Thursday, May 25, 2023

Clichés and cacophony on your TV screen? It must be election season

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on May 18, 2023


Even as many parts of India face excessive heat this year, the political heat before, during and after elections is likely to continue right up to next May, when we face a general election.

You would think that a media that has reported on elections for decades would now be wiser about how to provide viewers with coverage that informs rather than excites. Yet, year after year, we have seen a steady deterioration in the quality of election debates on our mainstream television channels, particularly once voting ends, exit polls are announced, and the results are available. 

Until last year, there were exceptions, principally NDTV and the team led by Prannoy Roy, who pioneered the use of psephology and polls. With the channel’s takeover by the Gautam Adani group last year, Roy has vanished from our screens.  

We are now left with mostly pumped up, highly excitable anchors who prance around the studio, punching video screens and providing high-decibel nuggets of information that are often just speculation. Studio guests are sometimes shouted down if they happen to question the anchor’s position.  And sometimes, as in the case of BJP’s Amit Malviya’s tirade against Rajdeep Sardesai on India Today, the roles are reversed – a spectacle Mukul Kesavan mentions in this perceptive article in the Telegraph

And, at the end of an exhausting few hours trying to make sense of what is going on, those wanting some sanity switch off the television, or at least mute it, and turn to refreshing the webpage of the Election Commission of India for accurate data.

But this year, five online platforms – the News Minute, the WireCaravanScrolland Newslaundry – came together to provide an alternative.  Despite virtually non-existent budgets compared to mainstream channels, they managed to give viewers a more balanced understanding of what was going on in Karnataka before and after the elections.

Take just one aspect. In the run-up to the elections, the women’s vote was mentioned frequently. The number of women voters now almost equals men and the percentage of women who come out to vote in the state is also almost the same. Do these women vote for whoever their menfolk do, or do they have the agency to make up their own minds? And why, despite this visible presence of women in the electorate, are political parties so reticent about putting up more women candidates? 

We saw little discussion on this aspect in mainstream channels. On the other hand, the independent platforms mentioned above began counting day with an instructive discussion with Tara Krishnaswamy who heads Political Shakti on this aspect of the elections. She was also interviewed for this article in Quint.

Then take another feature that appears to have been overlooked.  Karnataka has a range of civil society groups that have been active on campaigns such as opposition to the citizenship laws, calling out hate campaigns against Muslims, and issues such as the wages and working conditions of conservancy workers in a city like Bengaluru. Did their work over the years, especially with poor and marginalised groups, make any difference in the way people voted?

Some reports suggest it did, such as this one by Vinay Kooragayal Sreenivasa in the News Minute. Yet you would have to work hard to get that perspective from mainstream television.

After an election, print media comes into its own providing context, analysis, and data. Most newspapers now use graphics to explain data, given most readers don’t have the patience to read tables.  A map of Karnataka showing how the saffron (BJP) that dominated in 2018 has given way to blue (Congress) in 2023 is enough to explain the gains and losses.

Yet, while those interested were taking in these data points, and reading the analysis by political scientists and sociologists, what were TV channels doing? Endlessly speculating about “kaun banega mukhya mantri” – who will become the chief minister.  Even before the Congress could savour its decisive victory over the BJP, some of these anchors were virtually dismissing the party as a loser.

There’s little doubt that the analyses of the Karnataka election in print and on digital platforms bring out a more nuanced understanding of the factors that led to the Congress victory than the heated debates on television. But they also point to several lessons that the media needs to learn when covering elections. 

Several commentators emphasised after the election, and some even before, that the media should not use the familiar yardstick of caste and religion to predict how people would vote. They pointed out that each state, including Karnataka, has its specific history. So, the formula used in a north Indian state like Uttar Pradesh, for instance, cannot be automatically superimposed on a southern state like Karnataka. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta, for instance, wrote in Times of India: “When elections are dissected and discussed on the basis of caste, the assumption is that the voters are like dumb, driven cattle.”

Yet, if you watched the coverage of the elections on TV, you would find that none of this granularity was evident in the so-called “national” channels headquartered in Noida. Barring a few honourable exceptions, the same old clichéd way of analysing elections has been evident for some time . Even this election in Karnataka does not appear to have made our “national” mainstream anchors any wiser. 

Apart from debating non-issues, one must also question mainstream media’s use of language in political reporting. Take for instance, the use of the term “high command”. It is used exclusively when referring to the Congress party. Yet every journalist covering politics knows that over the last nine years, no state where the BJP has won can choose its chief minister without the approval of that party’s “high command”– Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. By continuing to use this term only for one party, the media continues to perpetuate the myth that only the Congress party has a top-down structure when in fact most parties, including the BJP, have precisely the same.

The Karnataka election will be talked about for a while, at least until the next round of state assembly elections, for what they reveal about voters and their choices, and the factors that impact those choices.  But for the media, and for readers and viewers interested in politics, they also remind us that at such times, it is best to turn to media houses based in the state and follow their analysis and reports.  

For example, a poll taken well before the election by a small, independent, virtually unknown Kannada digital platform, Eedina, got the results absolutely right. Also, some of the best reportage on the elections accessible to non-Kannada speakers was on the Bengaluru-based News Minute website.

