As power ministry tweets target Business Standard journalist, beat reporters show solidarity

Journalists allege it’s a way of intimidating the press.

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
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Last Thursday, the union ministry of power’s Twitter account broke its pattern of updates – about meetings chaired by the minister, press releases, and inaugurations – to put out a series of unusual tweets tagging a journalist covering the energy sector.

The ministry referred to a tweet – without specifying which one – by Business Standard correspondent Shreya Jai, and said that it displayed “an utter ignorance of the sector which she is reported to be covering”. “Clarifying” the government’s coal import policy, the ministry said that “anyone with minimal intelligence will understand this. Unfortunately, this correspondent does not”.

This was unprecedented. Not only was the tone of the thread aggressive, it was unusual for a ministry’s Twitter handle to issue a statement tagging the reporter without a link to the report it was referring to. Usually, either the Press Information Bureau tweets out a clarification, or a notice is sent to the journalist and the news organisation.

Press bodies such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Network for Women In India soon released statements condemning the tweets, saying they were “nothing short of bullying”.

There was a strong show of solidarity by fellow reporters on the beat too. The WhatsApp group for reporters who cover the ministry was immediately flooded with messages condemning the move, expressing shock, and asking for an apology.

“You are free to send a rejoinder if you have a problem with facts in a story, but singling out a journalist and shaming them on social media is terrible, and extremely unlike an information dissemination body. Especially at a time when targeted media social media abuse against journalists is rampant,” wrote a reporter on the group.

Another journalist’s message read, “This is nonsense. The tweet reflects how hollow the ministry has become. Come up with the facts, not such personal utterances.”

Journalists said there was no response from the ministry to the demand for an apology.

‘Clear intimidation tactic’

After the tweets and the backlash, Business Standard editors met representatives from the power ministry to discuss the episode, Newslaundry has learnt.

The PIB looks after the public communication of the ministries but the ministries also contract agencies and individuals to handle their social media. Newslaundry has learnt that the tweets in question were composed within the ministry and did not reflect the PIB’s opinion.

A questionnaire has been sent to the power ministry. This report will be updated if we receive a response.

Meanwhile, a journalist associated with an international organisation said the tweets came as a shock. “In all my years of covering the ministry, this has never happened. It is unprecedented and completely unprofessional and unacceptable...It’s a clear intimidation tactic.”

On the condition of anonymity, another reporter covering the beat for a national newspaper said, “News organisations such as Business Standard and Economic Times cover the sector extensively, and if you try to intimidate those journalists and they succumb, others will also fall in line. This is a strategy.”

The journalist said that social media had never been used this way by a ministry handle. “If something is wrong with an article, a rejoinder is sent. An interpretation can be right or wrong, but to name and shame a person on social media, tag their handle, and let others who follow the account give out threatening tweets to a journalist is an attempt to curb the voice.”

When PIB wants to counter or fact-check a report, it usually puts out tweets like this and this, often mentioning the news outlet but never tagging the reporter by name. The tone is different and it is tweeted from the PIB account, not the concerned ministry’s official account.

Another journalist with a national daily said, “We are used to getting rejoinders from ministries. I’ve had my fair share. But they never personally single out or name a particular person. Sometimes, via the PIB tweet, the tone can be aggressive, but it is all within reason. This is singling out a particular person and calling their credentials into question.”

Business Standard’s editor, Shailesh Dobhal, and editorial director and executive director, AK Bhattacharya, refused to comment for this report.

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