chief minister of the state in which this has happened explaining what happened, and the protesting farmers who apparently led to the hold up giving a different version, is it not legitimate to question?

When you don't have reporters on the spot who could have verified what actually happened, do you automatically go by the official version, particularly at a time when politics in Punjab is so polarised as it heads for an election? Or do you make an effort to get other perspectives?

When it comes to the prime minister, or anything on our borders, the mainstream Indian media has a long tradition of initially going by the official version. Rarely is this even questioned, unless evidence to the contrary is so obvious that it is unavoidable. As happened in Oting, when one of the miners who survived the shooting by the army clearly stated that they were shot at without warning. Reporters who have tried to raise questions have had a tough time surviving in mainstream media.

Another curious aspect of the January 5 incident in Punjab is what the prime minister is supposed to have said to “some officials” as he returned to Delhi from Bathinda. This is what the ANI news agency quoted him as saying, “Apne CM ko thanks kehna, ki mein Bhatinda airport tak zinda laut paaya.” Say thanks to your CM, tell him I managed to get back alive to Bathinda airport.

The Indian Express used the quote in its front-page story while attributing it to ANI. Neither the Hindu nor Times of India used it. The reasons are fairly obvious. Who were these “officials” to whom the PM said this? Was it said on camera? Was the reporter present to take down the precise quote? There is a basic rule in journalism that if you use a direct quote, you attribute it to someone. And if that someone wishes to remain anonymous, you say so.

The importance of those words is becoming evident as it is flogged by BJP leaders in statements and press conferences. Additionally, we now have to watch the spectacle of BJP chief ministers, like Shivraj Chauhan of Madhya Pradesh, urging people to chant the Maha Mrityunjaya Jaap for the PM's long life. And, of course, TV channels have gone to town on this, with some reading into the incident a conspiracy to kill the PM.

It is also striking that while several English language papers either did not use this quote at all, or chose not to amplify it, the Hindi newspapers highlighted it and made it their main headline on their front pages.

There is little doubt that this will now be the main discourse around the January 5 incident, although there is no evidence so far that there was an actual threat to the life of the prime minister. But in election season, who cares about such details? The narrative is in place.

Before the Punjab drama, we had another major story breaking in the New Year, that of an app called “Bulli Bai” that sought to “auction” over 100 Muslim women, including leading journalists and activists.

Significantly, although most of mainstream television predictably ignored this shocking, misogynistic and Islamophobic attack on Muslim women, one that mirrored a similar incident in July last year called “Sulli Deals”, at least some in print media did take note. Stories were done in the Hindu, Telegraph, Indian Express and Times of India. The women targeted were quoted; their experiences of what this breach of their privacy meant in their lives was reported. And strong editorials were written urging that action be taken in Indian Express and the Hindu.

Although social media was abuzz with this news, and many of the independent digital media platforms as well as YouTube channels did focus on this (read here, here, here, and here), I would argue that mainstream print media recognising this as an issue that cannot be pushed under the carpet has helped put pressure on the police to track down the perpetrators.

It is possible that the Delhi police, which reports directly to the union home ministry, was shamed this time into acting not only because the Mumbai police moved with alacrity and tracked down three people connected to the app within a few days, but also because major print media outlets singled out its indifferent attitude.

Last year, when the Muslim women targeted by the “Sulli Deals” app approached the Delhi police, practically nothing was done. The Hindu was trenchantly critical of the Delhi police when it wrote in its editorial: “It is indeed baffling that the Delhi police, that is expected to play a critical role in securing the lives of all important functionaries of the country, threw their hands up when faced with the challenge of identifying some random imposters on social media. Such a level of incompetence or connivance is ominous.”

The significance of such an intervention is that the outrage does not remain a bubble on social media. This time, apart from these legacy media, several international news outlets have also reported on it. Together this has led to the kind of pressure that ought to have been exerted even last year, when the first despicable attempts to demean Muslim women were made.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Media takeaways from 2021: What the government wants you to remember, and what it doesn’t

Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on December 23, 2021



As 2021 winds down, there are images that remain seared in our collective memories of this year.

Most vivid, and eviscerating, are those of funeral pyres and half-buried bodies on the banks of the Ganga as the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic raged through the country, killing in its wake lakhs of people. Many died unattended as hospitals ran out of oxygen. Others were not even counted as Covid deaths because they never made it to a hospital in time. Of those who succumbed to the virus, some got decent burials and cremations; others were left on the banks of rivers.

