Drawing the Ram-rekha

RAJDEEP SARDESAI

back to issue

IT was a threat in full gaze of the television camera. On 15 December 2002, Narendra Modi gave us an interview barely a few hours after he had recorded a massive two-thirds victory in the Gujarat elections. We asked him about the feeling of insecurity and anxiety that still prevailed among Gujarat’s minorities. Basking in the afterglow of the triumph, a stern chief minister remarked: ‘What insecurity are you talking about? People like you should apologize to the five crore Gujaratis for asking such questions. Have you not learnt your lesson? If you continue like this, you will have to pay the price.’

Ironically, the interview took place at the BJP headquarters in Ahmedabad, where even as the chief minister spoke of a Gujarat free from fear, journalists had to escape with the aid of a hose pipe at the back of the building to avoid being confronted by a frenzied mob of Modi supporters.

For viewers, the Modi threat might have been reality television with a difference. For journalists who had been covering the violence in Gujarat it was just another example of the politics of intimidation that had marked state behaviour towards the media. Right through last year’s incessant coverage of Gujarat, journalists were targeted.1 The television camera in particular became a soft target. Somehow, the fact that this was the first riot in the full glare of 24-hour news channels created a siege syndrome within the state establishment and its supporters. Not surprisingly, the media was accused of ‘inflaming passions’ and ‘instigating mobs’.

On March 1, two days after the violence began, the state government sought to ban the Star News channel because the Modi government claimed that the channel was guilty of ‘incitement’. Nor was the concerted attack on the media confined to one channel. Reporters of both Zee News and Aaj Tak were at various stages warned of dire consequences if they persisted with their coverage of the violence. Other print reporters and photographers were also issued similar warning.

Perhaps the most graphic example of the mindset of the state machinery was provided on 8 April 2002 when the Ahmedabad police assaulted two dozen photographers and reporters at the historic Gandhi Ashram. Their ‘crime’: they were covering two peace meetings, including one attended by Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar. That the abode of the Mahatma should be so defiled by naked violence is shocking in itself. That there was so little protest within and outside the media of this act of madness is only further evidence of how not just the state, but even civil society had slipped into a dangerous abyss.

 

 

Nor was this particularly surprising. One of the great successes of the Modi government was the ease with which it was able to shape a post-Godhra polarization. This polarization reflected itself in the behaviour of civil society and the media. Several Gujarati dailies, most notably Sandesh, chose to print in banner headlines stories of how Muslim youth were engaged in ‘revenge attacks’ and how ‘arms had been found in mosques.’ The stories were false and designed, it would seem, to accentuate a climate of hatred and anger between communities. Ironically, the same chief minister who chose to attack the private national news channels for inflaming passions did not think twice before commending the local newspapers for supporting his government.

In a letter to Sandesh, Modi wrote: ‘The newspapers of the state played a decisive role as a link between the people and the government. You have served the humanity in a big way. It is the state government’s primary duty to restore peace, security and communal harmony when violence takes place. It is noteworthy that the newspapers of Gujarat gave their full support to the state government in undertaking this difficult task. I am happy to note that your newspaper exercised restraint during the communal disturbances in the wake of the Godhra incident. I am grateful to you.’

 

 

Contrast this letter with the open threat that Modi issued to us on 15 December. For Modi, the contrasting responses were, at one level, part of a deliberate attempt to create a wider divide between the ‘local’ media and the English language ‘national’ media. In Modi’s propaganda strategy, the local media was to be wooed for being in tune with ‘local’ sentiments, i.e., the strong Hindutva sentiments of the state. The English language media was to be abused because it reflected the pseudo-secular mindset of the elite. The English language media was therefore pigeonholed as the ultimate enemy of the people of Gujarat because it did not reflect their popular expressions, unlike the regional media which ‘understood’ the anguish of the majority.

But, at another level, the contrasting responses of the Modi government to different sections of the media only reflect the nature of the relationship between the state leadership and the media. Those who toe the line will be ‘rewarded’ and ‘seduced’ with letters of commendation, Rajya Sabha seats, Padma awards and more (several of the cheerleaders of the Modi regime within the national media were invited by the state government for Modi’s swearing in ceremony as ‘special guests’ of the chief minister and parked in five star hotels at state expense). Those who chose to express their dissent and question the political leadership were intimidated with threats of violence and dismissed as ‘anti-national’ and worse. Those who chose to expose the ugly realities of the Gujarat violence were accused of ‘inflaming passions’; those who chose to hide the truth, and often misreport it, were commended for their ‘restraint’.

