Looking back, 2020: Journalists on their highs, lows and hopes for Indian media

In a year of protests, layoffs and pushback against ‘Godi media’, what are the lessons we’ve learned?

Looking back, 2020: Journalists on their highs, lows and hopes for Indian media
Shambhavi Thakur
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The Indian media didn’t have a great year, all things told. The industry was plagued by layoffs and multiple publications shut down.

The news cycle was punctuated by stories of tragedy and trauma: the citizenship law protests, the Delhi riots, the Covid pandemic, the migrant worker crisis, floods and cyclones, the return of the “love jihad” bogey, the farmer protests, and so much more. Media coverage also had its ups and downs, with a major chunk of the year devoted to the appalling coverage of the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

To get a better sense of how this panned out for Indian journalism, we reached out to some journalists and media professionals to ask them three things: What was, in their opinion, the lowest point and the highest point for Indian journalism in 2020? And what do they hope Indian journalism gets right in 2021?

Here’s what they said.

Shekhar Gupta, founder and editor-in-chief, The Print

The lowest point was the spate of layoffs and shutdowns. We know that the economy went on a downturn but I do believe that a lot of the organisations which had the reserve to withstand it to get the vantage of the situation...too many journalists lost their jobs and suffered from salary cuts.

The highest point would be the way Indian journalists, particularly younger journalists, covered the pandemic. Nobody was afraid. A lot of them got infected, yet they didn't dither. This tells you that journalism is in very good shape. I think Indian journalism has a missing centre of gravity that has to come back, by way of fresh commitments to journalism, and for newspapering, not views-papering.

Josy Joseph, founder, Confluence Media

The year will not only be remembered for the unprecedented challenges thrown at the media by the pandemic and the massive job cuts, but also for the comical, mostly criminal, levels to which central and state governments went to curtail the media and freedom of expression. In turn, large sections of the Indian media have become a parade of fools and craven slaves, of men and women that most of the public doesn’t trust anymore.

The governments continued to cite imaginary conspiracies to arrest and intimidate journalists, corporates indulged in defamation threats, and a communist government tried to empower the police to police our thoughts. All of them, the political and corporate class together, exhibited to the world the brain-dead state of Indian democracy, and the resultant depressing reality of the media.

If there is a journalistic high point, it was the faint voices of those little-known women and men, nameless journalists in mofussil towns and small organisations, who stood up for quality journalism, stared in the eyes of autocracy and intimidation, even as many of their organisations folded up or struggled to stay afloat.

Vijaita Singh, deputy editor, The Hindu

Information is our right. However, the pandemic was used by many government offices to further insulate themselves from sharing any kind of information. As it is, government officials are not comfortable speaking on the phone; the lockdown further made it difficult for journalists to access information, especially those who cover union ministries.

There is no shortcut for hard work; I am not saying that we should get everything on a platter. The union home ministry that I cover did not have any press conference or briefings all these months. Several important legislations were rushed through the Parliament, such as the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Bill, but there was hardly any interaction with reporters explaining various facets of it.

What is worrying is that this one-sided communication could become a permanent arrangement. I, for example, took the help of the Right to Information Act to even fetch basic information. Ministries and governments are answerable to the people, and press is the medium.

Ravish Kumar, senior executive editor, NDTV India

The scope of “Godi media” has expanded. This year, the few remaining institutions also merged into it, by partially becoming a part of it. A few efforts of being the media within the media are exceptions and hence, must be kept separate from the rest. For them, a new category must be found, distinct from the media. To count these endeavours among the entire fraternity of the media gives legitimacy to “Godi and part-Godi media”. The mainstream media, which runs a business of millions, is like the slaughterhouse where democracy is butchered every day with the blade of the same propaganda.

“Godi media” proved that crores of people in India have banished their conscience as viewers and readers by linking the Tablighi Jamaat to Covid and creating mayhem in the garb of justice for Sushant Singh Rajput through fake stories. Neither do they care about democracy nor journalism. Through crores of people, “Godi media” proved that it can put hundreds of people who came for the Tablighi event behind bars for months based on thousands of fake news stories. The Bombay High Court criticised the dangerous reporting done by the media but the media that was criticised never reported about it.

Till now, “Godi media” has proved on every occasion that it is anti-Muslim. But this year, students, labourers and farmers saw that in reality, it is anti-people. When 25 lakh students created a hashtag movement on Twitter about unemployment, “Godi media” either attacked them with their coverage or ignored them. When labourers began leaving in the searing heat, it started doing something else in the garb of Sushant Singh Rajput. When farmers came to Delhi, it called them terrorists. Farmers took a stand against the “Godi media” for the first time. If we set this one setback aside, “Godi media” proved that it has done away with all the ethics via their coverage of Rafale’s arrival and Ram Mandir's foundation stone ceremony.

