No data, questions ignored, sports used for ‘propaganda’: The trials of the modern Indian journalist

A recent event by the Editors Guild spotlighted how things have changed across beats, from politics to business.

WrittenBy:Alenjith K Johny
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In India, the “good old days” of journalism weren’t that great. News was dangerous during the Emergency and governments did their best to stifle the free press, such as former Bihar chief minister Jagannath Mishra’s 1982 Bihar Press Bill.

But even so, good work was done and journalists stood strong. “We were able to beat back bills at that time,” said Seema Mustafa, editor of the Citizen.

But now, too much is going wrong in present-day India, and this is what journalists discussed in a four-hour conclave yesterday organised by the Editors Guild of India. Titled “Regulations, Denial of Access, and Curbs on Press Freedom”, it took place online and featured 17 panellists speaking on the state of journalism in politics, sports, business, films and legal issues.

While opening the event, Mustafa said many of the speakers and those attending virtually had grown up as journalists during the 1980s. Citing the arrests of journalists today and online harassment of women journalists, she said journalism was being “torn apart” by those in power. 

A common theme across the sessions was the lines blurring work and power, and journalists struggling to do their jobs.

For instance, the first session on politics touched upon the power of “collective action”, the government’s aversion towards press conferences, and whether it’s even possible for journalists to hold governments accountable. Moderated by Mrinal Pande, the panel featured Umakant Lakhera and Sankarshan Thakur.

Pande asked about the future of media “under control”, referring to Twitter CEO Elon Musk’s recent remarks on “strict” laws in India and why he’d rather comply with them than have his employees “go to prison”. Thakur referred to the farmers’ protest against the farm laws, pointing out that “sustained agitation”, “public pressure” and the opposition played a critical role in holding the government accountable. He said he isn’t sure the situation will play out similarly for media protests.

Lakhera offered an optimistic anecdote from 2021, when journalists were denied passes to cover the winter session of Parliament. He said they banded together to write to vice-president and Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu, leading to opposition parties raising the issue in Parliament. It’s possible, he said, for journalists to mobilise.

During the session on business, moderated by Caravan editor Anant Nath, panelist TN Ninan said it’s vital for data to be available to journalists, since “being well-informed can make a journalist unchallengeable”. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta pointed out that big companies often “ignore” questionnaires sent by journalists and then “challenge” published reports.

Daily reporting has also become more challenging in the judicial world, as journalist Samanwaya Rautary pointed out in the session on legal reporting, especially after the Covid pandemic. Previously, reporters could gain access to court using ID proof but they now often need permission from the registrar. “When the court is overcrowded, journalists are often sent out,” she said. 

Panelist Sanjay Hegde, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court, acknowledged the limited capacity of courtrooms and added that it’s judges, not lawyers, who make decisions. “We lawyers are equally aggrieved in one sense,” he said to moderator KV Prasad. “We can’t function without clerks but clerks are also often sent out.”

The session on films was moderated by Scroll film editor Nandini Ramnath and the panel comprised Mayank Shekhar, Anuradha Raman and Shobhaa De. They discussed challenges like access, censorship and dealing with PR agencies.

De talked about how actors often transition into politics since the “governments need stars to campaign”, and then reward them with Rajya Sabha seats. Shekhar raised the issue of films not being picked up by platforms like Netflix and Amazon, while Raman described what it’s like to be labelled “anti-national”. She said India doesn’t have “an age-appropriate certification of films” since the rules on this date back to the 1950s.

Finally, the session on sports was moderated by Sharda Ugra and featured Ayaz Memon, Chander Shekhar Luthra and Pradeep Magazine. Ugra said, “When I began journalism in the 1990s, Indian cricket had no money.” Now, access isn’t the issue, she added – it’s how sports like cricket are used “as tools for propaganda”. 

Memon agreed that sports reporting has seen a “seismic shift”. “A lot of things in sports are being controlled by federations,” he said. He referred to how wrestlers had held a protest against the Wrestling Federation of India, accusing its president Brij Bhushan Singh of sexual exploitation

“Where is the reportage on it?” he asked. “Cases fade away slowly.” Memon added that “vested interests” have influence over federations which “limits media access”.

Luthra said he was concerned about YouTubers covering cricket receiving access and accreditation from the Board of Control for Cricket in India while traditional reporters do not. It’s these YouTubers who “are writing about cricket and running the propaganda” of BCCI, he alleged.

The event ended with Mustafa emphasising that good journalism isn’t possible under “control”. That’s why, she said, people should “pay for news”. 

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