The photographers who captured these visuals need to be recognised and thanked. For these images cannot be wished away however hard the government might try and make us forget. Let us remember especially Danish Siddiqui, the brave Reuters photojournalist who was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in July. His photographs of the pandemic remain an unforgettable record of those terrible months.

Of course, if the Modi government had its way, the defining image of 2021 would be that of the prime minister inaugurating the Kashi Vishwanath Dham corridor on December 13. For two days, television channels gave wall-to-wall coverage of Modi carrying out Hindu religious rituals in a highly choreographed event. Not a word of scepticism appeared in the media as every move of the PM was recorded, often with breathless reverence.

While we have come to expect nothing less from Indian television channels, one had hoped that at least the print media would show a little more balance. Yet, in newspaper after newspaper, we were greeted first with the gaudy full-page advertisements issued by the UP government, predictably with the mug shots of both the PM and the UP chief minister, followed by the real page one (relegated to page five) with the same photographs of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham corridor.

There had already been a build up to the event by way of articles such as this in Fortune India calling the corridor “The Highway to Heaven”. We know how much was spent on the project, an estimated Rs 399 crore of taxpayers' money. But the question that must also be asked is how much was spent on the publicity leading up to its inauguration given that many newspapers carried full-page advertisements on the day of the inauguration.

Only a couple of newspapers gave us another side of the story, the unhappiness of the people whose land was forcibly acquired, such as this story. But such reports were drowned out by the adulatory tone of most of the reports in print and on TV.

As if this was not enough, barely a week later, the foundation stone for a road was laid in UP, once again by the prime minister. This time too the UP government took either the front page, or a couple of pages inside, in several leading newspapers. The ads boasted of the state government's achievements even though the announcement was about a road yet to be constructed.

The UP government advertisement story is best illustrated by its full-page ads announcing the foundation stone laying of a new airport at Jewar, Noida, by the prime minister. There were claims that it would be the biggest airport in the region with a capacity to handle seven crore passengers annually. That apparently is untrue as there are already seven airports in Asia with that capacity.

What is more, the image used to announce the new airport was that of Beijing's Daxing airport, called out once again on social media and by fact-check sites. If the UP government is spending so much money on ads, how is it that it doesn't have the competence to create advertisements that cannot be called out so easily? In fact, these ads are a good case for the Advertising Standards Council of India, which looks into complaints about advertising making wrong claims, to take up.

Apart from the look and content of such ads, there is another dimension that needs to be addressed about this sudden upsurge in government advertising in print media.

In the last year in particular, regular readers of print would have noticed the absence of consumer goods advertisements. In cities like Mumbai, for years the front pages of several newspapers displayed ads by builders advertising luxury apartments affordable to only a minuscule minority in this richest Indian city. Such ads are rarely seen today. Instead, the majority of the big ads in major newspapers are from governments, both central and state.

Those of us who have spent our entire journalistic careers in print media know of the influence that private sector advertisers had on content. From the 1990s, when the economic boom also led to more consumer goods advertising in print, it was not unknown for a representative of a multinational or a private corporation speaking directly to the owners of a newspaper if the company came across critical reports, or stories sympathetic to workers and their unions. The owners/editors would more often than not oblige by either removing such news or toning it down. Advertising was essential. It paid everyone's salaries, and brought in profits.

Much of that has changed now with the downturn in the economy. These companies wield less influence because they do not have the funds to release ads in newspapers. Also, their advertising budgets are focused on television, which has a much larger reach than print.

As a result, newspapers are in trouble. You can see it in the diminished number of pages each day when you get your favourite newspaper in the morning. And it is evident in the growing dependence on government ads.

If any of these governments were to decide that the particular newspaper was writing too much critical stuff, they could easily pull back their ads. The message would be clear. No newspaper, even the best resourced, can turn down government advertising today.

If this trend continues, we might just see the withering away of print media in India. Already many multi-edition newspapers have cut down on editions. Several magazines have stopped print editions and are only online.

Would the diminishing of print media be a blow to the media in India? Perhaps not, given that the majority of people access news through television and increasingly on digital platforms.