 

 

Nor have the attacks and discrimination towards a section of the media really stopped in Gujarat. The violence may have ended, but the intimidation has not. Those channels and newspapers who are critical of the chief minister are not invited to his press conferences and denied the basic right to information by the state apparatus. Moreover, Modi’s thumping victory in the last elections appears to have pushed the media on the defensive, to the point where there is a growing reluctance to focus on the continuing discrimination of the minorities in the state. It’s almost as if the sustained propaganda of an election victory being seen as a popular referendum of the Modi government’s actions has convinced the media that it is on the losing side in Gujarat’s ideological war. The resultant inhibitions within the media on revisiting the Gujarat story are a sign that state intimidation has eventually won out.

But why blame just Narendra Modi or single out the Gujarat establishment? Modi and Gujarat, in a sense, is last year’s story. Various leaders are still carrying out intimidation as a tool to silence the media into submission at various levels. Some like L.K. Advani now virtually refuse to be interviewed by anyone other than those who are identified with their ‘camp’. The day the deputy prime minister was absolved in the Ayodhya case, his office made it clear that Advani would make a statement but would take no questions.

 

 

This refusal to be quizzed is part of a mindset which is increasingly contemptuous of a media seen to have little more than nuisance value. At least Advani occasionally gives an interview; Congress President Sonia Gandhi has remained remarkably free of any media scrutiny, quite simply because the Congress leadership seems to believe that journalists ought to be content with innocuous sound bites. At the heart of such behaviour is an imperious disregard for democratic principles, and notions of freedom of information and political accountability.

Indeed, authoritarian mindsets when it comes to media-politician equations now cut across all political divides. In Tamil Nadu, Modi has found a soul mate in Jayalalithaa, who too has shown little restraint in openly targeting the media at any given opportunity (her attack on The Hindu newspaper because it chose to editorially comment on her style of functioning is only one example of the utter disregard she has for any notion of an independent press). In Chhattisgarh, Congress Chief Minister Ajit Jogi has found his own novel way of quashing any show of press dissent. Using a local cable network as his weapon, Jogi has ensured that no criticism of his government is carried across the airwaves. The moment any channel airs an anti-Jogi report, the network with a virtual monopoly in the state either blacks out the channel or removes it from the prime band.

Hardly surprising then that in several states across the country cable operators have strong political affiliations. Controlling the cable networks gives the state politicians unbridled access and power over the news broadcasting system. Whether it is the Shiv Sena in suburban Mumbai or the DMK in Tamil Nadu or Jogi’s cronies in Chhattisgarh, there are enough examples of political parties and local satraps controlling the cable networks for political ends. It is these very forces within the cable industry who were partly responsible for ensuring that the conditional access system (CAS) was deferred. Indeed, the very fact that the I & B minister had to personally visit Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray to seek his ‘permission’ for CAS is indicative, not just of the peculiar pressures under which the present coalition government at the Centre operates, but also how deeply the cable industry is intertwined with political interests.

 

 

Cable operators are just one pawn in the state power machine. Today, even the satellite industry is closely connected with political interests. In the case of Sun television, the financial and political control of the DMK is direct and obvious, given that the family of the DMK leadership owns the channel. But there are other, less direct means of control as well. For example, the Centre has ruthlessly used its uplinking and equity guidelines to ensure that the so-called ‘foreign’ satellite channels are made to fall in line. The Star News soap opera which saw the channel being given weekly extensions is a classic example of how the state machinery can still use its discretionary power to ensure a measure of control over a channel’s content.

After all, how will a channel that is completely dependent on the government’s policy shifts for its continuance ever actually be politically neutral in its editorial stance? Is it any wonder that central government leaders are privately gloating that there is at least one satellite news channel which will toe the establishment line in an election year? If Rupert Murdoch has never hesitated to abandon journalistic principles for business interests across the globe, why should India be any different?

 

 

Ironically, the hastily formed Indian Media Group which protested against the special favours that were being granted to Star News and demanded a level playing field too cannot really claim to occupy the moral high ground. Among the members of this group were editor-proprietors with strong political links (at least one of them is a Congress Rajya Sabha MP). The self-styled leader of this group was Subroto Roy Sahara, someone who has never hidden his personal connections with UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party leadership. Mulayam may not have a direct stake in Sahara television, but such is his proximity to this business group that it is almost a given that the Samajwadi Party leader and his Sancho Panza, Amar Singh are regularly featured on the channel. Would a Sahara in such circumstances dare to carry a critical story on the Samajwadi Party leadership? And can the Indian Media Group really claim to represent ‘independent’ media interests when its leadership is so strongly politically aligned?

