Since the BJP rode to power and Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of the country, there has been constant breast-beating over the supposedly shrinking space for independent journalism in the country. The familiar refrain has been freedom of expression is facing a grave threat under an autocratic Modi who, through a mixture of inducement and threat, has been arm-twisting independent media and thus throttling the ‘voice of the people’.
The shameless Opposition-bashing by Republic TV, headed by Arnab Goswami, the biggest motormouth in the Indian media and to a lesser extent by the channel he headed previously (Times Now) are cited as instances of how the Modi regime has co-opted powerful sections of the media. The sacking of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta – one of the truly independent journalists in the country – by the Board of Directors of influential Left wing journal Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) and the Rs 100 crore defamation suit filed by BJP President Amit Shah’s son Jay Saha against The Wire, headed by former Editor of The Hindu S Varadarajan, for a story on the meteoric rise in his fortunes since the Modi-Shah duo’s ascent to power are cited as proof of the arm-twisting tactics of the current regime.
All of this is, of course, true. The Modi regime has indeed taken recourse to every trick in the book – and many that are not in the book – to force the media to toe its line. It is interesting to note, however, that all its shenanigans have failed to prevent major exposes like the reluctance of regulatory agencies to pursue cases against Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) owned by Modi acolyte Mukesh Ambani or the quantum jump in the turnover of Jay Saha’s company. So, what ‘throttling’ exactly are we talking about?
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Now contrast this with the complete and unanimous silence of the entire ‘independent’ media on what has turned out to be one of the biggest scams of the century: the 2G scam, worth around Rs 1, 76, 000 crores according to the CAG. This columnist can vouch for the fact that every Delhi based journalist worth his salt was in possession of the explosive Radia tapes but chose to sit over it for well over a year and half for reasons that can only be speculated on before ‘Outlook’ and ‘Open’ magazines played spoilsport, spilled the beans and uncorked a can of worms showing the unholy nexus among corporate honchos, politicians, media persons and fixers masquerading as corporate communications professionals. As anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the media scene would tell you, any independent media house/person would pounce on such a tell-all tape and try to be the first to break it. But no one did. Why did the independent media go into hiding? Your guess is as good as mine.
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Going back further in time, one only has to recall LK Advani’s timeless comment “The media crawled when it was only asked to bend,” which provides the most telling indictment of the way the media conducted itself during the Emergency in the mid 1970s.
The truth is ‘independent’ media – at least in India – is a misnomer. The media has ALWAYS been susceptible to pressure from the political and business classes. These two classes have always decided what would go and what wouldn’t in a newspaper or a TV channel. That, however, has not stopped talk of an independent media. But then ‘independent’ means different things to different people and interest groups. For those crying themselves hoarse the loudest now over the shrinking space for free Press, ‘independent’ media has come to be synonymous with Modi/BJP/Hindutva bashing since Modi assumed power. This section of the media finds absolutely nothing wrong in abandoning its critical faculties and writing fawning accounts of the waves that Rahul Gandhi is supposedly making in Gujarat because it fits in perfectly with its self-chosen definition of independence.
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A truly independent media should be – and more importantly seen to be – even-handed, a detached and dispassionate observer, going after anyone who indulges in wrongdoing irrespective of who it is. It should not seek to pass off political activism as independent journalism. But alas! That seems a cry in the wilderness.
For a while now, I have observed a group of people – not all of them journalists, of course – in Odisha whose day begins and ends with Modi/BJP/Hindutva bashing on social media. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that. But it is interesting to note that while they would post critical comments on some act or the other of the Sangh Parivar in faraway Haryana or Kerala (most of them well deserved, of course), they would NEVER talk about what is happening closer home. They would steadfastly avoid posting anything on any wrongdoing of the Naveen Patnaik government. In fact, one gets the distinct impression that their Modi bashing is a ruse to avoid having to say anything on the Naveen government! If this is what is called an ‘independent’ voice, then only God can save the media.
[I know I am in serious danger of being dubbed an apologist for Modi/BJP for this piece. But then not saying something you feel strongly about because of an apprehension that it might bring you opprobrium isn’t exactly a sign of an ‘independent’ journalism, is it?