Yet we forget, as Aakar Patel points out in his book Price of the Modi Years, the biggest resource newspapers have is the beat reporter, a person who has feet on the ground and is able to get information that would otherwise remain unrecorded. During these Covid times, such reporters have been invaluable in documenting the full story of what was happening. Digital platforms like Scroll and Newslaundry have had to raise funds to assign people to do this kind of coverage that would be routinely done by newspapers. No independent digital platform can afford to hire the number of reporters needed to do extensive news coverage.

The importance of such reporting is self-evident. Without it, we would be left with government propaganda on the one hand, and the barrage of opinion and noise that has come to represent primetime news on television, on the other.

As we look ahead to 2022, is it inevitable that the only source of revenue that even the bigger newspapers can count on is government advertising? If that is the case, can we then say goodbye to the few spaces remaining for critical writing and investigative reporting?

It is a grim thought but one that must be noted. Today, it is some print and digital platforms that are still able to do what the media ought to be doing in a democracy. If these spaces were to be flattened or curtailed, it would be impossible to describe the media in India as independent and free.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

Big Media’s coverage of Northeast India has never been adequate, but now it’s worse

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on December 9 2021


Oting, Mon district. Before December 4, few would have known of the existence of this tiny village in Nagaland's eastern province of Mon, home to the Konyak tribe. But since late afternoon of that day, in a region where the sun sets earlier than the rest of the country in these winter months, six men were shot down and two seriously injured as they made their way to their village after a day of back-breaking work in the coal mines.

It is difficult, but not impossible, to reach Oting. A day later, at least one major media house invested in sending its reporter to the village. The reports by Tora Agarwala of Indian Express, placed as the first lead on the front page, are an example of how this story should be told. Not as the “botched army operation” that most mainstream media reported in the immediate aftermath. But a story with names, faces, context and history that will inform and touch readers.

The very fact that I am pointing this out is in itself a story – one that people in Nagaland and across the northeast constantly reiterate. That the media on the “mainland”, as they refer to the rest of India, reports sporadically and superficially about their region, as I have mentioned in an earlier column.

Distance and inaccessibility cannot be an excuse anymore. The northeast region is now well connected by air and rail. Mobile connectivity has shrunk further the distance. But the real distance is not a physical one; it is a mental one. It is an inability to take the time to understand the multi-layered and complex history of a region that is lumped into one only because of its geographical location. In fact, each state, and even within states, there are distinct and overlapping histories that form the context of current developments.

Tora Agarwala's stories give us the names of some of the 14 civilians who died on December 4 and 5. She reached Oting within a day of the incident. Her first report appeared on the front page of Indian Express on December 6. She told us about Langwang and Thapwang, identical twins who were shot and killed that day. They were 25 years old.

There is also the story of Hokup, who was married to Monglong just 10 days before he was killed, as reported in Morung Express, a daily newspaper published from Dimapur. His widow told the reporter, “I want the world to know that my husband was neither a terrorist nor a militant.”

Perhaps the most important story by Agarwala appeared on the front page of Indian Express on December 8. She spoke to 23-year-old Sheiwang, one of two who survived the attack. He is quoted as saying "Direct marise...they shot right at us, no signal to stop, we did not flee.” This was said a day after home minister Amit Shah made a statement in Parliament calling it an “unfortunate incident” and claimed that the vehicle was “signaled to stop” but that it “tried to flee”. Sheiwang's statement, and others that have followed, have painted a starkly different picture of the incident.

Sheiwang survived the attack but the way he and Yeihwang, the other survivor, were left at the Assam Medical College and Hospital in Dibrugarh, as reported by Agarwala, is shocking. They were brought there by security forces with no explanation about who they were. Their identities were unearthed because the hospital staff, on their own initiative, uploaded their photographs on social media after they heard about Oting. That's how their relatives came to know and were able to attend to them.

These stories remind us that so-called “botched” army operations, and admission of “mistaken identity” after the fact, involve real people who are not statistics.

These stories are just the beginning of the unraveling of what really happened. There are still many questions that remain unanswered. There is also an important context connected to Nagaland’s political history that needs to be understood to fully comprehend why and how these killings happened. This piece by Dolly Kikon, a Naga academic whose research has included Mon district, provides that.