Perhaps, because the state is so aware of the weaknesses of the country’s media elite that it seems supremely confident that it can actually get away with attempts to either muzzle or else co-opt it. Take the decision to re-launch Doordarshan Metro as a 24 hour news and current affairs channel. At its launch, the CEO of Prasar Bharti remarked that the DD News channel would be used ‘as a tool of information to empower the people to take the right decisions.’

Simply put, what the civil servant meant is that the government would have another propaganda weapon to make sure that the Indian voter falls in line. The press conference also claimed that the new channel would be truly autonomous because it would be governed by the Prasar Bharti Corporation and not by the Government of India. The fact is that while the act may have visualized Prasar Bharti as an independent entity, the reality is that the body is today an adjunct of the government in power (its chairman is a journalist who got the job because he wrote often enough in the RSS journal Organiser glorifying the Hindutva ideology).

 

 

The new channel, according to government estimates, has been given an initial budget of Rs 54 crore, that will be increased over the next few years. Nor is this the first such news channel to be launched by the government in recent years. In fact, launching high-cost news channels appears to have become a trend for I&B ministers relishing the idea of the state being involved in the ‘news business’, and projecting a ‘shining India’. Last year, in response to a parliamentary question, it was revealed that crores of rupees had been handed out to senior editors/producers to do news programmes for Doordarshan. Some of the production houses are genuine; several of them are just out to make a quick buck. In most of the cases, the programmes were either unwatchable or simply used recycled content.

Yet, no one within the media really complained about this total waste of the taxpayer’s money. Why would anyone when the country’s top editors were hosting the programmes with great aplomb? Indeed, nowhere in the world perhaps is there the kind of cross-media cannibalization that exists within the Indian media today where newspaper editors can freelance with private channels and even host programmes for the state media. The government’s mantra is simple: hand out a sufficient number of television programmes to senior journalists, and then buy their ‘credibility’ and ‘loyalty’.

 

 

The result of this blurring of lines is that an increasingly craven media has steadily lost the moral authority to really take on the establishment, whether represented by corporate or political interests. In a recent book, Journalism After September 11 (edited by Barbie Zelizer and Stuart Allan, Routledge), the authors argue how the uniquely traumatic and unprecedented events of September 11 transformed media organizations – print and television – into outriders of the Bush government. The ideological assumption underlying media behaviour was that this was a time to drape the Stars and Stripes and those who questioned official policy were only giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It’s a philosophy that is now so deeply ‘embedded’ that it gave the entire notion of war journalism an entirely different meaning during the Iraq war when most of the American networks acted as an extension of the Bush administration.

In a sense, the propaganda machine in our country is no different today, with journalists who step out of line being labelled as anti-national. The difference is that while the response of the American media may have been at least partly shaped by the sheer shock of September 11, there has been no similar cataclysmic event here that has shaken journalism (the December 13 attack on Parliament comes the closest). Yet our media hasn’t thought twice before compromising the ability of journalism to ensure a free and non-partisan flow of information.

So what protection really exists for the journalist who, without being overly self-righteous, would simply like to do his job? Frankly, very little. The Press Council remains a toothless tiger, and few believe that if its jurisdiction, as has been proposed, were extended to include the electronic media as well, it would gather any additional bite. The Editors Guild can make well-meaning statements, but again the loss of authority of the editor has diluted the ability of the Guild to actually represent the long-term interests of the professional journalist.

 

 

Within the electronic news media, there isn’t even such a collective body that can issue a joint statement. Such are the competitive urges of today’s news channels that it seems unlikely such a grouping to uphold issues of journalistic independence will be formed in the immediate future. During the Gujarat riots, for example, one channel openly ‘celebrated’ on air the state government’s decision to censor or blackout channels, with the anchor virtually justifying the line that the media was responsible for inflaming passions.

Salvation then must lie with the conscience of individual journalists, and their ability to evolve a basic code of conduct by drawing a Lakshman rekha as to what is acceptable and what is not. After all, for every editor who has sold out at a bargain price, there are still any number of reporters, camerapersons and media professionals in a variety of channels and newspapers who carry on with the daily business of telling a story. It’s the sheer pluralism and collective strength of these individuals that offer reason for hope. Even while the Modis, Jayalalithaas and Jogis persist with their politics of intimidation.

 

* The views expressed here are personal and do not purport to represent the views of the channel for which the author works.

 

Footnote:

1. For more details read Communalism Combat, March-April 2002, page 102 or the report of the fact-finding team of the Editors Guild.

top