Left, Right, Centre

Is the media under siege?

Left | Krishna Prasad

It is not just the media that is under siege, but the very idea of the nation that is India


Is the media under siege?

Late last year, an editor whose employment was ended under the ‘tatkal’ quota met a media owner whose exit had been similarly fast-tracked a few months earlier.

“Who was making the [phone] calls?” the latter asked. When he heard the names of a couple of Union Ministers, the ‘malik’ snarled: “Oh, wasn’t that glib RSS chap in the BJP amongst them?”

The anecdote might well be apocryphal. What is not is that mainstream media is in deep coma, gasping under pressure not felt even during Emergency’s darkest nights. That was an advertised, in-your-face, executive intervention — the censor sat openly amid journalists in newspaper offices and blacked out stuff they thought Indira Gandhi wouldn’t like.

Co-option and coercion

What is on today is a sly, insidious operation without anybody’s Aadhaar-linked fingerprints. It is aimed not merely at “managing the headlines” in the newsroom but at paving the way for a lethal ideology that has long craved legitimacy, through the boardroom.

In that sense, it is not just the media that is under siege, but the very “Idea of India”.

Influential owners, anchors, editors across the nation resemble the hapless Kashmiri tied to the Army jeep. They are the advance party to quell dissent, manufacture consent, set the agenda, drum up support, and spread fear, venom, hatred and bigotry — sometimes through sheer silence.

The saffronisation of the air waves is staggering.

It would be useful, therefore, to stop deluding ourselves that the siege began with the raid on NDTV’s promoters. Far from it, it is the culmination of a devious, top-down attempt at co-option and cooperation that failed. Hence, the coercion.

So, in the “New India”, it is perfectly normal to hear that the government has a list of journalists who attended a protest meeting in NDTV’s support; perfectly normal for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to publicly assert it was not involved in it; perfectly normal for a CEO to privately predict no one in the TV industry will stand up because “most will be too scared”.

When Big Brother tracks every channel, watches every tweet, and reads every word, why would anybody want to take a risk when the “caged bird” is a homing pigeon, striking targets with precision?

Putting the same man in charge of the Finance and I&B Ministries in 2014, therefore, was a masterstroke. After all, the government is the biggest advertiser.

“The country is going through an existential crisis. Fear, anger, anxiety and paranoia have become normal. Nobody trusts anyone anymore. Nobody feels secure. People, including journalists, try to prove their loyalty to the government by snitching on colleagues and neighbours.” Turkey’s most famous woman novelist Elif Safak could well be speaking about India.

Who’s to blame?

Much of what is now happening here is happening in countries where nativist nationalists are running riot: the United States, Japan, Turkey, even France.

Defamatory name-calling (using terms such as ‘presstitutes’, ‘journalopes’ and ‘giraegi’); weaponised trolling; arrests, killings, raids, lockdowns. Little wonder, India now stands at 136 on the World Press Freedom index, down from 133.

However, it would be foolish to lay all the blame for Indian media’s current plight at the politician’s door. The siege began long ago with dodgy ownership; mercenary business practices; advertising and circulation revenue meltdowns; emerging technologies. But at least there was “independent journalism” shining the light, showing the way.

Today, as non-state actors throttle India’s foundational values in broad daylight, and much of a besieged media happily plays cheerleader, future historians might wonder if it did not suffer from the Stockholm syndrome.

Krishna Prasad is former Editor-in-Chief of ‘Outlook’ magazine, and a member of the Press Council of India

Right | Chandan Mitra

Has the government reacted to the concerted attack on it by the left-liberal media with an iron fist? No


Is the media under siege?

It was fashionable, at least until quite recently, for Muslim clerics in India to raise the war cry: Islam in danger! This was used to feed the paranoia of the unlettered masses among their followers and galvanise them into violent action against another community or the state whenever any threat, real or perceived, was felt. Looking at the way sections of the Indian media have behaved over the last few months, it seems they are replicating that model.

Since the BJP with Narendra Modi at its helm barged into power in Delhi, the so-called left-liberal sections of journalists, especially in the English-language media, have demonstrated near-hysterical behaviour, claiming from rooftops that the Indian media is under siege.

Anti-Modi bias

This stems basically from their pathological dislike of Mr. Modi. Undoubtedly the BJP knocked down the comfortable bastions of the left-liberal intelligentsia’s privileges. But to conclude from the discomfiture of the erstwhile elite class of scribes that the media in India is under siege is not only fallacious but also mischievous and smacks of an ideological bias.

There is not an iota of evidence to substantiate the charge of siege. It was truly gagged hand, mouth and foot only once in independent India, which was during the Emergency.