Nagaland might be a “disturbed area” in official parlance but in fact, people in the state have been living peacefully for several decades. There have been agreements and ceasefires. There are incidents of intermittent clashes between factions of militant groups with the security forces. But this has not been the dominant feature of life in the state.

So, the question that still needs to be asked, and answered, is why a special group of commandos from the army set out to ambush a suspected group of militants without taking into confidence either the local police or the Assam Rifles based in Mon. There will be speculation but whether we will ever get the real story is doubtful, given past experience. Meantime, the focus has now shifted to demands for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

As far as media coverage of the Oting killings is concerned, barring Indian Express, there was practically no other major newspaper that invested in basic newsgathering or sending a reporter to the area. Even the Telegraph, published from Kolkata, did not carry ground reports. Independent digital platforms like Scroll, Print and Wire did have reports.

This indicates a marked change in the coverage of the northeast that has never been adequate, even in the best of times. A couple of decades back, major newspapers had correspondents in Assam and at least one other northeastern state, such as Manipur. They also encouraged these reporters to travel to the different states and report directly about developments there. As a result, for those of us on the “mainland” who were interested in the region, we could read granular coverage in major Indian newspapers.

Today, if you want detailed news, the only option is to turn to the online editions of newspapers from the region or digital platforms like East Mojo to get the news. The northeast appears only if there is a major natural calamity, or if there is an incident like the one in Oting, and then disappears.

Although the situation is very different in Kashmir, there are some parallels. In Kashmir, since the 1990s, most major Indian media houses have hired local journalists to write for them. Before that, Delhi-based correspondents would be sent if there was a major development, the typical “parachute” journalists.

Today, despite the difficulties Kashmiri journalists face every day, we get to read about developments directly from people based in the region. Not so in the northeast. Although newspapers have correspondents in Guwahati, they do not travel in the region as they did in the past. Nor do they have a network of reporters in other states who could send stories. The poor coverage of Oting is only one of several examples of such neglect.

To get a fuller picture not just of events, but also of what people think and of the background, there is no option but to read the local papers online. Nagaland Post, for instance, carried a strong editorial on December 5 headlined “Black December”. Another local paper, Nagaland Page, carried the full text of a report prepared by the citizens of Oting on the incident. It is full of anguish and anger, and states that no groups or parties, or members of the armed forces will be permitted to enter Oting indefinitely. “For we are warriors by blood and origin, and no force can intimidate us.”

Also, despite being heavily dependent on government advertising, these papers still report about such atrocities and other human rights violations involving the armed forces or the government.

Unfortunately in Kashmir, since August 5, 2019, the local press has been bludgeoned into submission through a combination of intimidation and cutting off the only dependable stream of revenue, government advertising. This is something I plan to visit in another column.

The reports on Oting so far are only the beginning of the real story. There is much more to unearth, not just about the incident, but about the history of the fragile peace in Nagaland and the real costs of trying to impose a resolution to the decades long conflict through the use of force and the AFSPA.

Monday, November 29, 2021

From Narmada Bachao Andolan to farmer protests: Why the media must record history

Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on November 25, 2021



In his usual dramatic style, prime minister Narendra Modi pulled another rabbit from his topi on November 19.

After a year of ignoring the thousands of farmers protesting at the gates of the national capital, demanding the repeal of the three farm laws rammed through parliament by his government, after dismissing their agitation as nothing more than one that was instigated by "andolan jeevi", people who live for protests, he conceded. The laws are being repealed.

While the debate after the announcement has centered on the motives behind the climb-down, and the lessons all political parties can derive from the determination shown by the farmers, another question that must be asked is what lessons the media can learn from the way we covered this remarkable, and historic, civil movement.

With a media obsessively focused on “breaking news” and dramatic events, something as long lasting, and peaceful, as this protest poses a challenge precisely because it is not one, or even a series of events. It is the result of processes that include the state of agriculture and decades of frustration.

When we look back at this year, what viewers and readers are likely to recall in relation to the farmers' protest is a handful of events, such as the standoff between the Delhi police and some of the farmers on Republic Day this year, and how one group climbed the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi and raised a flag. Or images of traffic jams on the day the Samyukta Kisan Morcha called for a nationwide bandh.

The result of this kind of bits-and-pieces reporting is that only the spectacular, the violent, the confrontationist, remains in memory whereas the core of this remarkable movement might be erased from public memory.

