On September 22 and 23, a national convention against assault on journalists was organised by the Committee Against Assault on Journalists at New Delhi’s Constitution Club.
The panel on ‘Censorship and Surveillance’ was slotted for the latter part of the second day. It was chaired by Caravan Political Editor Hartosh Singh Bal and included editors and journalists like Om Thanvi, Josy Joseph, Punya Prasun Bajpai, Seema Azad, Manoj Singh, Shiv Inder Singh and Vishwadeepak.
One of the most anticipated speakers in the panel was former ABP News anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai given his much-publicised exit from ABP News.
In his article for The Wire, Bajpai wrote at length on the steps taken by the governing Bharatiya Janata Party to pressure ABP News and its attempts to censor his show, Master Stroke. Bajpai also wrote about how a 200-member strong team was monitoring channels and gave “directives to the editors of the news channels about what was to be done and how”. Newslaundry Hindi also carried his testimony.
He said a member of the team had called him up stating that, “A separate report is prepared on your Masterstroke. And after what you have shown in your report today [July 9], anything can happen. Be vigilant.”
These revelations were perhaps a reason why he was part of the ‘censorship and surveillance’ panel. But when Bajpai spoke, it was as if the events at ABP News — which he described in such detail — had never occurred.
Within the first few minutes of his speech, Bajpai said, “Itni niraasha nahin hai, jitni niraasha main aap log yahan baithe hue hai. Dusri, stithi aisi toh bilkul nahin hai ki koi apko kaam karne se rok raha hai [the state of affairs isn’t as disappointing as you are making it to be. Also, it isn’t as if someone is stopping you from working].”
He added: “Humein to nahin roka gaya [I wasn’t stopped].”
Bajpai then went on to explain how things were equally bad under previous regimes. He said how he faced pressure under the Manmohan Singh government when he worked for Zee News, but how that never deterred him from doing his journalism. He spoke of reporting on Radia tapes when not many in the mainstream media wanted to touch the story. “No one showed it all through the day, but I broadcast it on my bulletin. I even named the corrupt journalists,” Bajpai said.
He added, “Humlog bahut nirasha mai isiliye hain, kyuki humein shayad kaam karne se roka jaata hai. Humein roka-woka nahin jaata hai, hum apko bahut saaf bata dete hai. Kaam karne se bilkul nahin roka jata hai…[We are disappointed probably because we are stopped from doing our work. Let me make it clear that we are not stopped from doing our work].”
Referring to the pressure faced by journalists, Bajpai said he hadn’t faced any yet. “Koi brahm na paaliye, humaare upar na Zee main koi pressure tha, na Aaj Tak mai koi pressure, na ABP News main koi pressure tha. Na Sahara mai koi pressure tha, na NDTV main kaam karte samay koi pressure tha [don’t harbour any misconceptions, there was no pressure on me either in Zee, or Aaj Tak, or ABP News, or Sahara or NDTV].”
Bajpai’s utterances are odd, to say the least. Leave for one minute the UPA-NDA comparison. If Bajpai feels that things are as bad under the NDA as they used to be under the UPA or that there’s no difference between Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, he’s well within his rights to feel so. At any rate, governments trying to control the media and succeeding at it is not a new phenomenon. But to deny that he ever faced pressure in ABP News runs contrary to his over 4000-word piece.
It is also curious that he didn’t mention the role of the “200-member team” in his exit from ABP News on a panel on surveillance and censorship. Instead, he said: “Yeh surveillance aur yeh censorship jo hai, humein lagta hai mahatvaheen hai yeh. Uska toh kaam hai, rozgaar paeda kaise hoga agar ye cheeze nahin chalegi toh. Ye toh ek poora process hai ki aapko is roop mai karna padega. [surveillance and censorship are unimportant. It is necessary, how will we create employment…this is a whole process…].” He then went on to say that even Indira Gandhi was subjected to surveillance.
The blurb of Bajpai’s Wire piece reads thus: ‘From being told not to take Narendra Modi’s name on my show or show his image on any programme critical of the government to a sinister blacking out of my show, Masterstroke, what happened was nothing short of censorship [emphasis added].’
Words and assertions of a journalist matter. If in August, Bajpai went to town screaming censorship, he must explain what changed in September for him to state that he’s never faced any sort of pressure in ABP News.
Wrapping up his speech, Bajpai also said: “Aaj Modi hai, kal koi aur hoga. 2019 mai dusra shaks aa jaega.” Implying that an individual doesn’t make a difference.
Bajpai’s laments on the nature of power and its transient nature appear pointless on a panel on the current situation in the media, something that Bal pointed out towards the end of the discussion. “Ya toh hum andhe baithe hain, ya hum kisi aur profession main kaam kar rahe hain [either we are blind or we’re working in some other profession],” he said. Bal added that it is not incorrect to state that things were bad earlier too, but the pressure journalists face under the current regime must be called out for what it is.
You can watch Bajpai’s intervention here, starting from -31:22 minutes onwards.