We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, of one another. We will not be driven by fear in another age of unreason… if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men -- not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes, that were, for the moment, unpopular... A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves…” Edward R Murrow, legendary American broadcast journalist.

On the first Tuesday of October, even as there is a nip in the air, one day after Gandhi Jayanti, it seemed like a ‘bad-news-breaking’ day for journalists in India. Since early in the morning, several well-known names in the Indian media, had the Delhi police knocking at their doors.

The raids were reportedly held in 40 locations in Delhi, including in Mumbai. Some journalists were taken for questioning and released in the evening. Prabir Purkayastha, founder-editor of ‘Newsclick’ and another employee have been arrested.

This followed with an impromptu solidarity meeting at the Press Club of India in Delhi. News became ‘running news’ all through the day across the country. Social media was full of condemnations and shock. Others were reminded of the midnight knocks of the 1975 Emergency era. A protest rally has been called on Wednesday evening from the Press Club.

The Opposition was quick to react, on the day when Trinamool Congress leaders, including MPs like Mohua Moitra and Dola Sen, too, were reportedly evicted and detained by the police outside the Krishi Bhawan in Delhi. They have been demanding pending wages under MGNREGA for workers in West Bengal and seeking a meeting with the concerned minister.

The Congress has said that this was a move to distract attention from the revelations of the caste survey carried out in Bihar. The I.N.D.I. alliance said: “Both the government and its ideologically aligned organisations have resorted to reprisals against individual journalists who spoke truth to power.

“Furthermore, the BJP government has also spearheaded regressive policies like the Information Technology Rules 2021 that constrict the media from reporting objectively. In doing so, the BJP is not only hiding its sins of omission and commission from the people of India. It is also compromising India’s global standing as a mature democracy…

“The BJP government’s coercive actions are invariably directed against only those media organisations and journalists that speak truth to power. Ironically, the BJP government is paralysed when it comes to taking action against those journalists inciting hatred and divisiveness in the nation.”

The Press Club of India has expressed deep concern and said that it is closely following the situation. The Editors Guild of India (EGI) said: “The raids are reportedly being conducted in connection with an FIR filed under the draconian UAPA and laws relating to criminal conspiracy and disruption of communal harmony against journalists, including those associated with the website Newsclick.in…

“The EGI is concerned that these raids are yet another attempt to muzzle the media. While we recognise that the law must take its course if actual offences are involved, due process has to be followed. The investigation of specific offences must not create a general atmosphere of intimidation under the shadow of draconian laws, or impinge on the freedom of expression and the raising of dissenting and critical voices.”

As the countdown to 2024 begins, and the campaign for the Assembly polls in multiple states heats up, observers believe that this is merely the start of a bitter season of bad news in the making. If at all, it all points to a history of similar phenomena across the world, including in democracies like that of the USA, in the past.

Those who have watched a 90-minute black and white film directed by George Cloony, ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’, would at once recognise this quote within the haze of smoke in the CBS newsroom.

This is because this was the 1950s, the era of the ‘red under the bed’ phobia in America, with Senator Joseph McCarthy unleashing his vicious Cold War against miscellaneous dissenters, creative people, academics, filmmakers, actors, journalists and writers.

This was the era of the ‘Witch-Hunt’, with the communist conspiracy theory stalking the ultra-orthodox Right-wing American establishment. And that is why the clichéd slogan of the times: ‘It is better to be dead, then red’.

Not only journalists, even greats like Charlie Chaplin, and writer Arthur Miller (who married another dissenter, actress Marylyn Monroe), were hounded. Even while, it can very well be argued, that George Orwell’s totalitarian regime of 1984 (with Stalin’s shadow in the backdrop) could actually be Rightwing Senator McCarthy’s 1950s America as well, with Big Brother watching all and sundry, and doublespeak the only, singular truth of the day.

Meanwhile, even as news refuses to trickle in from China, the ‘CNN’ reported that independent journalist Huang Xueqin and labour rights activist Wang Jianbing were detained by Chinese authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou in September 2021. “The pair has been accused of inciting subversion of State power and will be tried at the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court, according to supporters. Multiple calls to the court from CNN went unanswered.

Meanwhile, whatever little semblance of freedom of expression existed in Hong Kong, has been crushed by Beijing. Editors and journalists are either in prison, lying low, or their media organisations have been shut down.

A similar syndrome stalks Russia. Only the official media is allowed to operate. Even Nobel Prize-winning editor, Dmitry Muratov of Novaya Gazeta, has been compelled to shut his independent media outfit, even while certain journalists have been murdered by ‘unknown assassins’ in recent times. Other journalists have fled, chosen exile, or are filing stories from distant locations outside Russia.

India was always different because it was a living democracy, though fragmented, unequal, unjust and not exactly flourishing, but freedom of expression has been enshrined in its Constitution. Even during the Emergency, while hundreds were in jail and there was a clampdown, some brave editors would often defy the censors by printing blank editorials on its front page, while others would dare to write spoofy articles camouflaged as critique of the regime.