What will be forgotten, because it was barely reported, was the amazing diversity represented in those who stayed the course over this year. They were women and men from several states, not just Punjab. Many came to show their solidarity. Yet many stayed on. Their stories are worth recording. A few diligent reporters, mostly outside the mainstream from independent digital platforms like Newslaundry, have done just that.

Also, early on the protesters were clear that they could not depend on mainstream media to tell their story. So, they set up their own digital website, Trolley Times.

There were so many stories to tell: the way this protest was organised, that it remained peaceful, that people were fed and housed, that medical aid was available, as this piece by Priya Ramani illustrates.

And let's not forget the women. They were not just helpers, making rotis and being in the background. They assumed leadership roles that only a few in the mainstream media noted.

Fortunately, after Modi's announcement, some in the media made an effort to provide adequate background to readers. The most notable was the November 20 edition of the Indian Express that reported not just the announcement but also provided readers with background of all aspects of the struggle.

And, of course, Ravish Kumar in his primetime programme on NDTV India, who gave us the visuals that we should always remember, including the extent to which the Delhi police went to prevent the protesters from entering the city by digging up the road, embedding spikes, and barricading them with huge containers.

It is not always easy to report on something that continues for so many months. How do you find new angles? Besides, how many media organisations are prepared to assign such movements as a legitimate beat for their reporters? I had discussed in a previous column, marking 300 days of the farmers' protest, the challenges journalists face in covering large civil society gatherings.

A similar challenge faced us decades ago when we reported on one of the longest civil society movements of recent times: the struggle against the big dams on the Narmada River and, specifically, the Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat.

The movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, was launched in 1985. It began with demanding proper rehabilitation for the people who would be affected by the dam. But in the face of refusal by the Gujarat government to even discuss this, it went on to oppose the construction of the dam.

The NBA successfully mobilised the tribal communities that would be most affected. It also asked questions about the environmental costs of the dam that would submerge many hectares of primary forests. The movement was one of the first to question developmental policies from the environmental perspective. Until then, large and grandiose projects were celebrated as great achievements in a developing country.

For the journalists covering this movement, there were many dimensions that needed to be understood. The perspective of the tribal communities who would be most affected by submergence, for instance. These were people who had lived for decades with developmental neglect such as lack of roads, medical care, education, sources of livelihood, etc. What little they could eke out from their lands and the forests was also being taken from them.

The counter story was India's need for electricity and water for irrigation. It was argued that only if projects were built on this scale could this be done and the collateral, in terms of submergence, was unavoidable.

This was a time when print dominated the media. We did not have 24/7 news channels. Hence, reporters and photographers had to tell this story. And like the farmers' protest, although there were a few dramatic events, the main story consisted of understanding and reporting on the reasons for the resistance, the extent of the impacts of the project, and the stands taken on both sides.

The movement, led by Medha Patkar and her team, did not succeed in stopping the Sardar Sarovar Dam from being built. But the protests drew international attention, and led to serious rethinking in the World Bank about funding such projects in the future.

The fact that even mainstream media houses sent out reporters and photographers to cover this protest played no small role in this. Without that kind of documentation, the movement might have been restricted to the specific areas where people had been mobilised, mostly well away from media centres.

When we look back, it is striking how many journalists followed the story over many years and their news organisations gave them the space to do so. It was an education in how the other half in this country survives. Going to those sites of submergence, seeing the conditions in which the tribal communities lived, understanding their continual struggle for basic survival was a lesson in understanding poverty and misguided developmental policies.

The tragedy is that even those villages that escaped submergence in these tribal districts, because they were on higher ground, continue to suffer neglect in terms of basic health care, education or road connectivity. In all these decades, little has been done to change this reality.

In this 2015 article, "Chronicle of a struggle retold" in the Hindu, sociologist Shiv Visvanathan beautifully encapsulates the decades of struggle by the NBA. He writes, "If you were to ask a middle class person today what the most significant act of history in India of the last 20 years is, most would say this – the rise of Narendra Modi. But to me, the most important historical event of the last two decades has been the battle over the Narmada dam."

