No Questions, Please

Has regional media sold its soul to politicians? And are those who haven’t, facing political ire as a result?

WrittenBy:Somi Das
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By now most people have watched the video of Pawan Bansal snapping at the media outside his residence in Chandigarh after he resigned.The ousted rail minister lost his cool with the media when a few journalists asked him some questions about his family’s involvement in the rail bribery scam and in a case of illegal land allotment. In case you are one of the few people who haven’t seen the video of Bansal tossing his steel grey locks and issuing a not-so-veiled threat, today’s your lucky day.

To translate, Bansal told the reporter – on camera – “shall I explain the meaning of ‘family’ to you, alone”. Newslaundry spoke to the reporter to ask what preceded this strange exchange.

On condition of anonymity, the reporter said, “We were standing outside his residence in Chandigarh on Monday. Reporters from various news channels had gathered there. He came out and we wanted to take a sound byte from him on the issue of corruption charges against him and his family. But he refused to answer. However, he said that I will address my supporters and you can record all that. While addressing his supporters he kept on saying that he was honest and had no involvement in any kind of wrong doing. And that he welcomed the CBI investigation”. The reporter added, “It was pure dramebaazi. He was making us record all his statements while not answering our questions. So I was forced to ask him: Sir, what about the involvement of your family in the rail scam and the illegal land deal case”. It was then that Bansal lost his cool and said, “akele mein family ka matlab batao kya?” An open threat. “I was not there to hear what he was dishing out. I was there to ask him questions. That’s my job. But I wasn’t expecting that kind of a reaction from him”, he adds.

While stumped by Bansal’s response, the reporter did add that the local stringers and reporters present there didn’t raise a single question or protest against Bansal’s brazenness. According to him, it has always been difficult to ask tough questions to leaders in their hometowns, and for some strange reason, more often than not, it is the regional media that is at the receiving end of political ire.

Be it Uttar Pradesh Minister ShivpalYadav telling a reporter “bina bulwaye aye toh band karwa denge” (If you come here without being invited to, I will get your channel shut) or Vayalar Ravi’s misogynistic remarks against a journalist from the Malayalam channel Matrubhumi, reporters from regional channels often have to face humiliation for asking tough questions. Remember how former Punjab minister, Bibi Jagir Kaur convicted on counts of forcible abortion, wrongful confinement, abduction and criminal conspiracy threatened local channel Day and Night News for “negative reporting”?

And it’s just not verbal threats or abuse that regional scribes are subjected to. In Punjab especially, journalists getting beaten up is quite common. Speaking to Newslaundry, General Secretary of Chandigarh Press Club Ranju Aery said that on Tuesday morning two separate incidents of attacks on journalists were reported. She said, “A journalist in Barnala was called by a leader of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and beaten up. In Jalandhar, a policeman beat up a journalist. The security of the journalist is an increasing concern”. Similar cases of journalists being assaulted were reported from Barnala two weeks ago. Two journalists of a Hindi daily were beaten up and the Barnala police had booked former RSS district chief Ram Vyas, district BJP president Gurmeet Bawa and other senior BJP leaders in regard to the case. Later, however, the police withdrew the attempt to murder (307) charge against the booked persons. Journalists and some activists in Barnala have been protesting against the withdrawal of charges.

The question is, what makes politicians believe they can treat journalists of their hometowns in this manner? Do they feel that the media should simply replicate what they say without question? And when they refuse to play along, they resort to either verbal or physical abuse?

Aery makes an interesting point. “Journalists have to be blamed for the kind of behaviour they get from politicians. Paid news is the reason why politicians think that they can behave in any manner with media persons and get away with it. They think that we are their spokespersons as certain media houses play into their hands. If we have to earn respect and hold our head high, it is important that we get rid of this menace called paid news. We need to deal with internal fault lines.”

Indeed regional media is known to kow-tow to politicians. Not to say that certain sections of the national media aren’t seen as spokespersons of political parties and politicians. But it is the regional media that takes a fat paycheck back home by furthering the cause of politicians. Aery adds that it is not always the reporter who is getting the money but on several occasions it is the management that is also closely involved with politicians.  According to an Indian Express report, Raman Singh’s BJP government, had paid huge sums of money for favourable news stories and live coverage of government events to Chhattisgarh’s main TV channels – Z24, Sahara Samay, ETV Chhattisgarh and Sadhna News – as well as some smaller, local networks. In a bizarre statement, the editor of Z24, Abhay Kishor justifies the act by saying,“The term paid news is coined by national media without understanding (the) concerns of regional media. We have to evolve new forms of revenue as it is a challenge to sustain TV journalism”.

With editors such as these, there’s not much reporters can do. However, Aery says that irrespective of cosy relations between management and politicians, one needs to make sure that reporters are safe. “There has to be a code of conduct on how politicians should interact with journalists. They can’t just misbehave with journalists and get away. We are thinking of forming a nationwide federation with the help of all the press clubs across the country to take up the issue of protection of journalists.”

The Chandigarh Press Club has taken up Bansal’s threat to the journalist and issued a statement seeking an unconditional apology from Bansal – which not surprisingly hasn’t yet been offered. However, the Press Club is not giving up so easily. Aery said, “We are not going to leave this matter so easily. We will pursue it till Bansal apologises. We will take a call on our next move in our governing council meeting”.

Chandigarh Press Club’s initiative is praiseworthy. In a country largely governed by the mai-baap culture and driven by sycophancy, the high and mighty seem to find it difficult to accept that anyone can ask them uncomfortable questions. While politicians may continue to shirk off accountability to media, the media shouldn’t be surprised at such behaviour. Going by the age old adage of “you get what you deserve”, if the regional media wants to be taken seriously, it needs to get its house in order – kyunki jinke khud ke ghar sishe ke hote hain, who dusro ke ghar pathar nahi pheka karte(don’t go lobbing stones when you live in a glasshouse).

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