For instance, in Nepal, during the Emergency declared by King Gyanendra, all popular community radio stations were taken over by the army. This reporter found some editors of newspapers writing editorials on ‘socks and shampoos’: just to make a satirical point that the pen is mightier than the army’s AK-47.

This phenomenon has continued till date. The partisan behaviour of some anchors have been expressed in their daily spiel, and the prime-time shows often seem like a raucous circus, with neither reason nor rationality being reflected. Fake news and propaganda has gone on unabated.

There has been little or no fair-play in the contemporary, mainstream Indian media scene, especially on the TV channels, with most of the print media choosing to ‘not’ tread on the wrong foot of the establishment.

It is in this context that the I.N.D.I.A alliance has declared that it will not participate in the shows anchored by certain TV personalities. There has been criticism of this move, and some sections in the media have argued that this is against the concept of free press.

Said Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in a recent tweet: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has boycotted every Indian journalist by not addressing even a single press conference in the last 10 years. How is it wrong to boycott 14 journalists who have compromised media ethics by acting as mouthpiece of one political party?”

He cited journalists who had arrested for doing their job: Malayalam reporter Siddique Kappan (arrested in Uttar Pradesh); Bangalore-based fact-checker Mohammed Zubair (arrested by Delhi police); Ajit Ojha and Prashant Kanojia (both arrested in Uttar Pradesh), Jaspal Singh (arrested in Haryana), Sajad Gul (arrested in centrally governed Jammu and Kashmir) and Kishorechandra Wangkhen (arrested in Manipur). Some of these journalists have received bail.

However BJP chief JP Nadda, also in a tweet, said that I.N.D.I.A is “bullying” the media, apart from attacking Sanatana Dharma, “Bullying the media -- filing FIRs, threatening individual journalists, making ‘lists’ in true Nazi-style of who to target. The Emergency era mindset is alive among these parties.”

This reporter asked a cross-section of citizens their opinion about the ‘boycott’. Many said that this was non-cooperation, and not a boycott. Said writer and activist Swati Goswami, based in Ahmedabad. She said: “I am in favour of the I.N.D.I.A alliance boycotting some journalists who have been actively participating in spreading hate and encouraging violence.

“In fact, the list of journalists should be longer. They not only indulged in insensitive harassment of Rhea Chakraborty, but also Aryan Khan's arrest. Time is of utmost importance till the elections in 2024 and no leader of Opposition needs to waste it on such propagandist journalists. They scream about Pakistan but don't talk about China's invasion!”

According to social scientist Avijit Pathak, “It is sad to see the degeneration of mainstream TV news channels. The combination of toxic and loud 'star anchors' and the dissemination of hyper-nationalist and communally-charged news/one- sided debates reflects the triumph of noise over nuanced conversations.

“As the power of honest reporting and intellectually sound critique disappears, what remains is simply a hyper-real song of praise for the ruling regime, or its ' messiah'. Hence, one can understand the tragic circumstances under which the I.N.D.I.A group has decided to boycott this gang of 'star' anchors.”

Seasoned journalist Ajith Pillai said, “I am in principle against such boycotts. But, I feel an exception must be made in this case because we are not dealing with journalists here.

“Those who the Opposition has decided to boycott are not in the true sense objective members of the fourth estate, but are hate-spewing showmen and women spreading fake news on prime-time to further the communal agenda of the BJP-RSS. They are part of the propaganda machine.

“Make no mistake, a balanced debate is the last thing on their minds and spokespersons of Opposition parties often find their voices filtered out and their mikes switched off. Remember, no ban has been imposed on the anchors or their channels. No action has been taken. No censorship. The opposition has merely made it known that it will not be part of the charade. So, what is the fuss all about?”

Senior journalist Satya Sivaraman said, “The PM has boycotted the entire Indian Press for nine years in a row now! So the opposition boycotting a section of the media which is paid to be hostile to them is understandable.”

General Secretary of the Delhi Union of Journalist, Sujata Madhok, said: “If you look at it logically, the channels have the right to invite who they want on their shows. Similarly, the political parties have the right to send who they choose or send nobody. Neither side is under any compulsion.

“Naming and boycotting some anchors sets a tricky precedent. For the Opposition these are desperate times and they are being forced to resort to desperate measures because the channel-owners and anchors are clearly siding with the ruling party. All objectivity has been thrown to the winds. No debate is conducted with decorum or decency. In this situation why should the Opposition spokespersons appear on shows just to get a beating?”

Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera said at a press meet, “We have not banned, boycotted or blacklisted anyone. We will not cooperate with anyone spreading hatred in the society…They are not our enemies. Nothing is permanent, if tomorrow they realise that what they were doing is not good for India, we will again start attending their shows.”

At the G20 meet in Delhi, the denial of media access to Joe Biden in Delhi rankled America and the Western media no end. The Western media has never had to face such deliberate alienation from its professional duties, as it did during the meet in Delhi. Consequent to that, Biden went ahead and held a press conference in Vietnam, soon after his departure from India.

Amit Sengupta is a seasoned journalist. Views expressed here are the writer’s own.

Cover Photograph: Journalists gather at the Press Club of India after the raids.