No Mr Sibal, You Censored the Media Too!
"The foundation against dissent was laid by the Congress, perhaps not so efficiently, but laid nevertheless"
October 10, 2017
Public memory is short, and the pressure under which every dissenting, questioning individual has been placed by the BJP dispensation makes it even shorter. And hence in the shadow of the big story of BJP President Amit Shah’s son’s alleged financial corruption in The Wire, Congress leader Kapil Sibal who released the documents soon after could get away with what I consider to be brazen comments.
Sibal started by saying that media houses had been given instructions by the BJP government not to air his press conference. He appealed to the independence of the media to ignore such instructions and telecast the truth. And then he said that his Congress government had never interfered in the functioning of the media, and that it had been left free entirely.
This reminded me of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in London for the Festival of Indian when she addressed a huge world press conference after she returned to power, following the Emergency debate. This came amidst protests by journalists in Delhi and across India following efforts by her Chief Ministers in Karnataka and Bihar to bring in Press Bills curtailing freedom of the media. She started her press conference with a statement of how free the media in India was, and what a great relationship her government had with the newspapers. (There was no TV then). With the Indian Express at the time, I was covering the Festival and the press conference with all the enthusiasm of the cub reporter. Being amongst those who had walked the streets in protest I stood up to remind her that the situation at home was very bad, and that her CM’s were bringing in bills to curtail the media, and what did she have to say about all that. Indira Gandhi froze, lost her temper, and returned to India to address a meeting where she said that a reporter had been sent by a newspaper to London to sabotage the Festival and her visit! The story is longer, but have cut it short for the purpose of this article.
Sibal reminded me of his mentor. As journalists who have remained anti-establishment —regardless of the colour of the ruling parties—all their lives will understand that there is nothing further from the truth. And that no government is comfortable with a free media, and a great part of its work is evolving ingenuous (and harsh and brash) ways of controlling it. The degrees vary, but the Congress has been very close to the BJP in stifling press freedoms, and creating an environment for the right wing to exploit and build upon.
The celebration of the political assassination of Gauri Lankesh highlights the fear factor that now governs the BJP’s control of the media. This along with tight corporate control, a certain ruthlessness that the business owner of the media is afraid of, and the volley of abuse and threat by trolls against individual journalists creates an environment that seriously cripples the freedom and rights of the media by injecting fear and terror into the environment. This was to be expected from the RSS/BJP and is being countered by the alternative media that is doing a courageous job of bringing the truth out to the people.
But those who believe Kapil Sibal that the Congress let the media alone were either supporting the dispensation of that time, or have allowed their fear of the BJP to develop amnesia. For opposition was not tolerated by the Congress either, with the leaders playing hard ball with scribes who refused to toe the line. Anti-establishment is what journalists are expected to be, and should be always in order to do their job of reporting for, by and of the people honesty and with some accountability. But this is exactly what the ruling dispensation abhors as governance is hinged on controlling the media, and turning it into a puppet allowed the occasional freedom perhaps, but actually no freedom at all.
I was resident editor of the Asian Age for most of the UPA two terms in office. Before that we had carried out a strong campaign against the Vajpayee government to a point where access to the PMO was completely stopped, and our reporters ostracised. It was a running campaign against the government, to a point where the editor of the newspaper at the time MJ Akbar received any number of complaints, and warnings, about our anti-government coverage. More so of the Kargil war where the Asian Age was the only newspaper (go back and look at the files) to cover the abject conditions under which our soldiers were made to fight, without equipment, without food at high altitudes, with every detail documented and proven. So while Vajpayee closed all doors to our reporters, the soldiers posted on the front lines wanted the newspaper to be flown to them. For us in the newsroom this was the real victory and we were jubilant, even as I received brickbats from the government every single day.
During the 2002 elections that were crucial for the opposition to get rid of the BJP, I got word (not MJ Akbar) that the Swedish police officer was willing to give an interview on the Bofors investigation. I made contact with him, he said that yes indeed he would be willing to speak on the issue, and I took the next plane to Stockholm to record hours with him. He said more than he ever had before, it was a reporter’s story, delightful, with all details, information, the works. We carried a series based on the two day conversations. And all hell broke loose. From the Left to the Congress I got hate message, phone calls with leaders screaming at the top of their voice, of how the Asian Age was playing the BJP game, how I was a BJP agent like the editor in chief, and how this interview would make the Congress lose the elections.
It was a very tough period. I was suddenly an outcast. No one was willing to speak with me. And I gave up my initial effort to explain that one, this was not a political conspiracy of any kind; two, the officer was willing to give the interview today and not tomorrow; and three, I was a journalist and not a political stooge and there was no way I would pass up this great story without losing respect for myself as a reporter. They did not listen, they did not know how (as the song goes) and I learnt to live on the fringe, pushed out totally by the so called secular forces at the time.
After the UPA came to power we in the Asian Age continued with the anti-establishment policy, stalking the government and the party, covering its every move. As this is what independent, honest journalism is all about. It is not being pro one establishment, and anti another, it is about questioning, criticising, exposing every single establishment regardless of political hue. Some are far worse, as the current BJP government that uses violence and hate to subdue citizens (to put it mildly at the moment), and need more vigilance and brutal honesty from the media but to say that the one is kosher and the other not is a fallacy justifying servility.
The Asian Age coverage of the controversial Indo-US civilian nuclear deal being pushed by Washington and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with passion is still remembered. The editor in chief MJ Akbar, being pushed by the newsroom to remain anti-establishment despite not really wanting to at times was visibly worried, but soon the exposes attracted political mileage with both the Left and the BJP along with regional parties opposing it. To cut a long story short, the Congress cashed in on the political ambitions of the Hyderabad based owner, and he fired Akbar overnight, without warning. I was called in and told that the policy was going to change to pro-Congress, and I had a choice. I left, handing over my resignation and along with it three months pay as I had not given them ‘notice’!
Singh had closed all doors to our reporters; then NSA M K Narayanan stopped calling us for his regular briefings; officials were terrified of speaking with us lest they draw their bosses ire; and we did feel the heat at every turn. In fact Narayanan who after retirement did little more than write columns for the Asian Age, and found new energy as the NSA once stopped me in the corridors of a SAARC summit and in front of all his top officials told me that I should be worried as the Pakistani’s were praising me!
We documented any number of instances when the UPA Minister entrusted with the task clearly would call media houses and tell them not to cover a particular event. A major rally of 14 political parties at the Constitution Club in New Delhi where they all demanded that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act be revoked was blacked out with not a single channel reporting it. Even though all crews were present at the spot.
The intrusive funding of media channels by the Ambanis started before the BJP. The corporate control over the media was institutionalised by the BJP. Individual and organisational targeting started then too. Phone calls from a Minister to corporate heads or their handpicked editors became a norm during the UPA government.
The BJP has taken all this and more forward. It is using the corporates to control the media. It is even more ruthless as it works systematically to break the backs of media organisations, NDTV being a case in point for this regime. It has brought in the added and lethal dimension of threats and abuse, the fear factor that it uses to intimidate individual journalists and of course the organisations as well. It has a far more black and white approach, with the targets being those who function independently, and the carrots reserved for the rest. It has the ability— or so it conveys—to harden its stand, and to be even more ruthless when required to crush the dissenting voices in the media.
It has been able to take control to another level altogether, as it did not have to start from scratch. The foundation against dissent was laid by the Congress, perhaps not so efficiently, but laid nevertheless. The struggle for press freedom and independence cannot succeed with a short memory.
First published in The Citizen.
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