It is regrettable that Huffington Post India, a media institution which did some brave investigative stories, closed down. Be it the story of substandard ventilators bought by the PM Cares fund or the story of Safura Zargar accused of inciting the Delhi riots, HuffPost India played a major role in both of them. The closing down of HuffPost India has been a sad incident for the Indian media.

The sharpening of cartoonists has been a bright side of this. Cartoonists did what 24-hour news channels and 20 pages of newspapers couldn't achieve. Cartoonists like Manjul, Satish Acharya, Irfan, Kirtish Bhatt, P Mahamud, Sajith Kumar, and Sandeep Adhwaryu saved the edginess of journalism as a remnant through their cartoons. After about 20 years, when some researcher might sift through today’s media space, he’d see that a few cartoonists were still practising journalism in this era of journalism’s downfall.

I wish there was an excellence award for cartoonists.

Rajdeep Sardesai, consulting editor, India Today Group

The high of 2020 must be the courage and spirit shown by so many journalists in front of and behind the camera while covering the Covid crisis. Unmindful of the consequences, the attempt to ensure that the scale of the pandemic was reported with diligence was proof that good journalists value a sense of “duty” above all else.

The low was the coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput case. Every rule of decency was broken at times, falsehoods were pushed, sensationalism scored over sense in the quest for ratings...In a sense, I can only hope that 2021 will see us learn from our mistakes and recognise our strengths. Journalism is at a crossroads and we need to all make sure we take the right road, even if sometimes it is the road less travelled.

Tavleen Singh, columnist

When farmers refuse to speak to “Godi media” and start their own newspaper to tell their story, what is left to be said? I have been a journalist for more than 40 years and I have never before seen such a docile media. The two most important Hindi newspapers tried to whitewash the Hathras atrocity into an honour killing. Too many TV channels did the same.

The Indian media needs to get its credibility back by not kowtowing so shamelessly to the Modi government. It needs to ask questions and not accept press release journalism as normal.

Aditya Menon, senior editor, The Quint

The biggest high would be the coverage of the Northeast Delhi communal violence during which photojournalists and video journalists, in particular, did excellent jobs. BBC’s video of the police participating in the violence and attacking Muslims’ properties was invaluable.

Then, the subsequent probe into the communal violence. I was fortunate to be a part of the Quint’s investigation into some of the complaints that were filed in connection with the violence. We found that there were complaints by Muslim complainants against BJP leaders, eye-witnesses who had seen BJP leaders participating in violence, leading and inciting mobs, and none of these complaints were turned into FIRs. Journalistically, it was extremely satisfying to bring these details out but unfortunately, it also makes one despondent that despite the coverage done by Caravan, Newslaundry, the Wire, Indian Express, none of these complaints have still been acted upon.

However, at least one achievement that all of us can collectively claim is that through our coverage, we were able to poke holes into the entire narrative that the police and the government were building: that the communal violence was a one-sided conspiracy by the anti-CAA protesters, and what these stories bring out is that it was not one-sided.

The second high for me would be the work being done by independent journalists, by smaller YouTube channels from Punjab and Haryana in the current ongoing protest by farmers. Channels, owing to whatever reasons, decided to downplay the story but that still didn't prevent the voices of farmers from coming out because of excellent work done by freelance journalists such as Sandeep Singh, who is doing an excellent job and has been a major source of information for many of us who aren't able to go to the protest every day.

As far as lows are concerned, the most disappointing news was the shutting down of Huffpost India and Mumbai Mirror, which were excellent publications and had extremely efficient journalists who are now out of their jobs.

If we look at the media coverage, most would cite the SSR episode, which was completely dramatised. Another low would be the entire propaganda that took place at the anti-CAA protest then, and now at the farmer protests: vilifying them by describing it as being infiltrated by Khalistanis, which only dog-whistles Islamophobia, and anti-minority hatred being spread by TV news channels in particular.

In the next one year, I really hope that more independent platforms come up, and that the existing platforms decide to do much more honest and objective work, and that all platforms are able to question things that they were probably not too keen on questioning so far.

Jency Jacob, managing editor, BOOM

2020 has been quite an eventful year for all of us, especially those reporting against disinformation. We have had several unique stories this year.

First, we had the Delhi riots and the hate speech/disinformation campaign witnessed in February. Since then, our team at BOOM have worked without taking a break, reporting about Covid-related misinformation. We witnessed four stages of misinformation and disinformation while reporting about issues during Covid: lockdown, communal, myths around prevention and cure, and finally, around the efficacy of vaccines.

While the highs for us this year have revolved around making a quick transition to report away from the newsroom and maintaining the same quality and much higher output than earlier years, the lows were to witness the falling standards of reporting that contributed in a big way towards communal disinformation, especially by certain sections of the mainstream media. We also saw several good publications folding up and reputed journalists losing jobs due to weak business models that have been a big disappointment.

