#StopMediaBans: A Message to the Govt And The Media

We do have freedom of press in India, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t threats. Be aware and beware.

ByMadhu Trehan
#StopMediaBans: A Message to the Govt And The Media
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Who would have thought that NDTV would get support from the rest of the media? It is not breaking news that NDTV is just not popular. But the government’s maladroit handling of NDTV’s debatable breach of national security, united the media against the ban, even against NDTV.

In its eagerness to imprint their agenda, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has seized upon non-issues and inadvertently made heroes of people who questionably would not be deemed heroes by the public – Kanhaiya Kumar, Nayantara Sahgal and how can one add NDTV without saying even NDTV?

Soon after Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister he announced the media would not set the agenda of public discourse. He did not appoint the customary media advisor and has not held a single press conference in India. He does not take journalists on diplomatic tours as was customary. He has controlled all ministers from interacting with the media. The Prime Minister communicates to the people what he chooses to communicate. So it is a one-way street. It is this solipsism that has the BJP walking into a minefield of bungling. How can the BJP know what the public thinks if they are only listening to its millions of supporters on Twitter? What about the other millions?

A similar incident to the NDTV fiasco took place in America when President John Kennedy was planning the Bay of Pigs invasion and stories broke three months before it took place, jeopardising the mission. Kennedy should have been furious. He probably was. But how did he handle it?

On January 10, 1961, The New York Times reported on Cuban exile training camps that hinted at a planned invasion on Cuba. The day after that, The Miami Herald published a similar story that it had held back for months. The Bay of Pigs Invasion took place From April 17, 1961 to April 19, 1961. 

 Eight days after the Bay of Pigs disaster at the height of the Cold War, President John Kennedy, smarting from those stories, spoke to the American Publishers Association on April 27, 1961 where he addressed the need for journalistic restraint: “Nevertheless, every democracy recognizes the necessary restraints of national security-and the question remains whether those restraints need to be more strictly observed if we are to oppose this kind of attack as well as outright invasion.”

 Kennedy pointed out, “For the facts of the matter are that this nation’s foes have openly boasted of acquiring through our newspapers information they would otherwise hire agents to acquire through theft, bribery or espionage; that details of this nation’s covert preparations to counter the enemy’s covert operations have been available to every newspaper reader, friend and foe alike; that the size, the strength, the location and the nature of our forces and weapons, and our plans and strategy for their use, have all been pinpointed in the press and other news media to a degree sufficient to satisfy any foreign power; and that, in at least one case, the publication of details concerning a secret mechanism whereby satellites were followed required its alteration at the expense of considerable time and money.”

Ring a bell? NDTV has been accused of committing the same mistake. But did Kennedy shut the newspapers down? No, but he sharply addressed and appealed to the conscience of journalists. He made common cause with journalism.

“And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.

[freenews]

But I do ask every publisher, every editor, and every newsman in the nation to reexamine his own standards, and to recognize the nature of our country’s peril. In time of war, the government and the press have customarily joined in an effort, based largely on self-discipline, to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the enemy. In time of ‘clear and present danger,’ the courts have held that even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public’s need for national security.”

Rising above the damage caused by the newspaper reports, Kennedy added, “No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary. I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.

I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers–I welcome it. This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for, as a wise man once said: ‘An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.”

The Indian media has complete freedom of speech. Or, does it? We can write what we like. If we didn’t, how could we be complaining that governments, including this one, attempt to curtail our freedom? After all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reassured us himself that there will never be another Emergency. I believe him. No Emergency. So, let’s talk about the Subterranean Emergency. 

I would ask this government, what is the need to create a National Media Analytics Centre (NMAC) to monitor and analyse round-the-clock blogs, web portals of TV channels and newspapers, and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube? What is the need for your New Media Wing that scrutinises social media, highlighting those that are negative to the government? What is the need for the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre where 200 content auditors inspect over 600 TV channels round the clock? Why do you have software that classifies all published material into negative, positive or neutral? How much does it cost the Indian taxpayer? Do we have any say in the matter? We, the taxpayers are paying to have ourselves scanned, investigated and classified? Why? What benefit does this bring the nation?

The Subterranean Emergency – it doesn’t come from governments alone. It comes from powerful politicians who may not even be in power but still wield an axe. It may come from business houses that put pressure on editors and publishers.  

