SEEMA MUSTAFA | 9 SEPTEMBER, 2014
Media, from a pillar to a stone
NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it clear in a 100 days of his government that the media is the most dispensable item on his agenda. Journalists have been placed at more than an arms length with the Prime Minister deciding the timing, the content, in fact the entire management of any media event according to his own set rules.
The big media houses who had joined their corporate owners in projecting Modi as the politician best fit for the job of Prime Minister got their first blow when the government made it clear that the reporters with cameras were not welcome on Raisina Hill where they used to lie in wait for ministers and visiting dignitaries for the virtually proverbial sound bites.
The second blow, almost simultaneous, was a clear directive from the Prime Minister to his Council of Ministers and all bureaucrats not to interact with the media. This has become a huge ‘no no’ in this government with senior officials fearing the sack if they even so much as wave out to a scribe they used to know rather well before the general elections. The Ministers are constant reminded by Prime Minister Modi about these instructions with even MP’s cautioned against hobnobbing with the journalists.
The third blow came with the realisation that the Prime Ministers office that always had a points person in the form of a friendly media advisor to meet at least the journalists had now closed its doors to all scribes. PM Modi has dispensed with an advisor and has just a Gujarat information officer who he relies on completely for his ability to issue quick and timely press releases about his activities. In fact the grapevine that is about all journalists have left these days has the story that a senior journalist met the Gujarat information officer, and rekindling old contacts suggested they meet at some point over a cup of tea. Pat came the response, “I do not drink tea.”
The fourth blow came with the PM’s decision to travel abroad without the usual bunch of journalists who vied for a seat in former Prime Ministers aircrafts with the favourite media houses being rewarded with a trip every single time that the head of government went abroad. Needless to say these visits, cushioned in state and five star comfort, had become a major attraction for the scribes who paid for their inclusion in the list accompanying the Prime Minister with extensively flattering reports. However, PM Modi has stopped this completely only the official media from Doordarshan and the Press Trust of India to accompany him on the flights abroad. Others are told that they can fly to the particular destination on their own expense if they so desire.
And again according to the grapevine during one of his first foreign visits to Brazil he was met with the Indian television teams that had travelled on their own to cover the BRICs meeting. Seeing them the PM is said to have remarked a trifle derisively, “accha to yeh toli yahan bhi aa gayi hai?” ( So this lot has arrived here as well). He refused to stop and meet them with all efforts proving futile through the visit.
The Prime Minister has also done away with the practice of on-flight briefings. There is not a single briefing by him, unlike in the past when Prime Ministers would interact and hold at least two press conferences on board the aircraft with the journalists accompanying them. This used to be the highlight of the travel but PM Modi has ensured that not just he, but even the high level officers and ministers accompanying him, do not speak with the journalists short of a ‘are you comfortable’ interaction.
PM Modi while contesting the elections had made full use of the television, print and the social media to campaign and put forth his views. However, it soon became apparent to the journalists---at the prodding of opposition leaders---that while he allowed them to cover his every event he did not speak to them directly at all. Following criticism on this, he gave specific interviews towards the end of the campaign to television channels giving them sufficient sound bites to chew on for a few days.
After he emerged successful and was sworn in as the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has virtually banished the media without appearing to have done so. All information is now regulated, and very little reaches the media through the ‘sources’ it had cultivated and relied upon. Particularly galling, as a senior editor said, is the fact that most of the ministers today are the garrulous BJP spokespersons of yesterday who now avoid all contact with the journalists except when specifically cleared to do so. Ministers, thus, will host a meal or invite the media for a briefing but all these interactions are structured now, and give the impression of having been cleared from the top.
The fourth pillar of democracy is thus floundering, covering the ‘events’ that the Prime Minister creates and manages without direct access. He has ensured, however, that he does not play favourites and the same rules apply for all the journalists at the moment, in that all are kept away from the corridors of power with no exceptions. The power play between television stars and celebrity editors has thus ended in the process, with all reduced to standing outside the door hoping for a peep in.
In the process, however, journalism has taken a decided knock as the watchdog of society is being deliberated reduced by the executive from a pillar to a stone. The journalist has the right to demand information, but given the fact that the media had become part of the revered establishment over the years, this right had been abrogated at its own hands a while ago. PM Modi is now completing the process, by establishing his control over information, and determining what will be given out and in what manner to the media, and what will be withheld.