The article is a calendar of events starting in 1961 when Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone of the Sardar Sarovar Project to December 2000, when 350 people trying to present a memorandum to the Chief Justice of India in Delhi about the project were arrested. The most memorable was the Narmada Sangharsh Yatra in December 1990, which was stopped by the Gujarat police at Ferkuva on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. For those, including journalists, who want to get a glimpse of this long and peaceful civil society movement, Visvanathan's article is a vivid summary.

The lands and the forests of the tribals who lived on the banks of the Narmada are gone. The benefits of the irrigation and electricity generated by the project have not accrued to them. But their story has been documented – in films, in books, in newspaper articles.

The farmers who are protesting are not leaving yet. But their story, and that of their movement, awaits similar documentation. Doing this is not being partisan. It is what we ought to be doing. Recording history as it takes place, so that future generations will know why and how thousands of women and men, who grow the food we eat, chose to sit it out on New Delhi's borders in the heat, in the rain, in the cold for a year.


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

From Tripura to climate change, mainstream media needs feet on the ground to report on what’s happening

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on November 11, 2021


All of us should be very worried about what’s happening in Tripura. If people are unaware of recent events that have taken place there, the mainstream media in India is to blame.

Bits and pieces of news have trickled out, initially only on social media, since October 26 when mobs led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad reportedly attacked several mosques and Muslim-owned businesses in the state. This was ostensibly in retaliation for the recent violence against Hindus in Bangladesh.

Why would people in Tripura respond so violently to events in the neighbouring country? Most people are ignorant about the northeastern states in general and, in this instance, about Tripura. We do not know its past or its close links with Bangladesh with which it shares a 856-km border. Despite its history, the state has not seen Hindu-Muslim clashes. The main arena of conflict has been between the tribals and non-tribals. You have to look hard for such information in mainstream media. Yet, as with all such communal conflagrations, there is a specific history as explained in this informative article by Samrat X in Newslaundry.

While the violence itself was worrying, as reported in some detail by Al Jazeera, what has followed is even more troubling. It represents yet another instance of a government, this time the state government in Tripura, weaponising laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to curb any questioning or dissent. In what was an extraordinary and totally unjustified move, the state government slapped UAPA charges against 102 individuals including lawyers, journalists and ordinary people posting on social media that the state was literally “burning”. For stating this, the government came down with a sledgehammer.

According to a statement issued by the Editors’ Guild of India, “One of the journalists, Shyam Meera Singh, has alleged that he has been booked under UAPA for merely tweeting ‘Tripura is burning’. This is an extremely disturbing trend where such a harsh law, wherein the processes of investigation and bail applications are extremely rigorous and overbearing, is being used for merely reporting on and protesting against communal violence.”

As Indian Express pointed out in its editorial, “this appears to be a part of the playbook of heavy-handedness that has been perfected by governments. This involves the twisting of stringent laws such as the UAPA or the sedition law to quell dissent or intimidate anyone who contests or might contest the state’s version.”

As far as the media is concerned, what we are seeing in Tripura is not new. It is a pattern that is unfolding in many states, particularly those governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Enough has been written about this and yet it does not seem to discourage more governments from following this trend.

An article in the US-based Nation magazine goes as far as to state that India has “become a very dangerous place to be a journalist.” Not all journalists; only those that do their job of questioning the state.

The article quotes the findings from a recent survey of the media in India by the Polis Project called “Watch the State”. It reveals that between May 2019 and August 2021, “256 journalists were attacked for doing their job. The police appear to be the main perpetrators in BJP-ruled states, in Jammu and Kashmir, and in Delhi, where they directly report to the ministry of home affairs. The BJP-ruled states are in general significantly more dangerous for journalists than others.”

Even if some people might conclude that this an overstatement, consider this, from the same article: Unesco has ranked India as the “sixth-most dangerous country for journalism in the world, after Afghanistan, Mexico, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen.”

So, yes, Tripura is another warning to the media and all critics of the current dispensation, both at the centre and in several states.

Apart from the dangers journalists face just doing their jobs, Tripura illustrates another malaise in the media: the virtual absence of reporting on many regions, and on many subjects, until disaster strikes. I have argued in earlier columns that media houses are just not investing in news gathering. Stories like the developments in Tripura cannot be written by referring to news agency reports and adding a little bit to them. You need feet on the ground to describe, to report, to verify the developments, and to background them.

