Pouncing on the media

PRESS freedom is an emotive issue, and one that lends itself easily to headlines, demonstrations, and furious e-mail appeals, winding their way around the world at lighting speed. You are never alone if you can rake up a press freedom issue in the age of the Internet. Within moments you will have solidarity at your doorstep, and those who have tried to teach you a lesson may develop second thoughts. But of course, they do not always back off in a hurry.

Democracy, journalists are discovering in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, is no guarantor of press freedom. It seems like there is a reminder every single week that journalists had better not take freedom of expression for granted. A reporter covering a bandh is beaten up by the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, a journalist is killed in Guna for a satta story, Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka is told that hired killers are gunning for him (literally), Vinod Mehta alleges that his proprietor is being hounded for income tax evasion because of what Outlook wrote about the Prime Minister's office, Yubaraj Ghimire and two colleagues are arrested in Nepal, and now there are the raids on "Khas Khabar" as well as on the offices of several other establishments of Dhanbad coal merchant and Calcutta businessman turned media owner, Ramesh Gandhi.

The press is not keeping quiet - it is voicing its protest, but not necessarily in total unison. Mr. Mehta has been complaining that his fellow editors have not expressed solidarity with Outlook following the Income Tax Department's raids on Rajan Raheja's various businesses. It is entirely likely that they cannot make up their minds as to whether you can protest at the Government's action when the taxmen claim that evidence of concealed income has been found.

There lies the rub. In some cases, press freedom is turning out to be a somewhat dodgy issue. The motivation for the raid or arrest could well be an article or two.

But the handle exists because the owners of the publishing house may not be totally kosher in their business dealings. As someone wrote pithily in the comments section of a poll on whether the raid on Raheja was an attack on the freedom of the press, if you want to take on the powers that be, you have to keep your nose clean. However even businessmen with clean noses cannot risk the government's ire. Vinod Mehta cannot have forgotten that the proprietor of a previous publication that he edited , the late Indian Post , sold out shortly after being threatened by one of Rajiv Gandhi's henchmen.

Following Yubaraj Ghimire's arrest last fortnight there has been a storm of international protest. It has been indignantly alleged by the press in Nepal, and echoed in India, that the Government was pouncing on him at the first provocation because of the campaign waged by Kantipur against corruption in the Koirala Government. That the paper has done these courageous exposes is entirely true. It had even demanded the Prime Minister's resignation in a front page editorial.

But the provocation for the arrest came from an article Ghimire carried. It was by Baburam Bhattarai, the underground leader of Nepal's People's War movement who alleged that the massacre was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-Research Analysis Wing (RAW) conspiracy and hinted that the new king was a plant of these illustrious agencies. Most of this was reported by the Nepali and Indian press. The Indian Express even demanded to know in an editorial on the subject what there was in the article to merit the charge of treason. But had they read all of it? In his article, Bhattarai also called upon the Army to resist the orders of the Government and Palace. In other words to mutiny. If a newspaper carries a call to the Army to mutiny, what should it expect the Government to do?

Then we come to the Ramesh Gandhi case. On day one it is a plain case of the Central Bureau of Investigation registering a case against Doordarshan officials on charges of giving commercial programmes in violation of prescribed norms. The beneficiary is Ramesh Gandhi, described in many newspapers as a powerful coal mafia don. He owns Rainbow Productions, which makes the influential and popular private news programme on Kolkata Doordarshan, called "Khas Khabar". His powerful contacts made it possible for him to get this programme on air a few years ago, but that is another story. The CBI charges that DD suffered losses to the tune of Rs 1.51 crores by awarding him a contract for the Sunday feature film without inviting competing bids.

It is reported that the CBI has carried out simultaneous searches at 15 premises belonging to the accused, including those belonging to Gandhi, who owns Rainbow Productions. The raids were conducted in Delhi, Kolkata, Agartala and Dhanbad over the weekend and the agency claimed a number of incriminating documents were seized.

On day two it transpires that the CBI also raided the residence of the executive editor of "Khas Khabar", without finding anything, and thereafter it becomes a press freedom issue. The general secretary of National Union of Journalists condemns the raid at his residence, and the president of the Indian Journalists Association asks the Prime Minister to intervene. The journalist whose home is raided says he is not an employee of the company that did the deal with DD, so how can he be victimised? "This is nothing but a ploy to muzzle 'Khas Khabar', which might be irking some quarters," he says.

Perhaps. But since a total of four DD officials have been charged, is it likely that the Government will choose to implicate four of its own officials as a way of muzzling "Khas Khabar"? However, it is a charge that will stick for a while, because there is after all the raid on the executive editor's home, and as one said at the beginning, press freedom is an emotive issue. Even when Mr. Gandhi has a veritable roster of colourful cases registered against him over the years.

This sort of issue arises quite often. Did Ram Nath Goenka set himself up by putting up a building in violation of the rules, and then taking on Rajiv Gandhi? (The counter-attack was Jagmohan's attempt to demolish the Indian Express building.) Or, remember the questions raised about the shareholding of Tehelka, and the timing of the expose? A bear operator on India's stock market who helped bring the market crashing down just when the expose surfaced, and who is now in trouble with the stock market regulator, was found to own a minority stake in the dotcom. But then, who is to say that a minority investor influenced the dotcom investigation? Much more famously, remember The Times of India trying to make the Directorate of Enforcement case against its proprietor for foreign exchange violations, a human rights issue? The Press Council censured the paper for this.

When journalists raise the banner of press freedom it helps if their own house is in order. Way back in the 1960s, the then proprietor of The Times of India was hauled in for misuse of scarce newsprint, and a judicial commission of inquiry instituted against the business house. On that occasion, though, the editors did not scream "press freedom". Because it is they who had complained to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the first place, that their proprietor was up to some tricks.


E-mail the writer at sevantininan@vsnl.com