So, if mainstream television channels are willing to reflect, the Karnataka election results remind us that India is a “union of states” as stated in our constitution. One size does not fit all. To make sense of politics in such a state, you need people on the ground who speak the language and can accurately gauge the mood. You cannot decide what people are thinking sitting in Delhi. 

Sunday, May 14, 2023

What media coverage of wrestler protests, Malik’s remarks and Mann Ki Baat tells us about press freedom

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on May 4, 2023


The ongoing protest by Indian wrestling champions Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia demanding action against the head of the Wrestling Federation of India, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, on charges of sexual harassment, has held up a mirror not just to Indian society but also to the media.

National English language newspapers have given the protests prominent coverage, not just on the sports page, but also on the front page. On April 26, for instance, after the wrestlers decided to resume their protest at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, most papers carried stories on both pages simultaneously and strong editorial comments (read hereherehere and here). 

It is likely that a combination of this kind of persistent coverage, allowing the voices of the women and men involved to be heard, as well as the intervention of the Supreme Court in admitting the protesters’ petition demanding that the Delhi police file an FIR against Singh, finally shamed the latter into doing so. 

But the coverage also threw up other questions that need to be answered. The most glaring one was whether other women in sports have also experienced what these women wrestlers have brought out in the open. Can other sportswomen also speak up? If not, why?

Finally, one newspaper has begun the process that needs to be pursued in greater depth by the media. An investigation by the Indian Express, published on May 4, reveals that 16 out of 30 sports federations have not set up the very minimum that is needed to deal with sexual harassment, that is an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) as mandated by the 2013 Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act. If some have, then the process is incomplete even though the law lays down very clearly the composition of these committees.

We must remember that in most sports, especially in athletics, the women who do well often come from smaller towns, even villages. Their families cannot send them to the kind of private schools that would give them an opportunity to explore a career in sports. Often such families choose to invest what little they have to give their talented daughters a chance. For every girl who succeeds, there must be thousands who never get a chance. That is why the story of women in sports in India is one that needs greater focus in the media.

Many of these young women and girls, who overcome dominant conservative and patriarchal norms, and make their way to training camps to prepare for their lives in sports, do not possess the social capital to question or confront the powerful men in control. They also cannot risk losing the chance to get ahead in their sporting careers. Hence the silence that has now been broken by the women wrestlers.

This is a story that must be investigated at many levels. The absence of the ICCs is the first step.  The sub-par conditions in the training facilities have sometimes been highlighted but they need more exposure. And we need to know more about these young women and girls who are dreaming of making it big in sports. Only then can readers and viewers understand the significance of this protest by the women wrestlers.

The fact that at least some media have followed up on this protest also reminds us of recent stories that continue to be ignored. For instance, the revelations of the former governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satyapal Malik, in various interviews he gave last month about the Pulwama tragedy of February 2019. Many questions remain unanswered and despite Malik’s controversial statements, the government has chosen to remain silent. Some of the media did report what he said, but there has been little to nothing in mainstream media by way of a follow-up so far. The silence is telling.

In contrast, it was interesting to see the almost uniform, and uncritical coverage of the hundredth episode of the Prime Minister’s monthly monologue, Mann Ki Baat. Every newspaper front-paged it. All the praises by various people, including film stars, were reported. The narrative set out for this occasion, that this was a way Modi connected to the people in India, was repeated uncritically throughout.

Curiously, the media did not ask why a programme by a prime minister – on government media and further amplified by a virtual diktat to private channels to also relay it – needed to be celebrated when it crossed a particular number? Was there any doubt that it would not cross this milestone? Furthermore, were millions of people really stopping in their tracks to listen when the prime minister’s voice came through the airwaves? 

Only some independent digital platforms like The Wire had the temerity to tell us something else, that in fact a majority of those surveyed had never listened to even one of the 100 episodes of Mann Ki Baat. A little scepticism is the norm in any country that boasts of having a free press.  

So how free is the media in India? Not much, according to the World Press Freedom Index 2023 released on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.

India has slipped 11 points on the World Press Freedom Index, from 150 out of 180 countries last year to 161 this time. 

This news was not greeted with concern, or disbelief. While digital news platforms and social media did take note and comment, most newspapers carried routine reports. So far, there has been nothing either expressing concern or scepticism about India’s ranking on this index. The government, predictably, has chosen to ignore it completely. If it does comment, it will probably dismiss it as a Western conspiracy to attack India’s “vibrant democracy”. 

Yet, this precipitous fall in the press freedom ranking in just one year calls for further investigation. 

According to the report by Reporters Without Borders that puts together this index each year, India is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist, given that on an average, three to four journalists are killed every year. Additionally, the report notes, “Journalists are exposed to all kinds of physical violence including police violence, ambushes by political activists, and deadly reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt local officials. Supporters of Hindutva, the ideology that spawned the Hindu far right, wage all-out online attacks on any views that conflict with their thinking.”

The report points out that although there are laws in place that should protect journalists, provisions of defamation, sedition, contempt of court and endangering national security are in fact being used against journalists who are critical. Proof of this is evident if one looks at what’s happening in Kashmir, where a combination of threats, intimidation and arrests have silenced what was once a vibrant media scene.  

