The website of the Press Trust of India boasts of these words said by KR Narayanan, former president of India, to mark the news agency’s golden jubilee: "We got independence in 1947. But independence in news and information we got only with the establishment of PTI in 1949. That is the significance of PTI."
Narayanan’s remarks summed up the legacy of India’s oldest and largest news wire service. That was in 1999.
Cut to 2020. The agency stands accused of “anti-national” reportage. And the allegation has been levelled by India’s state broadcaster, no less.
On June 27, Prasar Bharati sent a letter to PTI threatening to cancel its annual subscription to the news agency. The stated reason: the “recent news coverage” by PTI was detrimental to “national interest” and undermined India’s territorial integrity.
Apart from its language and tone, the letter’s timing raised eyebrows. It came shortly after PTI had carried interviews of the Chinese ambassador to India and the Indian ambassador to China on June 25 and June 26, respectively. The theme of the discussions was the recent . The interviews apparently didn’t go down well with the Indian government, prompting Prasar Bharati’s letter to the news agency.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” said Maharaj Krishan Razdan, who spent five decades at PTI, including as its editor-in-chief until his retirement in September 2016. The agency has served the cause of India and Indian media very well for over 70 years, he told Newslaundry. It has also made immense contributions to the growth of small and medium newspapers in particular. “It’s preposterous to accuse such an organisation of working against the territorial integrity of the country,” Razdan added.
The Indian Express that the letter, with the subject “news reporting by PTI not in national interest”, was written by Samir Kumar, the head of Prasar Bharati News Service, and was addressed to PTI’s Chief Marketing Officer. It stated that “taking into view in totality PTI’s conduct, Prasar Bharati is reviewing the need for continued relationship with PTI and a decision in this regard will be conveyed soon”.
While the letter does not divulge details about the “conduct”, the two recent interviews carried by PTI appear to have been the immediate trigger for it.
In , Sun Weidong, the Chinese ambassador, squarely blamed India for the border crisis. He put the onus of resolving the issue on India as well. “The onus is not on China. The Indian side crossed the LAC for provocation and attacked the Chinese border troops,” he told PTI, referring to the Line of Actual Control. “The Indian forces seriously violated agreements on border issues between the two countries.”
This caused a social media backlash against the news agency. The interview was a submissive affair, it was alleged, and PTI was criticised for not questioning the claims made by the Chinese envoy, thereby giving a platform to the Chinese regime to peddle its propaganda against India.
PTI rejected the allegations as “unwarranted, unjustified and unfair”. In a , the news agency said the “one-sided criticism” of the interview had resulted from “the truncated version” put out by the Chinese embassy.
The version of the listed just three questions. “Thank you for accepting my interview. How do you see the face-off in Galwan Valley?”, “How do you think the current dispute can be resolved?”, “What do you think is the prospect for solving the current border faceoff?”
Sun, in his responses, forwarded China’s view on the Galwan Valley and suggested the crisis could be resolved if India met China halfway.
In its clarification, PTI said it had put “a number of questions” to Sun, including many “that challenged his narrative”. But the Chinese embassy published only three answers as the “main points”. “PTI has written to Ambassador Sun to protest in the strongest terms their lopsided presentation of the interview,” the statement to the Print added.
Just as PTI was trying to salvage the situation, its , with India’s ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, created another storm the next day. Misri said in the interview that Chinese aggression had indeed happened and India hoped China would move “back to its side of the LAC” in eastern Ladakh. A few extracts from the interview were tweeted out by the news agency.
Misri’s remarks contradicted prime minister Narendra Modi’s statement of June 20 that said there had been no Chinese incursion in Ladakh. Not surprisingly, the envoy’s remarks caused a storm with many commentators pointing out the inconsistencies in the government’s version of the Ladakh standoff.
The two interviews clearly put the Indian government in an uncomfortable position. And finding no one else to blame, it decided to shoot the messenger, firing from the shoulder of the state broadcaster, alleged several journalist bodies that as “arm twisting”, “blackmail”, and an “attack on the freedom of the press”.
