Message From ABP News: A Long Battle Ahead for Media Freedom
The before and the after
NEW DELHI: The storm generated by the ouster of three high-ranking journalists from ABP News got a further boost with the explosive claims made by Punya Prasun Bajpai, one of the three journalists who were forced out.
Bajpayi has claimed that the ABP News management had asked him not to name the prime minister on his programme Master Stroke, while giving him a free hand to name other ministers.
It is increasingly clear now that the three journalists from ABP News were forced to quit because they had taken a stringent anti-Modi stance in their reporting and programmes.
The trigger for the chain of events was the Master Stroke episode in which Bajpai exposed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dubious claim, made on his monthly radio broadcast Mann Ki Baat, regarding the doubling of income of a woman from Chhattisgarh.
At first, the television reception of Master Stroke started getting disrupted. It is understood that the management at ABP News itself engaged in this, to prevent people from watching the programme.
Milind Khandekar, the channel’s editor-in-chief, was forced to resign as the management was unhappy with him for allowing the programme to be telecast. ABP News reporter Abhisar Sharma, who took on the prime minister for his claim that law and order had improved in Uttar Pradesh, has been sent on forced leave.
Indeed this comes as no surprise. The Modi government’s deep antipathy for the media has been evident from the day it assumed office. The ABP episode comes in the long wake of similar instances where inconvenient and critical journalists were forced to quit, as soon as they had done a hard-hitting story or allowed their publications to criticise the government.
In 2016, Outlook magazine sacked its editor-in-chief, Krishna Prasad, upon the publication of an article exposing the involvement of people linked to the RSS in the trafficking of young girls in Assam. Bobby Ghosh had to quit as editor of the Hindustan Times last year after it ran a series of articles tracking incidents of lynching in the country.
Harish Khare, editor-in-chief of the Tribune, had to leave a few months before tenure’s end after the paper published an expose on the easy availability of Aadhar data, for sale for as little as Rs 500 through private operators.
In a similar manner, trustees of the Economic & Political Weekly asked its editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta to resign because of the criminal defamation suit filed by industrialist Gautam Adani against an article published in the journal. Nitin Sethi had to resign from Scroll earlier this year, after he wrote a damning piece against Adani’s Mundhra port dealings.
Nikhil Wagle quit TV9 in 2017 after the channel’s management suddenly cancelled his show Sadetod which had taken a critical stance against the Maharashtra government on issues like farmers’ distress. The programme was highly popular but was dropped under pressure from the government, alleged Wagle, who had anchored it. He resigned in protest.
The list is indeed long.
The vindictiveness of PM Narendra Modi has also been brought out sharply by Karan Thapar in his latest book, where he claims that BJP functionaries were personally told by the prime minister not to appear on his programmes or give him interviews.
On the extreme side of the spectrum we see cases of murder and physical intimidation against journalists, Right to Information (RTI) activists, NGOs working among Dalits and Adivasis, and activists fighting against the destruction of the environment.
Lankesh Patrike editor Gauri Lankesh was murdered; violence was threatened against authors such as Perumal Murugan in Tamil Nadu and more recently S. Hareesh in Kerala. In March this year, activist Nanjibhai Sondavara was killed in Rajkot district after he filed an RTI request to know the details of a road being constructed in his village.
Similar incidents have occurred in Bihar, Meghalaya and other states. Thousands of NGOs have been shut down, many for political reasons as they were seen to be opposing the government on various fronts: such as nuclear power, or the setting up of industrial plants in tribal areas without regard to the environment, and without negotiations or discussions with the people living in those areas.
Overall a grim situation prevails so far as media independence and a democratic space for protest is concerned.
The deterioration in the status of the media profession as seen in murder, assault, threat of physical harm or job loss of journalists is also reflected in the World Press Freedom Index Report. According to the 2018 report India was ranked at 138 out of 180 countries, having slipped two places.
Looking at these issues as an outcome of the illiberal and authoritarian ideological moorings of the current ruling dispensation alone provides only a partial explanation for what we see happening today. It is true that the sheer magnitude and pervasiveness of the BJP government’s intolerant attitude towards the media, which dares criticise it, is astonishing. But it is also true that in the past the Congress and other political parties ruling in the states displayed a similar tendency or urge to control the media, by intimidation or allurement, whichever proved effective. This is why the issue needs a deeper, dispassionate analysis to pinpoint the trends reflected in such behaviour by the present government.