The vicious anti-Modi campaign that was unleashed by the left-liberal media in 2002 still determines their mindset towards the BJP government. Be it in print, TV or the social media, the present government, particularly the Prime Minister, is lampooned on a daily basis. Stories that would make the regime uncomfortable are exaggerated and grossly highlighted.

Upstarts like a small-time demagogue called Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU are given publicity totally out of proportion to their influence.

Reports of attacks on Muslims, especially those accused of eating or selling beef, are played up in a way that is bound to excite communal passions, cause disturbances and thus destabilise the government.

No vindictiveness

Has the government reacted to this concerted attack with an iron fist? During the Uttar Pradesh election campaign virtually the entire left-liberal media ran a drive suggesting the BJP’s vote bank had shrunk since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Despite the party and its allies romping home with an unprecedented 325 seats out of 403, the hectoring of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has been relentless from day one. Did the Union or State government react? Did they stop or even cut down advertising support even to the hostile section of the media?

Has any journalist been harassed for propounding an anti-government view? Has anybody been arrested or even questioned by the police, something common during the Emergency years? If nothing of the above has happened, what is the basis of suggesting the media is under siege?

Following the recent raid on the premises of promoters of NDTV, the “media under siege” cry has become shriller. Raids on a media house are indeed undesirable, but a distinction has to be made whether the reason for the raid was editorial or financial.

No cause for alarm

In the instant case, the CBI claims the reasons were purely financial. It is now for the agency to justify its action in a court of law. It is not for us to prejudge the issue. If NDTV is not being pursued by the investigators for its editorial predilections, there is no cause for alarm.

Given the country’s strong democratic traditions, it is worth reminding ourselves that the media in India is as free as it wants to be!

Chandan Mitra is Editor of ‘The Pioneer’ and has been a two-term Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP

Centre | Lawrence Liang

What is under siege is not the media, but a political and moral idea of media as watchdogs


Is the media under siege?

Coincidence in the time of conflict is rarely a divine occurrence or even an attribute of moral luck, and one cannot help but ascribe it with sinister overtones.

The timing of the CBI raids on the Roys of NDTV throws up similar questions. The controversy over some of the financial and institutional transactions of NDTV has resulted in a fault line within the media in response to the raids, with commentators suggesting that this might be less about freedom of the press and more about accountability. But when democratic institutions are under attack and when it happens selectively against those inclined towards questioning the policies and politics of the government, those who profess constitutional faith in liberal values cannot but blame the powers that be.

Cause for concern

But is the NDTV affair conclusive evidence of the fact that the media is under siege? There are difficulties in arriving at such a conclusive prognosis.

For one, is it possible to have a singular idea of the media? NDTV with its influence has been able to galvanise support from all quarters, but as with most wars, the real casualty is generally borne by the foot soldiers and critics are right to point out that myriad attacks (the recent denial of permission to screen films on Rohith Vemula and Kashmir, the Kafkaesque use of ISBN to monitor publishers, etc.) have not received the same kind of attention as the attack on NDTV.

This is certainly a valid critique and yet at the same time there is a danger of subsuming this into a rhetoric of worthy and unworthy victims, and the assault on NDTV should be a cause of concern for the ordinary journalist, writer, filmmaker and blogger precisely because NDTV is such a powerful and influential player.

Defending the elites

When asked why he chose to defend Claus Von Bulow, a known aristocratic anti-Semite, in a murder trial, lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who was then a champion of civil liberties, replied that it was precisely because of Bulow’s elite status. He added that if the state could get away with harassing elites, then one could only imagine what they could get away with against those much less powerful.

There remain other difficulties, however, with the use of the militaristic metaphor of a siege. The word evokes a sudden forceful takeover and this is not really a useful account of how conflicts actually unfold — the moment of the siege is only the performative culmination of sustained lower-order assaults (by the likes of Censor Board chief Pahlaj Nihalani & Co.).

The presumption of media being a singular thing under threat from the state belies the fact that much of the siege is actively orchestrated by the media as collaborators of the state.

The trolling of academic Partha Chatterjee for likening the Army chief’s defence of a Major’s actions in Kashmir to General Dyer of Jallianwala Bagh infamy, the tireless tirade of Times Now against The Wire all gesture to a deeply divided moment for media where one doesn’t really need the state to question the legitimacy of media since they are more than willing to do it themselves.

Civil war within?

What therefore is at siege to my mind is not the media but a political and moral idea of the media as watchdogs of truth, and until it frees itself of its lustful desire to be and act like biblical angels — whose only job is to sing hymns of praise to the glory and honour of the divine — it would appear that the siege appears as much as a civil war within media as it does a threat by the state.

Lawrence Liang is professor of law at the School of Law, Governance and Citizenship, Ambedkar University Delhi

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 12:29:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/left-right-centre-is-the-media-under-siege/article19077463.ece

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