The report concludes, “The old Indian model of a pluralist press is therefore being seriously challenged by a combination of harassment and influence.”

The real story about the deterioration in press freedom lies away from the big cities where mainstream media is concentrated. We need to focus on the stringer, the rural journalists, the district level papers and local channels and assess how they survive financially, what are the challenges they face from local authorities, and if they have survived, how have they changed. This would give us a better understanding of why the World Press Freedom Index has ranked India so low.  

In any case, press freedom as a concept has been slowly and steadily hollowed out, especially in the last nine years since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in Delhi. As a result, readers and viewers of the media are gradually accepting that what we see today is the norm, that the job of the media is to support the powerful in politics and business, not to question and expose them. 

In India, press freedom is unlikely to ever be a burning election issue. It will not reflect in commitments in election manifestos, whatever such promises are worth. Nor will it get people out on the streets defending it.

One reason for this is the gradual loss of trust in the media, particularly by those who are already marginalised in our society.  

The Reuters Institute conducted an interesting study recently on trust in the media in four countries – United States, United Kingdom, India, and Brazil. 

Through discussions in focus groups in these countries, comprising representatives from marginalised communities, the study found that many such groups felt that the media either misrepresented them, or under-represented their concerns, or put out inaccurate news about them. This has resulted in not just lack of trust but in some instances even harmed such communities. 

I will leave readers with this observation in the report which I think is prescient and reflects accurately the real condition of the media in India. 

“The news media as an institution, especially in the UK, the US, and India, was often viewed as an extension of systems aligned to serve those in power – systems many felt excluded from News media were rarely seen as catering to the entire public so much as reinforcing the interests of those already most privileged and powerful.”

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Latest Amendments to IT Rules Amount to Censorship by Another Name

The one time the media in India did experience direct censorship was during the Emergency. Now, a government-appointed committee has the power to label information as “fake”, “false” or “misleading” and ask them to be taken down.

 Published in The Wire on April 11, 2023


Are we heading towards another period of direct censorship, like the one some of us experienced first-hand between 1975 and 1977 during the Emergency?

We have to ask this after the government’s recent amendments to the IT rules.

The Editors’ Guild of India has issued a strong statement against what it calls “draconian rules” that will permit a government-appointed committee to label information relating to the Union government as “fake”, “false” or “misleading”. It can ask social media intermediaries like Facebook and Twitter, and internet service providers to take them down. The Guild states: “In effect, the government has given itself absolute power to determine what is fake or not, in respect of its own work, and order take down.”

There are two sides to this development. One is the legal aspect and there could be challenges to the legality of this amendment. As the Internet Freedom Foundation has pointed out, “Assigning any unit of the government such arbitrary, overbroad powers to determine the authenticity of online content bypasses the principles of natural justice, thus making it an unconstitutional exercise.”

The other aspect is the intent behind the move. Given the Union government’s record on issues relating to freedom of expression, it is not unreasonable to conclude that this move is not just “akin to censorship”, as the Editors’ Guild has stated, but is censorship through other means.

The one time the media in India did experience direct censorship was during the Emergency. Initially, the government issued “guidelines” that had to be followed. They were vague and non-specific. But before long, these “guidelines” morphed into random advisories from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting communicated verbally to the chief censor sitting in Delhi, who would then pass them on to censors operating in different states. The only record of these instructions is in the logbook of the ministry, which has been reproduced in the Shah Commission report. 

Reading some of these orders is important today because what stands out above all is the arbitrary nature of this kind of censorship and the consequences of handing over the power to control the flow of information to the government and its functionaries.

How censors worked during the Emergency

During the Emergency, I had first-hand experience of such arbitrariness. At that time, I was looking after Rajmohan Gandhi’s Himmat Weekly in Mumbai. Every week, I had to take the typed copy of the contents of this small magazine to the office of the censor in Mantralaya.

The censor in Mumbai was a former resident editor of Indian Express. He was friendly and courteous. But when it came to the copy, he acted like an editor. He would go through the article and strike out, with a blue pencil, either sections of the article in a way that rendered the entire piece unusable, or the entire piece. And when asked what guideline had been violated, he would refuse to engage in discussion. I was told that I had no right to ask, and he was not expected to explain.

So, from one week to the next, as editors and journalists working with Himmat, we had no clue what would survive this “super” editor’s blue pencil and what would be knocked off.  Sometimes it was a comment, sometimes it was a report and sometimes an article on foreign affairs.  

This happened because “guidelines” were issued at various times and publications had no idea what they were until they were told that they had violated them. 

As the Shah Commission’s report notes:

“In practice censorship was utilised for suppressing news unfavourable to the Government, to play up news favourable to the Government and to suppress new unfavourable to the supporters of the Congress Party.”

The advisories from the government, as listed in the Shah Commission’s report, might appear ridiculous today. But at that time, no one could either question or defy them. 

For instance, instructions were sent out to the press on how parliamentary proceedings could be covered. They could not report, “ruling party members moving to the opposition benches or vice-versa,” remarks made by the chair in either House, and no “reference to some of the empty seats in the opposition benches” or “names of members who were absent.” Obviously, the absent members were those in jail.

