It has been two days since the BJD formally lodged a complaint with the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) accusing leading Odia TV channel OTV of peddling ‘paid news’ designed to favour the BJP and work against the ruling party in the run up to the Bijepur by-election. Over the last two days, I have been scouring every conceivable forum – the local newspapers, TV channels and social media (including the dozens of WhatsApp groups on media) – to find any editorial comment, a special report or a discussion on the issue. I drew a blank. What I found instead were perfunctory, ‘who said what’ reports on the incident on the day it happened. (Some even chose to black it out altogether!). None of the numerous journalists’ unions has chosen to take it up so far either.
I was not surprised at all by the silence of the mainstream media. As a member of the fraternity for long, I know that the media in Odisha is a divided house and no one comes to show solidarity when another media is under attack. If anything, some media houses actually rejoice at the other’s plight calling it ‘just desserts’ and ‘serves them right’ and I am sure it is no different in this case. But what I was really disappointed with was the deafening silence of the liberal intelligentsia, comprising senior journalists, activists and thought leaders, who are always at the forefront in condemning any attempt to muzzle the press anywhere in India, particularly when such attempt is made by the government of a BJP ruled state or the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. Cases in point: the one-day ban on NDTV India for its coverage of the Pathankot attack last year, the arrest of journalist Vinod Verma by the Chhattisgarh government and the Rajasthan government’s bill (later withdrawn) seeking to place curbs on the media.
I tried to get into their minds and gauge what could be the reason for the silence. One possible reason that came to mind is that they don’t consider it an issue of media freedom at all and think of it as a matter strictly between OTV and a political party. But when Jay Saha filed a Rs 100 crore defamation suit against thewire.in for a story on the phenomenal rise in his business after his father became BJP president, the same set of people had refused to treat as a case between an individual and a media house and had gone hammer and tongs at the Modi government for what they called its bid to arm-twist an independent media house. ‘Paid news’, after all, is too serious a charge against a leading media house, even if it is leveled by the ruling party and not the government. [For those who don’t know, it has been defined by the Election Commission as “any news or analysis in any media (print and electronic) for a price in cash or kind (emphasis mine) as consideration”.] In any case, the line between the ruling party and the government is now completely blurred as evident from party spokespersons doubling up as spokespersons for the government. In my view, recourse to this specious logic of ‘party affair’ thus is dishonest and plain hypocrisy.
Had the OTV case been a one-off, no one would have bothered. After all, how can anyone dictate what issue an individual or an organization would protest or speak on? But there is a pattern to this. These conscience keepers, many of them close friends, have scrupulously and steadfastly avoided commenting on the various acts of commission and omission by the Naveen Patnaik government even as they have been hyper vocal in condemning BJP governments in other states on the same or similar issues. Thus, they would condemn the Haryana government for the barbaric rape and murder of a teenage girl but maintain complete silence on the Kunduli case. They would condemn the egg attack on the CM’s dais at Talasari in Balasore but not utter a word on the BJD goons who manhandled the woman in the presence of the police and in full view of the TV cameras. They would condemn (as anyone should) the ‘cow dung’ attack on residence of Mr. V Karthikeyan Pandian but never say anything about the propriety of the CM’s private secretary straying into the political arena. One can go on and on.
I would be the last person to accuse any of them of being on the payrolls of the government, apologists of Naveen or even closet supporters of the BJD. Nor do I think they are afraid of the Naveen regime. Having known most of them for years, I can vouch for the fact that they are all people of integrity. I can think of only one reason for their silence on the BJD, its leader and its government: a visceral hatred of the BJP and the Hindutva brigade in general and Modi in particular and everything they stand for. That’s why they see Naveen as the bulwark standing between the BJP and Odisha and are therefore wary of doing anything that might strengthen the hands of the BJP in the state and, more importantly, make them appear to be on the same side as the ‘enemy’. They are not necessarily very enamoured of Naveen or his party, but see them as the ‘lesser evil’ that must be supported or, at the very least, glossed over to keep the ‘bigger evil’ at bay. They perhaps think keeping mum on issues in the state, even if it is something as sensitive as the Kunduli case or as serious as the OTV case, is a small price to pay at the altar of the ‘larger cause’. I fully share their views on the Hindutva forces but consider it plain hypocrisy to ignore what is happening in our backyard and take up what is happening in faraway lands on a daily basis instead.
As a media person who values freedom more than anything else, I must confess even I dread the prospect of the BJP coming to power in the state, given its record of muzzling the media wherever it has ruled. Despite being a trenchant critic of Naveen Patnaik and the BJD government for years, I have absolutely no hesitation in admitting that I have never once felt threatened in all these years. I know the BJP, in the highly unlikely event of coming to power in the next elections, would not extend the same courtesy to me or anyone writing against them. But unlike my good friends, I don’t believe in closing my eyes to the faults of the Naveen government because I consider it a betrayal of the noble profession that I have chosen for myself. If that makes me appear to be a closet supporter of BJP (as many have said in the recent past), so be it!