Op-Ed: Fissures in media allow govt to browbeat it

Can a bureaucrat – or anyone anyone holding a public office for that matter – eject a reporter from a briefing for the media on the grounds of ‘biased’ coverage? Or pick and choose which media outlet s/he would talk to? The answer, I am afraid, has to be an emphatic and unambiguous ‘No’! It is none of a public servant’s business to sit in judgment over which media house is biased and which one is not. S/he is duty bound to provide all relevant information, bytes and press releases to all media houses irrespective of their alleged or real bias.

One wonders where does a bureaucrat, even if it is someone as senior as Sports secretary Mr. Vishal Dev, draw the audacity from to behave the way he did with the OTV reporter on Wednesday. It is, in my view, nothing but an example of the arrogance that has infected top echelons of the bureaucracy in Odisha. Mr. Dev behaved boorishly because he knew very well that he would not only get away with it, but can actually expect a pat on the back from the political leadership for it. Alternatively, he could be just carrying out the orders of his masters.

That, however, is not the only reason Mr. Dev chose to behave the arrogant way he did. He also knew he did not have to fear about any collective backlash from the media fraternity in the state. Watching the scene unfold on screen, it was hard to decide what was more shocking; the utterly discourteous behavior of Mr. Dev or the deafening silence of the other media persons present inside the room. Even allowing for the fact that they were ‘invited’ by Mr. Dev while Niranjan Reddy, the OTV reporter, was not, it was shocking to find that there was not even a whimper of protest from any of them at this humiliation of a fellow journalist. With the mega sporting event of the Hockey World Cup just round the corner, it was all too obvious that none of them wanted to be on the wrong side of the all-powerful babu and sports czar, who also happens to be the President of the IAS Officers’ Association.

The reactions of media persons outside the room were no different. Talking to a cross section of media persons, this columnist heard a common refrain. “Serves them just right.” “When all was well between Naveen Patnaik and Jay Panda and OTV was being given exclusive access by ministers and bureaucrats, did they ever bother about others?” “Why did the OTV reporter gatecrash into the room when he was not invited?” These were some of the reactions, not just on Wednesday’s incident, but also on the issue of the privilege motion moved by Congress MLA Taraprasad Bahinipati against OTV for a report carried on Tuesday that showed the Speaker visibly acting as per the whispering advice of the Assembly secretary. It was hard to miss the glee at the plight of OTV.

There is little doubt that the privilege notice was motivated by politics rather than any concern for the dignity of the House as has been sought to be made out. It is instructive to note that News 7 too ran report a more or less in the same vein as the one aired by OTV on the Assembly secretary, who has already got three extensions for the ‘services’ he has rendered, ‘instructing’ both Parliamentary Affairs minister and the Speaker on when to adjourn the House and for how long. But while the OTV story invited a privilege motion, the one on News 7 did not warrant any such action. So much for the concern of the honourable member for the ‘dignity’ of the House!

As a media person myself, I too have seen the days when press conferences by ministers or top babus did not start till the OTV crew arrived. Like others in attendance, I too have resented the preferential treatment given to the channel by the establishment. But does that mean that the media fraternity should refuse to come out in support of the channel and actually rejoice at the shoddy treatment meted out to OTV when it is being treated shabbily by a babu?

Just imagine a hypothetical situation – which, I know for sure, would never happen in Odisha, at least not in this writer’s lifetime – where the others in the room had walked out and/or the entire media in the state had risen as one to protest the bureaucrat’s behavior and threatened not to cover any news about the upcoming Hockey World Cup. I am pretty sure not just Mr. Dev, the government as a whole would have been down on its knees, apologized and promised that such a thing would not happen ever again. But as I said, those who run the Naveen Patnaik dispensation know that such a thing at would never happen in the state. And that precisely is what encourages them to behave the way they do.

We the media fraternity should never forget that today’s darling could become tomorrow’s Public Enemy No. 1 – as has happened in OTV’s case – and vice versa. As we have seen in the past – and are witnessing it even now – the equations and the editorial line of a media house can change very fast. A change of government, a change of ownership or even a change in the political affiliations of the owner can lead to a ‘U’ turn in the editorial line of a media house and its equation with the government.

We media persons should never lose sight of the fact that we have absolutely no role in determining the editorial line of the newspaper, TV channel or portal we work for. It is the owner and his political or other biases that determine what a media house would report and how. If we media persons don’t understand this and fight what is essentially the owners’ battle with others in our fraternity, we are leaving the field wide open for both our owners and our rulers to use our fissures for their benefit. For all we know, the owners could be having a good laugh over how they have got media persons fighting among themselves to fight their battle!

We must remember that if we refuse to come to the rescue of one of our own when it is under attack, it could be our turn to face the music and plough a lonely furrow tomorrow. There are differences among media houses/persons everywhere. But should we allow our differences to be taken advantage of by the powers that be? That wonderful saying in Odia – “Mainshi singha phata, jujhila belaku gota” (“The horns of a buffalo are forked, but when it comes to a fight, they are together”) – sums it up just perfectly.

There are a number of media unions who claim to be fighting for the rights of the media and media persons. But none of them has so far come out with so much as a statement condemning the high handedness of the government officer or the privilege motion against OTV. I am told that the Sports Journalists’ Association is having a meeting on Thursday to discuss and take a call on the issue. Here is hoping that at least this Association comes out in solidarity, even if only as a mere formality, when the larger fraternity has failed to do so. “What is the Odisha Press Club doing about this?” a young journalist asked on Facebook. For all you know, it could be waiting for the next attack on the media outside Odisha – after the Gauri Lankesh murder, that is – to get its banners and placards ready for a protest!

For media persons, there is no pride in being ‘on the right side’ of the government of the day. And there is no shame in being on its ‘wrong side’ either!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)