It would be a mistake to think that only threats and intimidation are responsible for the loss of freedom in the media industry. Perhaps the number of media houses willingly prostrating themselves before the government today raises far more difficult questions than the ones raised by the case of ABP News. After all, it is understandable that governments sit in a somewhat conflictual role in relation to the media, insofar as it is the job of the media to bring out their weaknesses and turn the searchlight towards them.
But the growing media corporatisation in India has changed the understanding about the role and position of media in the country. In 2014, Vineet Jain, managing director of the Times of India Group of publications said that their newspaper was in the business of advertising. This candid admission captures the unmistakable direction the Indian media is taking. Media is now seen essentially as a business. Quite naturally, the pursuit of profit becomes its prime objective, and no business house would be willing to lose out on the media business, or the other businesses in which it is involved, just to ‘speak truth to power’.
The growing corporatisation of the media has progressed hand in hand with a decline in editorial ethos, and the subservience of journalistic values to business imperatives.
We are witnessing a link between corporatisation and the media’s turning away from its role as the watchdog of democracy, to being a promoter of the government’s agenda no matter how reactionary and regressive it is. (Remember the Cobrapost sting earlier this year, where top bosses of media houses were shown to be willing and eager to promote the agenda of communal polarisation for financial gain.) However, the link between the two processes is neither one-to-one nor direct, and needs closer examination.
Two outlets of the same media group, for instance, may take very different, even opposite views on the same issue.
While ABP News may drive away journalists who oppose Modi, the Telegraph of the same group comes up with some of the most daring and hard-hitting headlines and reports. One can see Times Now engaged, day in day out, in pushing the ‘nationalistic’, government agenda while its sister organisation Mirror Now takes a fairly progressive and balanced view on issues.
A large proportion of NDTV shares are owned by Reliance through VSP Ltd, by some carefully crafted financial arrangement, and yet NDTV continues to maintain an editorial position critical of the government. The hedging of risks across channels and media is a strategy employed by the corporate media house in its long-term pursuit of profit, protecting the interests of the larger business group which is promoting the media outlet.
Another worrying dimension of the corporatisation of the media landscape is the growing concentration of ownership witnessed in India. According to a recent study published in EPW titled ‘Mapping the Power of Major Media Companies in India’, in 2011 the share of the top four companies in the total revenue of each sector -- called the C4 share -- was 75% for television, 96% for radio, 84% for Direct-to-Home, 77% for news websites, and 48% for the newspaper industry. With fewer firms controlling the media, it becomes far easier for the government to armtwist and manipulate them to push its own agenda.
The issue of media houses’ freedom from government power and corporate control is deeply linked with the work conditions of those involved in creating the content. Over a period of time, the majority of media houses have opted for the retrenchment of employees at various levels, replacing regular employees with contract workers with no job security. It is obvious that the threat of losing one’s job works as a big deterrent for anyone thinking to oppose management diktats. It has also become a common practice for media houses to pay a paltry sum to reporters and other professionals working in smaller cities and on the ground.
Journalists are given the duty to generate advertising revenue and improve subscription along with their journalistic work. It is tragic that the recommendations of the Majithia Wage Board (2011), which was constituted to decide the basic wage and working conditions of the journalists, have been implemented by only a handful of media houses despite the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the recommendations.
In tandem with this, we see a trend where big names in the media are offered huge salaries, and sometimes become shareholders in the channel.
The impact of the entire process is that the media becomes weak and prone being manipulated by the management or the government.
Challenges to media freedom come from many quarters and involve both short- and longterm issues. In the immediate context, a government which is blatant in its pursuit to use all the powers at its command to gag the press and force it to follow its line needs to be held accountable by all those who value democracy and free expression.
It is dangerous when the work of journalists starts being benchmarked against its political desirability or the commercial imperatives of the media organisation. Indeed, in the longer run, the overall context of media ownership, journalists’ working conditions, institutional safeguards for free and fair reporting, and other such issues also need to be taken up for discussion within the media community.
As the Modi government enters its fifth year, the situation looks grim and intimidating not only for the media industry but for the democratic future of the country as a whole. When senior officials in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting call up media houses to threaten them, and the chief of the ruling party is reported to have echoed the threat to journalists for doing their job, it is time to sit up and take stock, and prepare for the long battle ahead.