Few would have heard the name of TV journalist Govind Wakade. He works for TV18 and is based in Pune.
Wakade went to cover a function at Pimpri Chinchwad on December 10 where a Maharashtra government minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party, Chandrakant Patil, was speaking. During the meeting, someone in the audience was incensed enough at a remark made by Patil to hurl an inkpot at him. The moment was captured by Wakade on his camera. The clip was shared widely on social media.
The next day, on December 11, Patil claimed that the attack was planned and demanded an investigation. As reported , he went further by asking: “How did that journalist get the exact angle when the ink was being thrown at me? Who is that journalist? If by tomorrow morning, this journalist is not traced, I will sit on a fast at Pimpri police station.”
The police responded promptly by finding Wakade and summoning him to the police station for questioning. They did not, however, arrest him.
This incident, and the minister’s comment, exemplifies the attitude of those in power towards the media. It also illustrates the reality of press freedom in India, tenuous at the best of times. Today, journalists are at risk even if they are simply doing their jobs, of recording events and reporting them.
How did we descend to such depths? The annual report by (RSF) on the media landscape in India is scathing. The government, of course, will ignore it, as it has in previous years. Why should it care that India is ranked 150 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index? All that matters now, it seems, is that India is heading the G20!
The RSF report, however, is worth more than a passing glance. It calls India “one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media” with “an average of three or four journalists killed in connection with their work every year.”
Apart from flagging the violence that journalists face, and the very real possibility of arrest, the report also mentions the concentration of ownership in mainstream media. This is often overlooked in discussions about media freedom, but as we are seeing, when media owners and those holding political power come together, the idea of a free press becomes something of a mockery.
To quote from the report again:
“The Indian press is a colossus with feet of clay. Despite often huge stock market valuations, media outlets largely depend on advertising contracts with local and regional governments. In the absence of an airtight border between business and editorial policy, media executives often see the latter as just a variable to be adjusted according to business needs.”
“An airtight border” between the business side and editorial began crumbling a while back. I can remember from my time in the Mumbai edition of a national daily newspaper several instances where instructions came directly from the owners to the editors. For instance, reporters on the health beat were told that nothing critical should be reported about a particular hospital because the owners of the publication also served on the hospital’s board. Similarly, a news story quoting from an independent investigation into violation of workers’ rights by a leading multinational in Mumbai was dropped at the last minute because the company representative spoke directly to the owner who then instructed the editor. The newspaper received generous advertising from this company. This was in the 1980s.
Today, not only are media houses treading on eggshells when it comes to the government, but they are also selective about writing critically about powerful business houses, especially those in complete sync with the current government. You see this every day in the choice of stories mainstream media chooses to highlight, and those it ignores.
On December 12, the ran a frontpage story with the headline: “In Modi’s India, an empire built on coal”. It is highly unlikely that any of India’s leading national dailies would have run this story on their front pages, or even inside. The story caused something of a buzz on social media. Yet, those outside the social media realm, and who don’t read international publications, would not know of this investigative report because it was not reflected either by way of a comment, or a report in mainstream Indian media.
The story’s focus is a coal-fired power plant in Godda, in Jharkhand, that is part of the expanding empire of Gautam Adani. It reveals how rules were changed to accommodate the setting up of the plant which is scheduled to supply power to neighbouring Bangladesh courtesy of an agreement between our two countries.
For an audience outside India, the story shows how India continues to use coal for power generation even as the world is moving away from fossil fuels due to the ugly reality of climate change. In India, the story illustrates how when people holding political power and private business work together, there is no obstacle too great that cannot be overcome.
In this case, the private business happens to be owned by Gautam Adani, who is, as the Post reminds us, not only “the largest private developer of coal power plants and coal mines in the world”, but also “the second-richest person on the planet, behind Elon Musk” whose earnings have doubled just in the last three years.
For those who follow some of these issues closely, much of what appears in the Post story has been reported before. The advantage the Post had was that it could cover the Bangladesh angle which an Indian publication would find difficult.
In 2019, Scroll carried a detailed three-part investigation into the same power plant in Jharkhand. But these reports did not receive the kind of attention that has been accorded to the Washington Post story.
The reports in Scroll in 2019 by Aruna Chandrasekhar are meticulous in their detail. They are well worth reading because they illustrate the kind of journalism that we need today but is sadly missing because media houses will not invest in the in-depth reporting that brings to light facts otherwise obscured.
Her reports highlighted how the Jharkhand government, then ruled by the BJP, in such a way that Adani got a higher price for the power generated. She spoke to the to the project, and also reported how converting the project into a facilitated saving of taxes and additional profits to the company.
Holding the powerful to account does not relate only to the government. It also means the economically powerful, whose interests often coincide with those holding political power, as in the present case. That is why these stories on the Adani empire are so significant. They are also a reminder, yet again, of the importance of independent media, because even the most powerful will not be able to erase the facts recorded in such reports.
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