The media was also not permitted to report statements by opposition leaders. In Gujarat, where there was a non-Congress government, the advisory specifically stated:

“All the statements made by the Janta Front Leaders alleging that the Centre or Congress was out to topple their ministry or that the Janta Front would take to agitation etc should not be allowed… Anything which is unhelpful to the present plan of the Centre should be killed.” 

Also “killed” was a report on the Allahabad high court judgment “upholding MISA detenues’ right to move high court under Article 226”.

None of these, and scores of other similar missives, fell within the scope of the restrictions on freedom of expression permitted by the constitution. They illustrate the randomness of how censorship works in practice when the power to manage information is placed in the hands of the government. 

Today, even though IT minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar has clarified that a government-appointed fact-check committee, rather than the Press and Information Bureau (PIB) as mentioned in an earlier version of the amendment, will do this job, what is the difference? Who will be on the committee? Surely not people who genuinely believe that “fake” news should be restricted to proven falsehoods and not material critical of government policies? How is it different from the government-appointed censors during the Emergency?

Just as the interpretation of the “guidelines” was left to the censor, today a committee will be given the power to determine what is “false” or “misleading”. And challenging its decision will be difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. 

A disproportionate effect on independent media

While the amendments to the IT Act will affect any person or entity putting out information using the Internet and social media, independent media will be disproportionately affected. 

During the Emergency, the government censored all publications and kept a close eye on those that tried to dodge the “guidelines”. But it followed another strategy that virtually crippled smaller publications. The big newspapers had their own printing presses. But small journals like Himmat did not own one. In our case, the printer with whom we had been associated for several years was told informally that if he continued to print Himmat, there was a chance that his printing press could be shut down. We were politely asked to go and find another printer, something that was virtually impossible – but somehow, we managed.

Today, independent digital platforms rely on access to the Internet and social media intermediaries to distribute their content. If something they produce, a news item or an investigation into a government programme, is labelled “false” or “misleading”, their reach will be severely impaired. Much like printing presses refusing to host smaller independent publications, these orders will restrict the impact of such platforms. Although even legacy print media outlets also push content online and use social media networks, they will suffer to a degree but will not be crippled. 

Under the guise of “checking misuse” of the freedom afforded by social media and the Internet, the government is trying to tame those who are effectively using this space to report uncomfortable truths.

The third similarity to those times, although not linked to the change in the IT rules, is the way the government allocates its advertising. 

During the emergency, the government classified publications as positively friendly, hostile, and continuously hostile. The bulk of government advertising went to the first, the second received a bit but the third received none. For many smaller publications, this meant death. For instance, Himmat decided the number of pages to print each week depending on the advertising that came in. When banks and public sector companies were instructed not to release ads to publications in the “continuously hostile” category, the weekly struggled to keep its head above water. 

Today, you only need to look at daily newspapers to see the significant increase in government advertising. Publications that are occasionally critical are fully aware that this largesse could be withdrawn at any time. Toeing the line is a safer business strategy.

As we move into election season, information, especially that available to millions through the Internet, will be crucial. With powers to label anything that exposes the hollowness of government promises as “misleading”, the government has entered the arena of direct control of information. This is precisely how censorship is defined – a system that checks the spread of information that is inconvenient to the rulers.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Newspapers today: When Modi and friends star in full-page ads, news reports, even edit pages

Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on April 6, 2023


For the beleaguered independent media in India, a gradually disappearing species, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the MediaOne case is important in more ways than one. There is, of course, no guarantee that the governing party will heed the words of the court as it continues to emasculate the media – directly and indirectly. But it gives those fighting for press freedom something they can use in the future as they pursue justice through the courts.

MediaOne is a television channel that is part of the Madhyamam group in Kerala and has been functioning since 2011. In January last year, the ministry of information and broadcasting refused to grant it security clearance claiming it had links to the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. The Kerala High Court upheld the ban but on April 5, the Supreme Court set it aside. 

Its reasoning for doing so is significant and provides a much-needed boost to those who continue to believe that if press freedom is threatened, so is democracy. 

Take, for instance, what the judgement says about the right of the media to be critical of government policies: 

“The critical views of the channel, MediaOne, on policies of the government cannot be termed ‘anti-establishment’. The use of such a terminology in itself represents an expectation that the press must support the establishment. The action of the MIB by denying a security clearance to a media channel on the basis of the views which the channel is constitutionally entitled to hold produces a chilling effect on free speech and particularly on press freedom.”

This “chilling effect” on free speech and press freedom has been evident for the last eight years ever since the BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, came to power in Delhi.  

Given the times in which we live, it is also heartening that the court has made this unequivocal observation on the importance of press freedom: 

“An independent press is vital for the robust functioning of a democratic republic. Its role in a democratic society is crucial for it shines a light on the functioning of the state. The press has a duty to speak truth to power and present citizens with hard facts enabling them to make choices that propel democracy in the right direction. The restriction on the freedom of the press compels citizens to think along the same tangent. A homogenised view on issues that range from socio-economic polity to political ideologies would pose grave dangers to democracy”.

