Are you a journalist in India in the 2020s and drenched in fatigue? You’re not alone.
For a particular kind of journalist, life is supposed to play out in sanctimonious technicolour, just like The Newsroom. Speaking truth to power, telling the stories that matter, separating fact from fiction, holding people accountable. Did you annoy a government or local bigwig in the process? No problem! That’s par for the course in the quest for truth. It’s a badge of pride, almost, because you must be doing something right.
And you will be fine because, after all, you live in a democracy, with rule of law.
Then you get a little more experienced and a lot more disillusioned. The news cycle is relentless. Stories start sounding the same: someone is arrested for travelling to a location, someone else is raided because they had copies of a book, yet another has their funding being investigated because they’ve managed to annoy the government in power.
When a pattern of repression stays the same, is it any wonder that journalists are drenched in fatigue?
Young journalists are starting off in an industry that is historically underpaid, where layoffs are constantly around the corner, and where advertising departments get a say in what makes the cut. You’re either a clown in a legacy media circus or a junior in a news portal where you’re wondering whether you need to periodically wipe your chat history.
If you’re a freelancer, you’re completely on your own – with a pittance for pay to boot.
After all, you’re a journalist in India in the 2020s.
Now, the work you do is just the beginning. You start making a McCarthyist checklist of things to worry about. Do you own a Chinese phone? Have friends who are ‘subversive’? Orkut posts from 15 years ago that might be construed as secessionist?
Enough, you might tell yourself. This is over-the-top nonsense. This is fear-mongering because we live in a democracy with safeguards built in to protect us, the public, from mindless targeting by annoyed governments.
But now you know that’s not really the case.
The latest in that pattern is, of course, NewsClick.
Booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, NewsClick’s founder Prabir Purkayastha and HR head Amit Chakraborty were arrested this week and are in police custody. Prior to the arrests, over 40 people tangentially connected with the news website had their homes searched and electronic devices seized.
The charges in the case were first revealed via the government’s one-time sworn enemy – The New York Times. On August 5, it reported on a “lavishly funded influence campaign that defends China and [pushes] its propaganda”, led by American billionaire Neville Roy Singham.
NewsClick is allegedly one of them. “In New Delhi, corporate filings show, Mr Singham’s network financed a news site, NewsClick, that sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points.”
The New York Times offered up one – just one – example of this, a video from four years ago on “70 years of the Chinese revolution” to demonstrate that NewsClick was part of a CCP propaganda operation. If you click through China posts on NewsClick’s website yourself – and there aren’t enough of these posts to outmatch other content – you’ll find anti-imperialist, communist talking points. Sympathetic to China? Yes, but anti-India? Not at all.
This tweet sums it up:
When I read the @nytimes piece I half expected a covert media operation in India spewing CCP talking points & linked to other similar outlets in other countries but found a regular online outlet with domestic leftist sympathies of mainly its Editor but not the contributors.— Tenzing Lamsang (@TenzingLamsang) October 5, 2023
BJP ministers soon told the public that China, the Congress party, and NewsClick were part of an “umbilical cord”. We’ll set aside for now the grim irony of the Indian government, which hates The New York Times, depending on it to file a terrorism case against a media organisation.
The New York Times now says it would be “deeply troubling and unacceptable if any government were to use our reporting as an excuse to silence journalists”. Leftist activist Kavita Krishnan wrote in Scroll this week that she’d been asked for a quote for NYT’s August piece. She refused, saying “their story, minus context and nuance on their part, would inevitably be fodder for the far-right campaign in India”.
But even for journalists used to this government’s pattern of behaviour, what happened to NewsClick took everyone by surprise.
The police’s remand report and the UAPA FIR say that NewsClick is accused of colluding with Singham, “discussing how to create a map of India without Kashmir and to show Arunachal Pradesh as disputed area”. NewsClick also tried to “discredit the efforts of the Indian government to contain Covid-19 pandemic”.
Bizarrely, the FIR said “Gautam Bhatia” – perhaps referring to the lawyer and writer in Delhi – is a “key figure” who “put up spirited defence of legal cases” against Chinese companies like Vivo and Xiaomi.
Even if the allegations are true, it played out with NewsClick being denied a copy of the FIR, random freelancers being interrogated, and devices being taken away.
A NewsClick employee, whose home was searched, told Scroll that the cops told her they “had sanction from their superiors to use force if necessary, so the choice was hers if she wanted to cooperate or not”. Another told Newslaundry: “They checked everything, from my gadgets to educational documents, and later seized my laptop, phone, passbooks and documents related to property…”
What choice would they have?
A key allegation against NewsClick is funding – that it purportedly receives crores in exchange for doing Singham’s bidding. NewsClick’s statement points out that its devices, emails, bank statements and invoices have been scrutinised in the past but investigative agencies have not been able to file complaints or chargesheets.
Then again, crusades against “foreign funding” have become the new “black money” in India today. The NewsClick FIR claims several companies were part of a complex web that “fraudulently” infused foreign funds into India. Two of these companies are purportedly Worldwide Media Holdings, incorporated by Singham’s “close associate” Jason Pfetcher, and People Support Foundation.
Pfetcher, a lawyer in the United States, issued a detailed statement yesterday. He said that in 2021, after the Enforcement Directorate raided NewsClick, Worldwide Media Holdings “provided the Indian authorities confirmation regarding the provenance of the funds invested in NewsClick”.
He also said that when The New York Times published its report in August, he responded to its queries on behalf of People Support saying the foundation had “never received any funding, nor taken direction from any foreign individual, organisation, political party, or government”.
Yet, Pfetcher wrote, “The New York Times failed to include PSF’s categorical denial of foreign funding, and instead left readers to believe that the source of PSF’s funding (or Roy’s for that matter) might have come from China...”
Banality of repression
Think back on arrests that made headlines over the past three years. Siddique Kappan travelled to Hathras when he was arrested. Mohammed Zubair referenced a movie trope. Disha Ravi edited a Google Doc. In the Bhima Koregaon case, an extraordinary example of police audacity, the police produced outlandish letters as “proof”, even as the police themselves were accused of planting evidence.
These are cases built on whispers, allegations and tenuous links to constitute acts of sedition, or terrorism, or attacks on India’s sovereignty. And these are only a handful of the high-profile cases that made the news. Hundreds of others do not.
By now, there are numerous pieces comparing press freedom today to the Emergency. These are imperfect comparisons, but one thing is clear – the tools of autocracy today are more sophisticated than before. Functioning courts and conducting elections maintain the illusion of democracy, making India palatable to western powers like the United States.
But meanwhile, the crackdown on the media continues while other sections of the media operate as the government’s voice. It’s why secularism is a pejorative and nationalism a contest. It’s why Arnab Goswami is positioning himself as the voice of reason in India’s “digital media scam” of “paid media”.
There’s great incentive to go after critical media. It distracts from seismic developments like the results of the Bihar caste survey, the hospital deaths in Nanded, and the Manipur violence where pellet guns were used against schoolchildren.
This fatigue is all-pervasive but for young people in the media, it’s especially gruelling. In The Kashmir Walla case, a man was booked in 2022 for writing a “seditious” piece in the news website 12 years ago. He’s been named in a chargesheet for “narrative terrorism”.
So, when journalists seen as being “anti-national” are accused of saying the same things over and over about the Modi government, it’s because they have no choice. How can one be anything but repetitive when the same patterns of repression repeat themselves? You cannot find new criticism when the same patterns play out, week after week.
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