Such reporting is missing on a whole range of issues, including environmental reporting. This is more than evident in the background of the COP26, the international gathering discussing climate change in Glasgow. While some news organisations have sent reporters to cover the conference, most newspapers have limited their coverage to reports about what either the Indian prime minister or other heads of state said during the two-day summit. The real substance of the negotiations have taken place after the politicians left. There is little original reporting on that.

Politicians make promises on the international stage. They are lauded or criticised. But in this instance, the real test is how these pronouncements will play out in the context of a particular country.

In India, while the volume of reporting about climate change has increased in recent months, according to the Media and Climate Change Observatory, the quality is what really matters. The reports that appear, apart from quoting politicians, are based on studies and reports by international bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But you have to work hard to find stories that tell us how people are affected, who is at the receiving end of the many impacts of global warming, and whether the steps the government has been taking are adequate.

One website that is focused entirely on environmental issues is The Third Pole. In this article, Omair Ahmed sums up the issue precisely when he writes: “Climate change has a real, powerful impact on billions of people, most of whom do not know or do not use that particular term. It is the story of thirst, poverty, hunger, deprivation and conflict caused by changes to the environment on which they depend for their lives and livelihoods. And like most things political, it is about money, how we make it, and how we distribute it.”

There you have it. Climate change is a developing story that covers all aspects of life on earth. And in India, the impacts are already being felt with 100 districts identified as being particularly vulnerable. From changes in the monsoon patterns to flash floods causing widespread destruction, almost every day there is a story to be reported of communities who survive, and those who don’t.

This is what we in the media need to be doing.

There was a time in the 1990s when several newspapers had designated environmental correspondents. Reporting on environmental issues requires specialised knowledge. Only then can a reporter covering what appears to be a natural disaster make the connections. For the ordinary reader to understand what we really mean by climate change, these linkages have to be conveyed.

This is not always easy as there are many complexities. The problems arising from global warming cannot be presented as binaries, something the media, particularly television, loves to do by pitting opposite viewpoints to create a “big fight”. And the solutions are equally complex.

There is nothing left to debate about climate change. It is here. Governments are being compelled to take it seriously. So must the media. Our job remains to inform, alert, and question.

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Big Media as a public watchdog: No bark, no bite

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on October 28, 2021


The media in India has much to celebrate this week with the Supreme Court ruling on October 27 in the Pegasus case. Of particular interest to us in the media is what the court has underlined about the importance of the freedom of the press. To quote:

"It is undeniable that surveillance and the knowledge that one is under threat of being spied upon can affect the way an individual decides to exercise his or her rights. Such a scenario might result in self-censorship. This is of particular concern when it relates to the freedom of the press...Such a chilling effect on the freedom of speech is an assault on the vital public-watchdog role of the press, which may undermine the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information.”

The key phrase in the quote above is “public-watchdog role of the press”. The question we must ask is how much of the mainstream Indian media truly accepts this as its fundamental role, and how much of it has decided that its primary role is to be a cheerleader for the government or party in power.

Look at the editions of newspapers across languages of October 22. Across the board, in newspapers in many different languages, the lead on the edit page had identical pieces, all written by the same person: India's prime minister.

Narendra Modi was accorded pride of place for an article that spoke of the tremendous achievement of “team India” in crossing the one billion mark of Covid-19 vaccinations. The front pages of all these papers also carried reports on this singular achievement with some embellishing it with their own reportage about the difficulties frontline workers faced in reaching people who needed to be vaccinated. These reports also quoted the prime minister expressing sentiments that were similar to those that appeared in the article purportedly written by him.

What's wrong with that, you might ask? Surely one billion jabs is a great achievement? And if the prime minister of a country sends an article to a newspaper, how can any self-respecting editor refuse?

Except that most newspapers insist that what you send to them for their edit pages has to be exclusive to them. If you are sending out a statement to all media, it is a press release. Normally, that would be used as a part of a report, with relevant quotes from it. But rarely, if ever, have all leading newspapers carried the identical article as their lead on their edit page.

Articles on the edit page are also vetted for accuracy, and mistakes are edited out with the consent of the writer. No such thing was done with this piece. Hence, the prime minister claimed that India was the first country to achieve this milestone. However, that is not true. China hit this target a while back without making a song and dance about it and currently stands at 2.2 billion doses.

