The Hill Post
12 July 2020
Move over, Arnab Goswami and Sambit Patra- the putrefying corpse of Indian journalism has a new poster boy! None other than our resident, apoplectic walrus, Major General G.D.Bakshi. The good general has ascended/ descended ( depending on whether you are a bhakt or a gentleman) to hitherto unplumbed heights/depths of depravity by recently calling a co-panelist a motherf—-r in a televised discussion. It is quite apparent that his nationalistic credentials and dubious expertise in history notwithstanding, this rabid apologist for the govt. has not been able to make the transition from the barracks to a television studio without losing the inherent coarseness that is probably now a part of his character. But I don’t blame him for his gutter demeanour, and for two reasons: one, the primordial facial follicles he sports cannot allow for any other form of behaviour. If you have the moustache of a saber- toothed tiger you have to behave like one, or else every brontosaurus would be cocking a snook at you. And second, he is a faithful depiction of the sorry state of Indian journalism these days.
It would be fair to say that not since 1947 has the standard and character of the fourth estate plumbed the depths it has today; it is, in fact, no longer the fourth pillar of democracy but has become its fifth column, using its privileged status and constitutional freedom to hollow out the republic from within. Under the onslaught of inimical forces generated since 2014 most publications and channels have mortgaged their spines to remain in favour with the powers that be; only a few outposts and editors are still holding out, but they have now been dealt a mortal blow by the corona virus and may not long survive. For, unlike Mr. Modi’s two front war, the press is under attack on three fronts.
For a regime whose stock in trade is lies and untruth it is absolutely essential that its dissembling not be found out; the free press therefore has to be tightly controlled and inconvenient editors, anchors and reporters have to be taken out of circulation, in more ways than one. Easy enough for a government which has all corporates on a leash, and the corporates have the media in their pocket. The pest control process began smoothly enough and outspoken journalists like Harish Khare, Abhisar Sharma, Punya Prasun Bajpayi and Vinod Dua were eased out of their positions quietly. The Arnab Goswamis, Rahul Shivshankars, Navika Kumars, Anand Narsimhans took over, quickly fell in line and rebranded themselves as megaphones of the government. But a few pesky individuals still held out; it was time to roll out the heavy artillery.
And so began the age of the F.I.R under the convenient smokescreen of an imported virus. The Delhi based RRAG ( Rights and Risk Analysis Group) which tracks such things has recorded that 22 FIRs have been filed against 55 journalists between 25th March and 31st June this year, for reporting on Covid 19 and for exercising freedom of expression or opinion- the former is unwelcome and the latter is anathema to the governments of the day, notwithstanding which party they represent. The most blatant among them are the cases against Sidharth Vardarajan of THE WIRE, Vinod Dua, Aakar Patel, and Supriya Sharma of SCROLL.IN ( she had simply filed a report depicting the poor living conditions in Dohari village of Varanasi, adopted by the Prime Minister under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana.) This is, of course, par for the UP govt which had earlier filed an FIR against a vernacular journalist for reporting on the poor quality of food served under the Mid Day Meal scheme. None of these cases will end in conviction, of course, but they will have served their purpose of further gagging an already intimidated media. It does not matter that such actions have brought the country to the 142nd spot ( out of 146 countries) in the Press Freedom Index- badges of dishonour don’t matter as long as you keep winning elections.
In this unequal battle the press has been rendered defenseless because the higher judiciary has decided to don its blinders precisely when it should have been keeping an eagle eye on an executive which has appropriated to itself unprecedented powers under the cover of the pandemic. The judiciary’s recent decisions tend to look kindly on journalists perceived to be close to the govt. and the ruling party, while its ire is reserved for those who speak truth to power. The scales of justice would not today pass any metrology test. FIRs against Arnab Goswami ( who gave a blatantly communal angle to the migrant exodus in Mumbai) and Amish Devun ( who called the revered Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti as ” Lootera Chishti” in a June 15 telecast) have been stayed by the higher courts, but no such “entente cordiale” has been shown by them in the case of Sidharth Varadarajan, Vinod Dua and Aakar Patel for alleged offences that are imaginary at best and maliciously contrived at worst.
And the govt. is not content to just put a few journalists in police lock ups. For those who are still outside, it constantly issues helpful “advisories” on how they should do their job- how to show deference to a Prime Minister, how to report on the pandemic, the correct manner of reporting on the standoff with China. It does not even stop short of issuing threats, as Prasar Bharati recently did to the country’s oldest and most respected news agency, PTI, over its interviews with the Chinese Ambassador and our envoy in Peking. It termed these, what else, anti-national, and announced that it was ” reviewing its relationship” with PTI- which is bureaucratese for cancelling the Rs. 7 crores or so it pays the agency for its services every year. It does not help the cause of the free press that the only other national news agency, ANI, has already gone belly up when it comes to honest reporting. It is a hand maiden of the govt. competing with the likes of “nationalistic” TV channels in the sycophancy sweepstakes. It tailors its releases to fit the govt’s tastes and conducts interviews of the PM, HM and other worthies with a Victorian politeness that extracts everything but the facts. Its Managing Editor even defended the controversial killing of Vikas Dubey by condemning, in a panel discussion last Saturday, its criticism as ” intellectualism” of the urban elite. The difference between news reporting and news laundering is fast disappearing.
This being the eco system of journalism in India today, it should come as no surprise that the field is being taken over by parasites who destroy the very host they feed on. The so called “news” channels, especially the English ones, deal only in views, not news. Their republican credentials and reflection of the times, now or previously, is all a charade for they have become the ultimate recyclers- they recycle the govt’s handouts and untruths as news, and the stench of the resultant garbage exceeds that of the Ghazipur landfill in my area. Their arrogant, jack of all trades, opinionated anchors spread the poison of communalism and intolerance on a nightly basis, defending the indefensible, spawning bullies and reprobates, reducing discussion and debate to a billingsgate spectacle. The print media is only slightly better- its editorials no longer have the courage of their convictions, its op-eds pussy- foot around issues instead of tackling them head on, they are more akin to exercises in tight rope walking than courageous journalism. They are asking questions all the time, but of the Opposition not the government of the day; they don’t wait for the answers, because they have already manufactured them “en studio”; they do not serve a nation but an individual, a revived bhakti cult.
Precisely when Indian journalism has reached its nadir, it has been struck a mortal blow by the pandemic. Already in dire straits before the pandemic, the economic turbulence and loss of both readership and advertisement revenues is forcing many papers, on-line sites and channels to shut shop. The circumstances are particularly difficult for small town newspapers who barely survived at the best of times. Since March there have been large scale lay offs, salary cuts, forced furloughs and closures even in the biggest media organisations: hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs.
This is an alarming trend for the health of our democracy. Mofussil and small town publications are vital in keeping a check on governments for it is they who have a finger on the real pulse of nations and are the first to report on a government’s misdeeds, doing the spadework for the national media. Equally important, as Cyril Sam of NEWS@ COVID 19 puts it, ” Each lay off and closure signals our information eco-system becoming poorer and our information sources becoming poorer. Each layoff, cut-back,closure also signals the weakening of democracy in India as newsrooms hollow out and there are fewer journalists to keep a check on power and raise questions in the public interest on our behalf.”
India’s free press is at its weakest precisely at the moment it is facing its most severe challenges since Independence. It does not help, but it was inevitable, that it is now represented by someone like Major-General GD Bakshi.