In its letter, the Print , Prasar Bharati alleged that PTI’s reportage was contrary to the values laid out in the Prasar Bharati Act, 1990. The law mandates that the state broadcaster be guided by the objective of upholding the unity and integrity of the country. The letter, unnamed sources told the Print, wasn’t prompted by a one-off “editorial lapse” by the news agency, and that earlier too certain instances had been pointed out to them.
Acknowledging that it had received Prasar Bharati’s letter, PTI said they were examining it and would respond with the facts in due course.
PTI is a not-for-profit news service provider. As of March 2019, according to the Indian Express, an estimated 99 media outlets across the country owned all of its 5,416 shares. It has close to 1,000 contributors on its payroll, including over 400 full-time journalists and nearly 500 stringers. According to PTI’s website, it puts out over 2,000 stories and 200 photographs per day to serve its diverse subscriber base comprising “the mainstream media, the specialised presses, research groups, companies, and government and non-governmental organisations”. PTI has correspondents in major cities around the world and arrangements with foreign news agencies for getting global news updates.
The organisation is run by a 16-member board of directors. According to Razdan, 12 of the directors are elected from among the news agency’s shareholders, who in turn invite four “men of eminence” as independent directors. The board’s chairpersonship is rotated every year. Its current chairman is Vijay Kumar Chopra, CEO and editor-in-chief of Punjab Kesari.
In the past, former Supreme Court judge HR Khanna, the Indian Express founder Ramnath Goenka and the jurist Fali Nariman, among other prominent figures, have served on PTI’s board. The current independent directors are former chief justice of India RC Lahoti, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, economist Deepak Nayyar, and lawyer Jimmy F Pochkhanawalla.
“It’s hard to believe that an organisation which is overseen by such distinguished Indians can even remotely be accused of working against the interests of the nation,” Razdan remarked. It’s “unfair and shocking” that such an allegation should be labelled against a national institution like PTI, he added.
Pointing out that the news agency has always worked independently, Razdan said, “PTI has no ad revenue and nobody has any financial interest in it because it is a not-for-profit. PTI’s reliability and credibility is unmatched and unquestioned.”
For this reason, run-ins with governments have not been uncommon in the past, he added. He recalled that PTI obtained the details of the expenses incurred on the foreign travels of the then President Pratibha Patil which sparked a controversy. Another time, Razdan received a legal notice from the then foreign minister SM Krishna, who was unhappy with PTI for reporting that he read the speech of the foreign minister of another country at the United Nations.
But the PTI had never received a letter like the one sent by Prasar Bharati, the former editor said.
Currently, according to its website, PTI commands 90 percent of India’s news agency market. It makes money from subscriptions paid by media outlets.
Prasar Bharati, which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio, is an autonomous institution under the central government. Its subscription to PTI goes back decades and since 2013, according to the Indian Express, the state broadcaster has paid the news agency Rs 9.15 crore a year for its services. However, since 2017, the state broadcaster has been holding back about 25 percent of the sum as it wants to renegotiate the costs.
Asked about Prasar Bharati playing hardball over its subscription deal with PTI, Razdan said the broadcaster should be paying much more given the reach of AlR and Doordarshan, whose bulletins alone reach over half the country's population. PTI’s fee is linked to the reach of the subscriber. The fee for a newspaper with 20,000 readers would obviously be less than that for a paper with 1,00,000 readers, Razdan explained.
"What they are paying the agency is not a dole or a subsidy or a gift. The subscription is in exchange for the 24x7 news services provided to AIR and DD by PTI whose news network is unrivalled by any other agency," he said, adding the subscription fee currently paid by Prasar Bharati was just about seven percent of PTI's annual revenues.
Newslaundry reached out to Vijay Joshi, PTI’s editor-in chief and Shashi Vempati, chief executive officer of Prasar Bharati, for comments on the controversy. But calls and text messages to both of them went unanswered. We also emailed Vikarm Misri asking for elaboration on his remarks made to PTI. The report will be updated if a response is received.
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