Of course, the emerging “homogenised view” is a deliberate and planned effort that involves not just what the media reports, or chooses to ignore, but even what future generations are going to be taught about Indian society and its history. 

The standout story this last fortnight was the exclusive by Ritika Chopra in Indian Express on the changes being made in the textbooks that the NCERT prescribes for high school students.  As the story illustrates, these changes are not random. They are part of a deliberate agenda to ensure that future generations emerge with a singular understanding of Indian history – that dictated by those in power today.

Combine this with the way mainstream media, especially television news, either focuses on a few chosen issues, or deliberately distorts the facts on the ground, and you can see why people increasingly believe what they are told without questioning.

Furthermore, when those who question are challenged on grounds of “national security”, as in the MediaOne case, you can be sure that the government does not need to take any direct action against recalcitrant media. They will fall in line, as most already have. 

Another story, or rather comment, which appeared this last fortnight adds another dimension to the government’s strategy to control the narrative. Senior journalist Ajaz Ashraf, in his regular column in Mid-Day, writes about his research into the kind of people who find space on the edit and op-ed pages of leading newspapers in recent years. His findings put a number to what a discerning reader would suspect. 

Although internal surveys in several newspapers have revealed that the edit and op-ed pages are probably the least read, these pages are important because they provide visibility to writers and indicate the editorial policy of the publication.  

Some publications go to considerable lengths, especially in the last eight years given the hostility of the government to a questioning media, to “balance” opinion by giving space to contrary viewpoints on their edit pages. However, even if some edit page articles sing praises of the government, some of these newspapers continue to write sharp unsigned editorials that are critical of the government and its policies. One presumes they believe that if they give space to pro-government voices, they will escape the government’s wrath if they also occasionally criticise it. 

Ashraf’s data suggests that even this so-called “balance” is heavily skewed in favour of the governing dispensation. Every fifth day, a column by an RSS-BJP person appears in one of three English language national newspapers that he surveyed.  And over 62 percent of these columnists mention Narendra Modi and his government at least once. It would be interesting if someone also did a similar survey of newspapers in regional languages that have a far bigger circulation than English newspapers. 

Even if these pieces are not widely read, they are a part of a cumulative effect. Almost every day, page one of most national newspapers consists of a full-page advertisement issued either by the central government, or one of the BJP-led state governments like Uttar Pradesh. In every one of them, without fail, we are greeted with a mugshot of the prime minister as well as that of a chief minister if the ad is issued by a state government. In other words, if you are someone who likes the tactile feel of reading the print edition of a newspaper, you begin your day, on most days, with an image of the prime minister.

Turn then to the actual front page and, on most days again, you will find a news item and a photograph of the prime minister as he criss-crosses the country inaugurating everything from roadworks to metro stations. And then you reach the edit page, and yet again there might be an article ostensibly written by the prime minister, which also appears verbatim in many other newspapers even though the rule for edit pages is that the article should be exclusive to the publication. If not the prime minister, then you will read an article by some other member of the government, of the governing party, or of a “think tank” affiliated to the RSS. 

It is this combined visibility – leave alone the huge hoardings with the prime minister’s face staring down at you in most major cities – that create the feeling of omnipresence and power.  

Now add to this high visibility in the print media, the deliberate rewriting of textbooks, and the continuous impact of the tilt given to news by most television channels, and you have the recipe to guarantee that only one narrative is heard, seen, and taught. Readers, viewers, even students will remain unaware of how gradually they are being converted to internalising a particular interpretation of history, including current affairs. They will also remain uninformed, and oblivious to much else that is happening in our vast country that the media does not report, or does so in passing, such as the worrying trend of violence against minorities during religious festivals like Ram Navami

It is this process that we in the media need to record and report. If we fail to do so today, future generations will never know how and why this country changed from being a diverse, and chaotic democracy, to one that is overwhelmingly dominated by one point of view. 


Monday, April 03, 2023

More arrests, Rahul Gandhi coverage: Why press freedom continues to take a beating in India

Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on March 23, 2023


In the last fortnight, Indian democracy and press freedom have taken a beating. But there have also been words spoken that are like a balm to an ever-deepening wound. They may not be able to stop this wound from festering, or to heal it, but they are worth noting and remembering.

I refer to the speech of the Chief Justice of India, DY Chandrachud, at the 16th Ramnath Goenka Awards function in Delhi on Wednesday. 

There is much in what he said that is noteworthy. But in the context of media freedom, these words are especially important:

“A functional and healthy democracy must encourage the development of journalism as an institution that can ask difficult questions to the establishment – or as it is commonly known, ‘speak truth to power’. The vibrancy of any democracy is compromised when the press is prevented from doing exactly this. The press must remain free if a country is to remain a democracy.”

For democracy to survive, the press must remain free. Yet just a week before the Chief Justice said this, a young journalist working for a local newspaper was arrested for doing precisely what Justice Chandrachud recommended that the media should do – ask difficult questions to the establishment. 

Sanjay Rana, a YouTuber who also reports for Moradabad Ujala, decided to use the occasion of UP minister Gulab Devi’s visit to Budh Nagar Khandwa village in Sambhal district, to ask some questions. He stood up with a mike in hand and listed out many unfulfilled promises as narrated to him by villagers – no toilets, unpaved road, blocked drains and more. The video of him asking the questions went viral on social media. But the price he paid for doing this, his job as a journalist, was to be arrested. Rana was released on bail because his story was noticed, and senior journalists intervened.  If they had not, he would have been another name added to the growing list of incarcerated journalists.

