Press Club’s romantic gladiators for free journalism ignore regional journalists

Small town journalists abused, beaten up, killed. The power to protest is class and language driven

ByAnand Vardhan
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Press Club’s romantic gladiators for free journalism ignore regional journalists
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Over past two weeks, there were signs of the Hindi media space wresting back its autonomy of perspective. It wasn’t impressed by the alarmist pitch with which the English media, with a disproportionate influence of intellectual elite, assembled at the Press Club of India (PCI) to protest against the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) raids on the promoters of NDTV.

While the raids failed in attracting any editorial comment or opinion piece in any major Hindi daily, the PCI event wasn’t even reported except a brief mention of Prannoy Roy’s statement of innocence on page 13 of the Dainik Jagran (“Maine aur meri patni ne kaale dhan ko kabhi haath nahi lagaya”, My wife and I have never touched black money, June 10).

The Hindi Press, apparently, refused to fall in line with the attempts to create perceptions of threats to media freedom under Modi’s regime. In charting its own course, even Hindi news channels were indifferent to the bogey of media persecution.

Other than the melancholic Ravish Kumar (NDTV India) using prime time (June 5) for making dramatic comparisons with Poland of the early 1980s, Hindi television media wasn’t willing to buy the theory of the Orwellian state arriving in India. Far more clearly, by choosing to distance itself from the outrage, major Hindi press publications snubbed any call to interpret the raids on NDTV for causing loss to a bank as a case of muzzling free speech. Interestingly, Pranav Priyadarshi’s piece in Navbharat Times chose to have a satirical take on how the alarmists are selective in picking battles of free speech.

Hindi press, and regional media in general has reasons to distance itself from such battles. The most important of them being that it has its own battles to fight- ones which are very different from the protesting gladiators of press clubs.

Last week, for instance, the audio clip of Neeraj Yadav, Rashtriya Janta Dal MLA from Barari (Katihar, Bihar) allegedly abusing  and threatening Sanjeev (alias “Pappu”), a reporter working  for Prabhat Khabar, is symptomatic of the very different type of conditions in which journalists of the regional press work. The script seems familiar- a local strongman, who is also the sitting MLA, upset about a report on delay in the construction of a bridge and unleashed filthiest of expletives in an alleged phone conversation with the reporter. Later Neeraj Yadav cried foul and organised a press conference to claim that the voice on the phone wasn’t his. He went on to accuse the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ex-MLA  Vibhash Chand Chaudhary of conniving with the self-proclaimed reporter to defame him. More significantly, the MLA claimed that Prabhat Khabar’s Katihar bureau chief had refused to identify Sanjeev as a reporter working for the newspaper. It’s a usual mix of problems that have come to characterise hinterland reporting and media doesn’t come across unscathed.

Such contested exposés on threats to media freedom in the hinterland are often followed by questioning the motives of the reporter and insinuations of media professionals resorting to blackmailing. The more disturbing aspect, however, seems to be the practice of media houses disowning their foot soldiers on the ground once it becomes inconvenient. Stringers, not enjoying the formal contracts of employment, are easily dissociated with, though the authenticity of Sanjeev’s association with Prabhat Khabar remains to be examined. Many regional publications depend on stringers for their local newsfeed and such acts of dissociation contributes to that trust deficit.

Widely perceived to be soft on the Nitish Kumar-led government and favoured for generous state government ads in its earlier stint, there are not many who believe Prabhat Khabar’s version on disowning its Bararia reporter. However, the ruling alliance partners- RJD, Janata Dal (United) and Congress- have opted not to comment on the issue.

Attacks on Hindi media professionals have not always been orchestrated by people wielding political power, though that’s the common profile of offenders. The political perpetrators could be seen in lethal assaults in recent years − be it the murder of regional bureau chief of Hindustan Rajdeo Ranjan at Siwan ( a case in which RJD MP Mohammad Shahabuddin has been recently named as an accused by CBI) in Bihar last year or Shahjahanpur-based journalist Jagendra Singh being burnt to death allegedly by the henchmen of Samajwadi Party MLA Ram Murti Verma in Uttar Pradesh in 2015. But, what is also equally threatening is the local strongmen and cabal of vested interests, with or without political influence, going to violent extremes to silence any media scrutiny. As recently as last month, for instance, a 42-year-old Hindi journalist, Kamlesh Jain, was shot dead in Madhya Pradesh for exposing a bootlegging racket.

It takes a murder or violent assault for the dangers faced by the journalists working in the hinterland to have any chance of being noticed by the national media. With the exception of Jansatta and India TV, even the national Hindi media space was indifferent to the verbal abuse and threat to which Bararia reporter was subjected to. That, however, didn’t mean that the digital space didn’t react. Writing for Newscaptured, independent journalist Vyalok Pathak called out the selective nature of outrage in national media against attacks on media freedom (Ravish Kumar, asal darr kya hota hai, Prabhat Khabar ke patrakaar Sanjeev se puchiye Ravish Kumar, if you want to know what fear is, ask Prabhat Khabar’s journalist Sanjeev, June 15).

The real fears, obviously, come from threats to physical safety − the stakes for showing journalistic courage in the backwaters of the Hindi heartland could be as high as loss of life. No wonder then that the low-stake courage of taking on the establishment in cosy editorial offices and reporting beats protected by the lung-power of the journalistic fraternity has shown little understanding of the costs of being a committed low-paid journalist in India’s hinterland.

The last two weeks offered more reasons to recall what this column had quoted Shashi Shekhar, editor-in-chief of Hindustan, as saying on the occasion of Hindi Journalism Day: “English media is luckier than their language press counterparts. English remains language of metropolis India while regional press journalists have to fend for themselves when they seek truth while discharging their professional duties…What do they get from the society?”

It’s highly unlikely that the Press Club of India would see a gathering to protest the killings of Rajdeo Ranjans of the world anytime soon, alarmed as it is by the abstract ideas of media under siege. It has less to do with the tyranny of distance and more to do with the convenience of grand political narratives − something in which real threats don’t fit in. English media has been punching above its weight and continues to have the heft to get its voice across corridors of power even with a narrow consumer base. Regional media has been living with the paradox of having a far greater readership base but treated as poor cousins by their colleagues in national media as well as the government. The irony gets more pronounced by the fact that the dangers faced by the foot soldiers of regional media are of the real world, dangers to physical security. That explains why the Hindi media would have to be wise in picking its own battles of media freedom, and not join the chorus of romantic gladiators of a free press in cosy confines of the capital’s Press Club.

Through the Hindi Lens is a fortnightly look into the world of Hindi news.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @anandvardhan26

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