Not one person will go on record on this subject. Editors and owners have received the phone call. The voice tells them a certain journalist must be fired. The journalist is fired. No choice. In one case, the editor was so bothered by his conscience, he told the journalist he would receive his salary and benefits until he found a new job. Others have not had such help. Can I prove this? No, because people are afraid to put it on record.

There are also phone calls when a “negative” story is published. There are phone calls if some innocuous reporter from your organisation tweets something deemed unfavourable. Have you noticed how many stories are published and then disappear? They got the phone call. How many tweets are deleted? They got the phone call. 

On July 9, 2014, DNA published an article “A New Low in Politics” on Amit Shah by Rana Ayyub. Two days later, Ayyub was shocked to see her article had been removed. When she questioned DNA editors, she was told it was “too harsh”.  Someone received the phone call. There was outrage on Twitter. On July 20, 2015, Firstpost published a piece critical of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley by R Jagannathan. A day later, the article was ‘Missing in Action’ – taken down. Someone received the phone call.

Hindustan Times carried a four-page advertisement by China Daily on October 15, 2016.  The advertisement traced the history of BRIC nations and all the places where its meetings have been conducted. As part of that, a world map was used, which obviously included the map of India. The Indian boundaries were admittedly wrong as the ad creative came from China Daily.  As soon as HT realised the mistake, it carried an online apology the same day and also carried an apology the next day on the cover page of its print edition. In spite of that, a first information report (FIR) was filed in Delhi against the editor, printer and publisher, completely ignoring the fact that it was not written by HT but was an advertisement for which the paper had already apologised. 

Are there any records of editors who did not toe the line and have resigned or have been asked to leave? They will not talk about it.  The message is loud and clear – bending is not enough; crawl. 

But, this is not the only government that has done this. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was worse. Every time the Nehru-Gandhi family has been in power they have muzzled or attempted to muzzle the press. Miffed by criticism from the press, Jawaharlal Nehru after he became Prime Minister, added the cherry on top of Article 19, which has been misused by government after government to fix critics. Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi went to such lengths to crush the press, if those stories were put in a Bollywood film the producer would say this is too far fetched. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi tried with his Defamation Law, but backed down when the media united in a fight against it. Sonia Gandhi’s writ was seen in the wretched Section 66A, closing down of websites etc. And, the fear was justified. The hounding of IAS officer Ashok Khemka is stuff of Kafkaesque legend. The story on Robert Vadra sat on every editor’s desk, but never ran until it was given to Arvind Kejriwal. And, dare I speak about the BJP story that exploded while the UPA was in power and died a quiet death once the media figured Narendra Modi was the next Prime Minister? No, I do not dare.

 My question is this: We have a Prime Minister who came in with a huge mandate. He is still popular and little of the sheen has worn off. Narendra Modi has voraciously addressed issues that no government has had the courage to do. He has changed foreign policy on its head with an aggressive stance to some and peaceful overtures to others. He has zero tolerance for corruption in his ministries. He surely won me over when he roundly told off parents for not supervising their sons’ activities. He is the only Prime Minister who has addressed the cleanliness issue and toilets. Who else could have pushed “Haath Muh Bum”? He has worked on making India a manufacturing hub. When he stands with world leaders, he carries himself with aplomb. Then why, oh why, is it necessary to reduce his stature by scrutinising the press with a fine toothcomb, pulling out the weeds who criticise his government, and behave as if every negative report can actually hurt him? Narendra Modi is not that fragile; in fact, he is far from fragile. The country is not the BJP party where all rivals have to be cut to get to the top. You are at the top. Get used to it. Be magnanimous. 

 Instead of choosing journalists who support you, give interviews to those who don’t. (No, I’m not pitching. I’m neither here nor there.) By engaging with them, you can answer your worst critics. Narendra Modi connects with people better than any other Prime Minister we have had. He speaks the language of the zeitgeist. Why not have regular press conferences?

 And, we as journalists need to clean house. We do not have the trust of the people. That is a grave situation. Rajiv Gandhi had to back down from the Defamation Law because the people supported journalists. If people had faith in today’s journalism, any government would think twice before shaking us down. They can do so today because we have damaged our USP – our credibility. The government must kill the Subterranean Emergency and journalists must kill the Subterranean Journalism. 

I speak not to disprove what Modi spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love Freedom of Speech once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for it?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Freedom of Speech,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
(With apologies to William Shakespeare and his Marc Antony.)

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