Two days before the Chief Justice’s reflections on the importance of a free press for a democracy, Irfan Mehraj, a Srinagar-based Kashmiri journalist was arrested. He was summoned to the police station, a routine to which many journalists in Kashmir have become accustomed. When he went there, he was arrested for a 2020 case and booked under UAPA. Mehraj is editor of Wandemagazine but also writes for Indian and foreign publications. His arrest has elicited strong statements from several organisations, including the Editors’ Guild of India, Digipub and Press Club of India as well as Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders.

In the context of media freedom, the other noteworthy speech at the Ramnath Goenka Awards function was that of the editor-in-chief of Indian ExpressRaj Kamal Jha.  

What Jha said stands out especially in these times because just a few days earlier, another editor of a media house broke several records of sycophancy in his speech while welcoming the chief guest at that function, the Prime Minister. After the Emergency ended, LK Advani, who was the information and broadcasting minister in the Janata government, famously said of the press that when asked to bend it chose to crawl during the Emergency. In this case, even though we don’t live under a state of emergency, an editor chose not just to crawl but to literally prostrate himself before the powerful. 

But not Jha of Indian Express. In the presence of former and current ministers in the Narendra Modi government, including information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur, Jha referred to the Supreme Court as the “North Star” for journalists and journalism. Note that he spoke of the Supreme Court, the institution, not the Chief Justice, an individual. 

“Year and after year, that starlight has illuminated the road ahead,” he said, adding that the court “has kept pushing back at the State to expand our freedoms”.

And then, even as the camera panned the stony expressions of some of the luminaries in the audience, he said, “That’s why when the lights dim…When a reporter is arrested under a law meant for terrorists; another for asking a question; a university professor for sharing a cartoon; a college student for a speech; an actor for a comment; and when a rejoinder to a story comes in the form of a police FIR, we turn to the North Star for its guiding light.”

The lights have indeed dimmed for media freedom, and for democracy in India. Anyone saying this is not “defaming” India as the BJP insists as it continues its energetic attack on Rahul Gandhi for what he apparently said during his trip to Britain.  

In fact, the media’s coverage of the controversy over Gandhi’s supposed remarks, that has led to the treasury benches disrupting the working of parliament during a crucial budget session, is another illustration of the fog that has enveloped media freedom.

Rahul Gandhi spoke on several platforms during his time in Britain. He also answered questions. But most of what we have read or seen in the Indian media is the reaction of various BJP functionaries, including several ministers and the prime minister himself, lambasting him for defaming and insulting India on foreign soil and asking foreign countries to interfere in India’s internal affairs. BJP chief JP Nadda went a step further and accused him of being “a permanent part of an anti-nationalist toolkit”. 

If readers or viewers wanted to decide for themselves whether the Congress leader had crossed a line, and needed to apologise as is being demanded by the BJP, they would have had a hard time if they relied on mainstream media. If they searched social media or independent digital news platforms, they would have found reports and video clips from his various speeches and interactions. 

Take for instance, the charge that he asked foreign countries to step in. There is no evidence of such an accusation. On the contrary, in his session at Chatham House, he makes a very clear statement. When asked what governments or even people in the West should do in the light of his comments about Indian democracy, Gandhi says, “First of all this is our problem. It’s an internal problem. It’s an Indian problem. And the solution is going to come from inside, not from outside.” 

It is evident that the reason the BJP can confidently go ahead with its attack on Rahul Gandhi is because it knows that his actual statements have been sparingly reported. Deliberately, or otherwise, the Indian media has helped spread a lie.

Two other recent blows to freedom of expression, apart from the ones Jha noted in his speech, must be mentioned.

On March 10, Lokesh Chugh, a PhD student at Delhi University was suspended. His crime? He organised a screening of the controversial first episode of the two-part BBC series titled India: The Modi Question

And on March 22, even as the Chief Justice was speaking about freedom and democracy, an incredible 100 FIRs were lodged and six people arrested for a handful of posters pasted around Delhi with the slogan, “Modi Hatao, Desh Bachao”. 

The government, however, continues to insist that all is well with Indian democracy.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Despite new focus, media misses the darker story about women in sports

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on March 9, 2023


While mainstream media continues to focus on games politicians play, this column will focus on the games women play, as in cricket, tennis, football, hockey, athletics, etc., and how the media covers their struggles and achievements.

International Women’s Day (IWD) has just gone by and women in India are being praised, their successes celebrated even as they continue to be targeted for consumer goods, or continue to suffer ‘mansplaining’ as erudite ‘experts’, usually all men, hold forth on what should be done to promote women’s WDequality. All of this has become an annual and rather predictable ritual.

But even this ritualistic acknowledgement of one day for women was not the norm earlier. In fact, I can recall in the mid-eighties, when I worked for a national daily newspaper, trying to persuade my editor to carry an editorial to mark the day. This was a time when Indian women’s groups were on the streets demanding changes in laws that affected women such as rape and dowry. To his credit, the editor did agree that the day was worthy of an editorial comment. 