The prime minister also claimed that this target had been achieved through "Made in India" vaccines, calling this a paradigm shift. This too is not accurate. Previous vaccination campaigns, such as that of the polio vaccine, were also "Made in India". In the case of the Covid-19 vaccine, the most widely used one was manufactured in India by the Serum Institute of India, but is based on the research done in Oxford University and patented by Astra-Zeneca. The fully Indian-made vaccine, Covaxin by Bharat Biotech, has yet to be cleared by the World Health Organisation.

Perhaps all this is nit-picking, details that should not take away from the glory. Yet, should the mainstream media have added to the hype on that day without questioning why it was necessary given that in terms of the percentage of our population that is fully vaccinated it is only around 30 percent? Was it not obvious that the celebrations were planned to make people forget the ugly reality of the gross mismanagement of the second wave of the pandemic, illustrated by those haunting images of the half buried bodies on the banks of the Ganga?

As Churumuri, the pseudonym used by senior journalist Krishna Prasad, wrote sarcastically on Twitter: "One nation, one edit piece: 453,076 Indians have died due to COVID in the last 19 months; thousands more have been deemed too inconvenient to be counted. The opinion pages of today’s newspapers pay a united tribute to them through a prolific leader-writer."

I asked someone senior in one of the newspapers that I had expected might have held back from following the herd why they did not resist. The answer was two words: "government advertising".

This year, there has been a noticeable increase in government advertising in print media. On any day of the week, newspaper readers are deprived of a traditional front page. Page one is now page three, or even five. The majority of government ads are either of the central government, always with the prime minister's face on them, or from the Uttar Pradesh government bearing large photographs of both the prime minister and UP chief minister Adityanath.

Clearly, this spurt of government advertising is not motivated by lack of coverage of government achievements. Far from it. Most mainstream media uncritically cover statements and occasions marking the "achievements" of most governments. Some years ago, Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi government in New Delhi felt compelled to release ads about the work they had done to upgrade government schools and medical facilities because the media gave them very little coverage.

That is not the case now.

With the downturn in the economy, no newspaper can afford to lose any advertising, leave alone this abundance of government advertising. It follows, then, that even newspapers that have asserted their independence from the government narrative by writing critically, and exposing shortcomings in government policy implementation, would not be in a position to turn down a mass-produced edit page article that lands in the editor's mailbox from the prime minister's office. The possibility of advertising being cut off is not a theoretical construct; it has happened repeatedly as a way for the government to express its disapproval.

A few newspapers did attempt some kind of balancing act by writing mildly critical editorials. The Indian Express also devoted a full page with stories about "the foot soldiers" who ensured that vaccinations reached the areas that are hard to reach. The Hindu ran an edit page article a few days later by Congress president Sonia Gandhi countering some of what Modi had stated in his piece.

However, what was missed out in all the celebratory fluff, even that commending these frontline workers and describing their efforts, was that these stories actually illustrated a more basic situation, one that is ongoing irrespective of the pandemic and that has not been addressed. Millions of Indians still live out of reach of healthcare facilities. If teams can go to such lengths to administer the Covid-19 vaccine, why can't the government ensure that these communities have basic healthcare within their reach at all times?

Within days of the prime minister's multiple op-ed pieces being published, this report appeared in a Mumbai paper, Mid-day, describing the reality facing communities living just 60 km away from India's financial capital. The report describes how a 36-year-old woman from Kayri village in Jawahar taluka of Palghar district in Maharashtra died in the process of being shunted from the primary health centre, to the sub-district hospital and finally to Nashik civil hospital, 150 km away. She was nine months pregnant and she literally bled to death. Vivek Pandit, the chairperson of the tribal development review committee of Maharashtra government, is quoted saying, “At least 5-6 pregnant tribal women have died due to complications related to pregnancy in the past one month."

There is little that is new in this story. It recounts a reality that is known to anyone who cares to follow the real trajectory of India's health care. The dazzle of five-star private hospitals in our cities cannot hide this continuing and ugly reality of poor people who are deprived of their right to basic health care. In the India of 2021, women should not die from a pregnancy-related complication.

Yet so many do. And their stories are rarely told.

These are the stories we in the media should be reporting rather than just echoing a government's celebratory rhetoric. Only then can we call ourselves "a public-watchdog".