The Editors Guild of India calls itself a “conscience keeper”, committed to “free, fair and independent journalism”. It’s very active when it comes to issuing statements condemning the harassment of journalists, and so, on October 26, it issued a statement on “hundreds of FIRs” filed against journalists of Republic TV for allegedly spreading discontent against the Mumbai police.
The context is an FIR filed on Friday, October 23, for purportedly defaming the Mumbai police.
Newslaundry has learned that there were strong differences of opinion before the statement came out between members of the Guild. Some brought up Republic’s ethics when it comes to journalism even as others argued that the Guild should not “stay silent”.
Before we get to that, the language of the statement itself is interesting.
While noting that it was “pained to see the unedifying spectacle” of FIRs filed against Republic journalists, the Guild said it did not “wish to influence the probe by the authorities” — referring to the ongoing investigation into the involving Republic.
The statement then went off into Republic’s “high-strung conduct” after the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, pointing out how the Bombay High Court had . “It is high time the channel behaves responsibly and not compromise the safety of its journalists as well as hurt the collective credibility of media,” the Guild said.
It then circled back to how the police “must ensure that its investigation does not hurt the channel’s journalists or make any arrests”.
So, what happened within the Guild before the statement was released?
Journalist vs journalist
Between the FIR being filed on Friday and the statement coming out on Monday, there was a heated debate between members of the Guild. These conversations took place on an email thread, which Newslaundry accessed.
Discussions took place between Swarajya editor R Jagannathan, ANI’s Smita Prakash, and iTV Network’s editorial director MD Nalapat, who favoured the release of a statement in support of Republic, as did journalists like India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai, independent journalist Jawid Laiq, and Satyahindi co-founder Ashutosh, but who also cited the channel's "ethics".
The discussion had kicked off with an email from R Jagannathan. He said: “EGI [the Guild] will have no credibility left if it cannot bring itself to condemn in the strongest possible terms Goswami's harassment and FIRs against everyone in the editorial team...EGI should stand up for ALL journos under attack and not just those it likes. The real threat is in the states while we keep obsessing about publications in Delhi.”
ANI’s Smita Prakash wrote: “We do not approve of the kind of journalism that is being practiced by Republic TV. And even though Republic TV is not a member of NBA [the News Broadcasters’ Association] and does not subscribe to our Code, we still take strong exception to cases filed against its editorial staff.”
The News Broadcasters’ Association had condemning the fact that journalists in the newsroom had become “victims” of the conflict between Republic and the Mumbai police, even as it said it did not approve of Republic’s journalism. Republic with the NBA a couple of years ago.
Sardesai wrote: “I have been a bit reluctant to join [the] issue on this mail group for many reasons, one of which is my staunch belief that journalism must be judged by actions and not words. But since so many are taking the high moral ground on the Republic issue, I think it’s times to call a spade a shovel.”
He continued: “Yes...the Guild should issue a statement condemning any Brazen and excess state action like in Maharashtra by the Mumbai police...but to those who view the police action as an attack on a ‘free’ press, let’s be clear on one issue: ‘freedom’ does not allow us to behave in an irresponsible, and more critically, in the earlier instance of Palghar in particular, blatantly communal manner. Journalism that actively promotes communalism is not journalism: and does not allow any constitutional protection. This has nothing to do with ideology either: even a cursory look at the Palghar narrative will show how deeply flawed it was from day one..."
He added a postscript: “By the way, there is no spine involved in issuing statements. Spine is judged by the quality of our journalism.”
Prakash replied: “The merits of their journalism can be commented upon certainly, but not penalised with a non-support from the Guild, because they do not have the blessings of some members of the Guild, whether because of their flawless standards of journalism or pure simple competition..."
She pointed out that Seema Mustafa, who was elected as the Guild’s president earlier this month, had with her team on the attack on a Caravan journalist, despite the Caravan’s editor, Anant Nath, being a member of the Guild executive committee.
“Did anyone comment on conflict of interest? No,” Prakash wrote. “What had to be done had to be done. No partisan support or objection.”
In his email, Sardesai had referred to how “every central minister is jumping to the defence of a channel so definitions of state power are also tied in with political power here”.
In response, Prakash said: “Central ministers jumping to the support of Republic — are they in the Guild? If yes, they must immediately put their resignations up. Or maybe the Guild should come out with a condemnation criticising ministers for supporting a channel? Or a newspaper? Sounds facetious? Yup!”
She ended: “In conclusion when the entire newsroom of a media organisation is named in an FIR, it merits a response from the Guild. In my opinion. This Guild has passed statements on lesser injustices.”
Independent journalist Aakar Patel intervened, suggesting a “representation to the government seeking a meeting on all issues and concerning all major criminal cases against media”. “Will also help open a way to converse with the State rather than talking to it through statements alone,” he wrote.
Swarajya’s Jagannathan then addressed Sardesai: “I would have no issue with your formulation provided we had clear definitions on what is ‘communal’ or what is ‘hate speech’ or what is ‘potty’ journalism. We have to define these terms in a community-neutral way, so that condemnation and outrage is not selective. In my view, the entire anti-CAA agitation was anti-Hindu and communal, but you may not agree. That's all right, but we are not in politics or ideology here. We are talking about defending the rights of journos who are being targeted on a mass scale in Mumbai.”
His email ended: “This is a fishing expedition to find out who will rat on Arnab;it is not a genuine investigation. Hope you agree on this at least.”
Jawid Laiq’s email on the thread said: “Several esteemed Members have supported the Republic’s and Arnab Goswami & Co’s unfettered right to freedom. Can this also not indicate indirect support for hate speech and, possibly, hate crimes? I am sure the esteemed Members are NOT supporters of any such dire possibilities.”
The Right-Left divide in the Guild
In earlier times, despite differences in politics and ideology, journalists would unite when it came to attacks on the media. The absence of this unity today is a reflection of the deepening divide among journalists, and the polarising politics of our times.
Shekhar Gupta, former president of the Guild, against Republic in his show, saying: “Bad journalism should not be answered with police action like this. The action taken in Maharashtra against Republic TV and Arnab Goswami is wrong.”
Newslaundry reached out to Sardesai, Ashutosh and Prakash about the debate between Guild members but they refused to comment. Shekhar Gupta also did not respond to Newslaundry’s queries. R Jagannathan said his — “The Dogs That Didn’t Bark: Republic TV Is Being Taken To The Cleaners And The Rest Are Just Watching” — should be considered his official response.
Allegations of the “divide” within the Guild were — its first election, in fact, since office bearers were earlier selected by consensus, not vote.
So, it’s unsurprising that the conversation on Republic and Goswami left Guild members divided yet again. As it stands, the statement that was finally released reflects a little bit of both camps.
A version of this story in NL Hindi. It was translated from Hindi by Utkarsh Mishra.
The coronavirus pandemic and the economic slowdown have pushed India’s news industry into a crisis. Journalists, more than ever, need your support. You can support independent media by paying to keep news free. Because when the public pays, the public is served and when the advertiser pays, the advertiser is served. Subscribe to Newslaundry today.