Now, although IWD is readily acknowledged, for the rest of the year, it would appear that no day is women’s day as the majority of Indian women continue to fight against misogyny, sexual harassment at the workplace, violence in their homes and on the street, unequal pay, low employment, poverty and much more.  

Yet, some things are changing, slowly. One cannot help but notice the sudden spurt in coverage of women in sports in the print media. Has the media suddenly woken up to the fact that these women also deserve attention? More likely, however, the attention is a consequence of big money finally backing some women’s sports, such as cricket.

There’s little doubt that the Women’s Premier League has catapulted women’s cricket to the top of the sports pages. Women have been playing cricket for a while, and doing well. But rarely did they get the kind of media attention they are getting today. 

Before the WPL, the U-19 Women’s cricket team won the World Cup. The Indian Express wrote about their victory in their lead story on the sports page with an unfortunate headline.

“First Ladies”. Ladies? Really? These are determined and plucky women who have fought to play a sport they love and excelled in it. “Ladies” is hardly the appropriate way to describe them. 

Fortunately, the rest of the page told a different story as reports about individual players revealed that most of these women came from so-called “humble beginnings” (a cliché that has been bleached of all meaning). Not only did they struggle to find financial resources to train but they also had to fight the embedded misogyny in Indian society that holds back young girls from pursuing their dreams such as recounted in this story about bowling all-rounder Archana Devi.

Archana’s story exemplifies in many ways the story of women’s sports in India today. Unlike individual sports like tennis or badminton, team sports like hockey, football, and cricket as well as athletics attract women from less-privileged backgrounds. Each story you hear after they succeed speaks of their struggle to first overcome familial opposition, then convince a sports association to give them a chance.

In this important story on women’s sports, Shivani Naik of Indian Express, writes about the results of a recent survey of women in sports. It revealed that sports women had to overcome “poor access to sports facilities, no equipment to play, having to travel more than 10 km to reach the facility, safety concerns, lack of preferred female coaches, unsafe travelling to tournaments and discrimination in sport”. Apart from this was the perennial issue of lack of toilets and even safe drinking water.

In Bihar, women athletes who chose to wear shorts while training as they were more comfortable rather than salwars had to contend with men who “would surround the group and stare, which could get intimidating”. 

These are stories that need to be excavated and reported by the media. They are a necessary reality check on women’s sports in India. While the individual stories of the women who succeed are important, as they play a role in encouraging other women who dream of making a career in sports, the difficult conditions sportswomen face once they have taken the first steps, also need to be highlighted.  

Apart from this, there is also a darker story about women’s sports that emerges occasionally, and then disappears.

This year, the sensational accusations made by leading women wrestlersagainst the head of the Wrestling Federation of India, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, once again forced open the hidden world of sexual harassment in sports. There have been numerous other instances reported over the years. Some of them have received passing attention from the media but not enough to compel those in authority to act. This time, the women wrestlers who are speaking out will not be silenced. 

That these young women who come away from their homes for training in various sporting facilities are vulnerable goes without saying. As this editorial in The Tribune points out: “Young female athletes, often coming from an underprivileged background and staying at a sports training centre far away from home, stay silent as sports federation officials and coaches possess complete authority over their career and future. In team events, this can lead to the axing of a sportsperson who spurns the advances of a coach or an official; in individual sports, such a strong-willed player can be penalised citing indiscipline or lack of fitness.” 

Also, as Anupriya, a former cricketer writes in this article in Scroll, “Due to the historical ties of powerful politicians to sporting bodies, and the revenue sports provide to media institutions, there is almost an incentivised culture of hushing up whistleblowing. Indian athletes will always be vulnerable because the very nature and structure of sports rely on conforming to established norms and existing within the ecosystem.”

Sharda Ugra, one of the first women journalists to cover sports, reminds us how even when sexual harassment charges surface, they are addressed or rather not in this article in espncrickinfo. She refers to a 2018 incident when two women cricketers complained about the inappropriate behaviour of a senior Board of Control for Cricket India (BCCI) official. 

Ugra writes: “The whole exercise, undertaken with correct protocol and procedure, was, however, pitted with mishaps and missteps, in deed, language and public perception. It could become a case study for every corporation in the public eye as to how not to behave when attempting to follow the rule book in response to allegations of sexual harassment against their top brass. A case study also on why women in any industry find it hard to lodge any formal protest against powerful men in their business.”

Perhaps it is expecting the impossible to believe that a media, fuelled by the same corporations that back some sports, would be willing to expose the way these sports federations, often run by powerful politicians, deal with issues like sexual harassment. But after the attention drawn to the issue by the women wrestlers, I would suggest that this is a story that needs more media exposure.

Also, this would be an appropriate time for the media to introspect about the way women’s sports have been covered so far. In the past, coverage has swung between outright misogyny, where the only interest in women who played sport was in how they looked or dressed, to one where they got sporadic attention when a team, or an individual, did well. Today, despite a spurt of interest in women’s sports, for the most, sports pages continue to be dominated by men’s sports, including coverage of even minor tournaments. Surely this must change.