In 2021, I am hoping that we will witness the launch of more nimble-footed startups by journalists that are low on overheads and high on journalistic standards. We need more digital publications to speak truth to power and hold our own accountable, both by improving the quality of reporting and calling out truant editors, media houses and politicians who vitiate and create communal disharmony through their false claims and narratives.

Supriya Nair, editor, Fifty Two, and co-founder, All Things Small

Indian journalists did some despicable, even arguably criminal work in the last year, but I still think external factors are responsible for the lowest points in the profession in 2020. From the underreported phenomenon of journalists reporting on the pandemic contracting the disease in large numbers; to reporters like Siddique Kappan being abducted — there's no other word for it — by the state; from the number of journalists threatened or allegedly harmed because of the work they do; to even successful publications being shut down because journalism is increasingly looking like a liability on balance sheets — we are in a deep and multi-faceted crisis.

We have some truly inspirational colleagues in the profession leading the coverage of rural issues, including the migrant crisis that began with the lockdown this year. The flourishing of explanatory and fact-checking journalism is a good sign for our future. And I'll be hauled over the coals for saying this but I think we are doing slightly better at covering courts than many other public institutions.

My best short-term hope in the next year is for progressive new media to invest in sincere and high-quality media education, to enable audiences to discover and support journalism that matters to them.

Riya Singh, research and advocacy officer, Dalit Women Fight

When it comes to reporting cases of caste-based atrocity, the media has always been at their worst. Brutality is what makes a case worthy of getting reported in the media. These cases also just make it to the headlines and are forgotten the next day. Capturing grieving parents and compelling them to answer to the media is ridiculous, as was seen in the Hathras case.

While Hathras did occupy space within the mainstream media for more than a month, I won't comment on the content of the coverage it received. There were debates surrounding the question of “if the caste of the victim really matters” or “is a rape a rape”! The media should not be doing these debates. Some things are a given, like caste hierarchies are a given fact. Discussions around it is only a way of denial.

In 2021, it should serve as the fourth pillar of democracy. Cases of atrocities are not just media stories. The media needs to step up and walk with us in annihilating caste.

Jahnavi Uppuleti, independent journalist

The coverage around Hathras, while it was happening, was limited. It is something that has to be studied as part of a pattern, not as something that has happened for the first time. But the media throughout India, especially the English media, treated Hathras as an independent incident, which it is not. I had an issue with that.

For a month or so, there was outrage and people were talking about it. People like Faye D’Souza wanted to pass the mic and everything. All of a sudden, people wanted to listen to Dalit womens’ voices. But that died down really soon, which always happens. But with the kind of outrange which the incident received, it did not make any sense if it died down so fast. Hathras happens every day in India. What about reporting that?

Obviously, there is this persistent hypocrisy that lies in the media. But this time, it felt a little personal also, because I was pitching the same story so many times and people didn't find it important. But when it was “outraging”, they went after it. I found that disturbing.

The farmers’ protest outrage shouldn't die down like Hathras. But that's what is going to happen. I appreciate everyone's efforts there, but different perspectives have to be brought in, not just convenient ones. If we speak about reportage of the states in the Northeast, again we see the states being treated as a homogeneous entity. This also has to stop.

Muzamil Jaleel, deputy editor, The Indian Express

This year was full of lows. Though Kashmiri journalists have always worked in very difficult and challenging circumstances, this year, our colleagues were booked under anti terror laws like the UAPA for their work. Scores of our colleagues were summoned to police stations and questioned about their work. This has continued unabated. A senior colleague's home was raided.

The new media policy introduced by the government in Jammu and Kashmir is literally a legal cover to muzzle the press. If you have to work with the constant fear of harassment, raid, arrest, or of false cases being registered against you, it is extremely difficult to function. The pandemic made things worse because it made going out for news-gathering risking your life. The overall situation of the media during this year has been worrisome. The Covid lockdown caused widespread retrenchments and scores of journalists lost their jobs.

There is, however, one high as the year ends. We are still standing. We are still trying our level best to tell stories despite intimidation, censorship and crackdown.

Prabhjit Singh, contributing writer, The Caravan

I personally feel that web portals like the Wire, Quint, and Scroll have really filled the void in shaping the young generation's mindset in analysing political, social and other key developments. The Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, the abrogation of Article 370,and communal lynchings have been amongst the key issues where the aforesaid digital online media organisations did justice to a large extent. The narrative journalism of the Caravan came out as a really effective voice of dissent on such issues.