Monday, March 06, 2023

From tsunami to Turkey earthquake: The role of media during natural disasters

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on February 23, 2023


Long after the rubble has been cleared, there remain stories that still must be written. Not just of lives lost, of injuries and damaged structures, but of the fault lines in our societies that show up in the wake of a natural disaster. 

For those of us who have witnessed earthquakes in India and reported on them, the coverage of the devastating serial earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria earlier this month brought back many memories. The details are different, but the trajectory of events is similar. As also the aftermath. 

The coverage of the earthquake’s impact in southern Turkey and Syria has posed many challenges for the media.  Even with the best of technology, how do you report in places with no electricity and poor connectivity, and capture the scale of the tragedy as it unfolds? How do you combine human interest while also respecting people’s right to privacy and dignity in the face of such a disaster? How do you report honestly on the lapses of the government in a country where press freedom has been whittled down drastically?

The challenges that the international, and more so the national media in Turkey have faced carry many lessons for us in India. This article in the Wire by Yasemin Giritli İnceoğlu, a visiting professor at the department of media and communications, London School of Economics, makes many useful observations. She points out, for instance, that the “task of the media is not only to publish updates on search and rescue operations, but also to bring out the failures and errors”, and that “journalism cannot be done without asking questions about lack of equipment, water and electricity; journalists have to hold the powers that be accountable.” 

Yet, in Turkey – and, as we know, in India during the recent Covid pandemic – journalists are not encouraged to ask such questions. You risk interrogation or even arrest if you do.

While we can debate how much press freedom we have in India, the Turkish press under President Recep Erdogan is far from free. As this 2019 article in Columbia Journalism Review  points out, the Turkish press was never completely free even under other regimes. Journalists were imprisoned and newspapers critical of the government were shut down. 

But today, according to the author, “The destruction of Turkish media has come full circle. Where journalists once sought to expose what the government was up to, now they act at its behest to expose – even to help prosecute – their common ‘opposition.’ These days, if an independent journalist dares to write anything controversial, whether on social media or, say, to a foreign reporter...They will wait out the next 24 hours with trepidation, praying that Twitter trolls...Will not have chosen to make their statement the hysterical target of the day. Why would anyone risk saying anything at all, let alone reporting?” 

The consequence of this kind of fear is seen in the way disasters are reported.  International media plays out one story, the local media plays out another. While a foreign reporter might quote people saying that help did not arrive in time, a local reporter would be constrained in saying this because it is risky to report anything critical about the government. The people who suffer the consequences of such restricted reporting, of course, are those who are the victims of the disaster.

One of the factors that has emerged in Turkey is the poor quality of construction in some of the cities impacted by the earthquake. We saw the frightening visuals of what would be considered solid brick and concrete structures, collapsing like a pack of cards. This BBC report of buildings in one of the plushest areas in Gaziantep brings out the reality of shoddy construction, how early warnings were ignored, resulting in huge towers in this locality coming down. 

An architect tells the reporter that 65 percent of the building stock in Turkey is at risk. That is a frightening figure. It is also clear from such reports that apart from the builders who could be charged with using poor quality materials for the construction, the corruption in the system that allowed such subpar construction to be passed as safe is also at fault.  

Reading this, one cannot help but wonder what would happen in our cities in India in the face of such an earthquake. How many of the scores of rapidly built towers that now dot the urban landscape have features that will prevent them from collapsing as did those buildings in Turkey? Would any of these structures, often built in open violation of land use regulations and environmental rules, survive an earthquake? This is an opportune time for the Indian media to turn its gaze inwards and look at our own earthquake-preparedness. 

It is also telling that the Indian media chose to report the story from Turkey only after the government sent aid by way of personnel who could help in the rescue operations and, one presumes, accommodated some media teams.  These were the first person reports we read or saw.  But there is often a local politics involved when other countries rush to provide humanitarian aid. Were any of the reporters who flew to Turkey to report even aware of this?

Seema Guha, a veteran reporter, filed this insightful report in the latest issue of Outlook magazine, which incidentally has focused almost entirely on disasters.  She writes that when an earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, the government rushed in aid. It also accommodated media crews on the Air Force aircraft that flew in.  But within a week of this help being sent, Guha writes, “the appreciation turned into resentment. This had much to do with Indian media’s loud proclamation of New Delhi’s stellar role in the Nepal rescue and relief operations.” 

She quotes well-known Nepali journalist Kanak Dixit saying: “The best kind of disaster aid is quiet and altruistic, with no chest-thumping. India’s assistance during the April 2015 earthquake was prompt, but the way the Indian media tried to take credit for India was unnecessary and took away some of the shine of a good act in the eyes of the Nepali public”.

Good advice, but unlikely to be heeded by much of India’s mainstream media that has become “His Master’s Voice” in every sense of the word.

To conclude, please read this heart-rending piece in Outlook. It is a first-person account by journalist Kavin Mallar of what she experienced as a resident of Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu during and after the 2004 tsunami. The “after” stretched out over many years. Her story reminds us yet again that disasters don’t end once the rubble and the detritus is cleared.  They are a continuing saga of suffering and survival at so many levels, and of stories that remain untold.