I thought Indian Express and the Hindu especially put in effort towards a "balanced approach". Indian Express, however, blinked sometimes in handling the Kashmir issue. The concept of YouTube news channels evolved as well and spread quickly among the masses. This not only gave an opportunity of self-employment to the budding breed of journalists, but it also came as a succour for the experienced lot who had to quit their jobs for various reasons.

The communication gap amongst readers of traditional mainstream papers like the Times of India, Hindustan Times or even Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran remained intact in 2020. It is because of the local-centric approach of these newspapers as they continue with state editions that allow for such a vast communication gap to exist across the country.

What should Indian journalism get right in 2021? In one word: integrity.

Sushanta Talukdar, editor, NEZine

Dependence on the government and the market for revenue have left some of the regional and local media devastated during the pandemic. The decline of regional and local vernacular media has led to diminishing media space for the diversity of smaller nationalities, their language, cultural practices, and beliefs that make India a plural society. We have to remain optimistic that New Year 2021 will dawn with hope for the resilience of Indian journalism against such marginalisation and dilution of its public-interest role.

In the Northeast, about 50 journalists and 150 non-journalist staff lost their jobs after several newspapers and television houses downsized their operations. Journalists of leading dailies in Assam are taking home reduced salaries after media houses announced salary cuts due to a decline in revenue. Some of the journalists who were sacked by newspapers or television houses have got openings in digital news websites launched during the year.

However, there is not much transparency about the investment and revenue model of most of the news outlets on the digital platforms and, therefore ,it is too early to rush to a conclusion about the long-term sustainability of these websites and the job security of journalists engaged by them. A disturbing trend is that some of the news websites have indulged in publishing stories with sensational headlines, in total disregard to media ethics and the basics of journalism, in a desperate bid to get more likes and shares besides inflated views of video content.

Akash Banerjee, YouTuber and satirist

The high point of the media was the government trying to crack down on digital media and trying to regulate it. We have seen the independence and credibility of digital media coming to the fore, and 2020 would be a watershed year for that. Digital journalism has been around for more than a decade but the government only felt the urge to try and control it in the middle of a pandemic, which shows how far we have come. There is a clear correlation here.

I come from the world of television and left TV in 2012. Never in its history has mainstream television news been as cursed, exposed, and abused in the manner that it was in 2020. We are at a point in time where reporters are being heckled. Although I'm not a big fan of people being heckled, I can completely understand why it is happening.

I think 2021 should be the year where reporters think about what they are doing with their lives and if they are being instrumental in others' lives and freedoms being lost. There comes a time where you start to question what sort of orders you are following and I think that time for media came in 2020.

This was the first year that I saw reporters quit channels because their conscience told them to; this was never the cause before. 2020 showed us that farmers managed to do something that urbans, liberals or elites could not: call out the media for the fascist supporters that they are.

Mohammad Ali, independent journalist

As an independent journalist based in New York, I keep a sharp eye on India. I don't have great words to offer on the subject. I report on the growth of the Hindu Right and its impact on ideas of citizenship and democracy in India. There is no doubt that 2020 saw the majority of the Indian media turning majoritarian, and that's merely a reflection of the society's shift to the Right.

I want to make it clear that I think the English-speaking press is marginal in forming and influencing the psyche of the country. By "majority of Indian media", I mean Hindi newspapers and news channels (read: entertainment) and the vernacular press. Look at the reportage of the majority of the Indian media on the anti-CAA protests, the Delhi riots, and Covid, and you will understand what I mean.

The role played by the majority of the Indian press on reporting a discriminatory law like CAA was shameful and extremely disappointing to say the least. There was numerous evidence to suggest that a large number of Indian citizens who protested against the CAA in Uttar Pradesh were brutalised and killed by the police, but that never made it to the Hindi press and Hindi news channels. The media failed to question the manner in which the Narendra Modi government arrested innocent citizens, who protested against the CAA, for the Delhi riots. No action was ever taken against BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra who delivered hate speeches and allegedly provoked mobs in the run-up to the riots.

We have a news website which projects a Hindu extremist chief minister — who was booked for hate speeches and who is notorious for his bigotry against India's minorities — as an ideal administrator, despite a total absence of his credentials on the matter of law and order and development as we know in a democracy. Similarly, the only English newspaper, which had popularly carried its editorial page blank during the Emergency, has lost its appetite for investigative reporting on the Modi government.

Frankly, I don't find the need to read mainstream English or Hindi newspapers for their reporting. Websites like Scroll, the Wire, Article14, Newslaundry and NewsClick are sufficient to know a 360-degree perspective on India. I did a year-long investigation of the Bajrang Dal and published the piece in WIRED magazine. I say this with some sadness that given the ongoing censorship in the Indian media, no one would have published that piece in its current form. And that, for me, is the tragedy of the Indian media. That is why I have no hope that the situation will be any better in 2021.

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