Saturday, July 17, 2010
Media's campaign of calumny
All are equal, media is more equal than all!
Interviewing prospective students for a media school can be a useful experience. It provides you with an insight into how media is perceived among the young who shall inherit the world from us. I usually begin by asking the applicants whether they want to pursue a career in print journalism or in the audio-visual media. During one such interview recently, a young woman told me, “I want to join a news channel.” And do what? “I want to become an anchor.” Why? “I have many things to say and as an anchor I can say anything I want.” What makes you think so? “I watch television regularly. I know.” And why do you think you can actually say whatever you want? That left her slightly flustered. “But we have freedom of expression, right? And media is free in our country, right?” I seemed to have planted doubts in her mind and she wanted me to disabuse her of them. I asked her to tell me about her other interests in life.
I was reminded of that conversation on Friday evening when editors of television news channels, feigning great outrage, queued up to condemn the smashing of glass panes and upturning of potted palms in the lobby of Videocon Tower in Delhi, where the offices of Headlines Today, Aajtak and Mail Today are located, by a crowd of people protesting against the ongoing campaign of calumny against the RSS which is being accused of promoting ‘Hindu terrorism’. The violence was uncalled for, unfortunate and unacceptable. The protest could have been peaceful. Indeed, those leading the protesters should have ensured that no damage was caused on account of the demonstration. Having said that, let us look at what was said in condemnation by editors of other channels.
“This is an attack on freedom of expression. The media is being muzzled. Ideas must be combatted with ideas, not violence. It is despicable and deplorable,” said a news channel editor, virtually frothing at the mouth. Others pitched in with elaborate denunciation of “goons” and “hooligans” — the protesters did not look like either category of social malcontents — and condemned the attack. What was most amusing was to see Ms Ambika Soni, Minister for Information & Broadcasting, waxing eloquent on how the cherished values of our democracy are under assault. Ms Soni heads a Ministry which is a relic of our fake Socialist past when the Government controlled newspapers (there were no news channels then) and information flow by adopting strong-arm tactics — newspapers critical of the Government were denied newsprint quota — and by regulating the release of advertisements — obedience fetched you a greater share. More importantly, her entry into politics was through Sanjay Gandhi’s Youth Congress during the Emergency, when all freedoms and rights, including the right to life, were suspended and journalists who didn’t extol the virtues of the Great Leader were sent to jail. All that and more seems to have been forgotten.
However, we need not be distracted by what certain practitioners of the world’s second oldest profession have to say in defence of their emulating the practices of the world’s oldest profession. It’s a free country and people have the right to say whatever they want. But what is objectionable is the attempt to disguise biased writing and distortion of the truth as “freedom of expression”. The ongoing campaign of calumny to demonise the RSS and denigrate Hindus by painting the first as a sponsor of terrorism and the second as a community of terrorists is by no stretch of the imagination ‘freedom of expression’. Nor does media have the freedom to malign or defame individuals and then seek shelter in its presumed immunity from scrutiny.
Without going into the specifics of the campaign that has been launched to tar the RSS and label Hindus as terrorists, I would like to make three points. First, neither the stories published by some magazines and newspapers nor the reports that have been telecast by some news channels present even a shred of evidence. What we have read, seen and heard so far are aspersions, accusations and alleged admissions, all of it attributed to unnamed sources in the Intelligence Bureau and the Central Bureau of Investigation. These have been neither cross-checked nor corroborated with indisputable facts. Second, it is amazing that in a country which is supposed to be governed by the law of the land, there should be such organised trial by media which is really trial by insinuation. Years later, if nothing is proved in a court of law, media will conveniently choose to forget that they had already declared individuals guilty of horrible crimes. Third, since when has speaking to someone on the phone, irrespective of whether or not that person is guilty of having committed a crime, a crime in itself?
There is, of course, the other aspect about the IB and CBI leaking like sieves with a billion holes. If the alleged offence of planting bombs in Malegaon, Ajmer and Hyderabad is to be treated seriously, shouldn’t the agencies be conducting their investigations in absolute secrecy? If they must go public with titillating tid-bits, then IB and CBI offcials should formally brief the media on record. If they are planting stories, as they are doing, then this is no investigation but a political conspiracy: The RSS is being targeted to weaken the BJP. The conspiracy to defame and demonise Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has now been enlarged to hobble the BJP at the national level. There are no prizes for guessing who are the conspirators. Sadly, sections of the media have offered to play the role of co-conspirators. During Mrs Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime, few editors stood up against the criminal abuse of power. Most of them chose to crawl when asked to bend. Tragically, many editors have kept up that tradition, offering space on the front page and time during prime-time news bulletins to the Establishment’s dirty tricks department.
This is not about ideology. Nor is it about political loyalties. To suggest so would be as bogus as those crying themselves hoarse that media’s freedom and freedom of expression are under attack. If anything is under attack, if anything is being questioned, is the peddling of fiction as fact under the garb of ‘investigative reporting’. Had it not been so, our ‘free’ media, a large section of which thrives on ‘paid news’, would have reported that the investigating agencies have failed to come up with any evidence to make their charges against Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and Colonel Srikant Prasad Purohit stick. That the courts have refused to let them be tried under MACOCA, saying there was nothing on record to justify such a trial. That it’s been two years since they were arrested and have been in jail without being prosecuted or formally charged.
Or shall we just burn them at the stake because ‘free’ media has pronounced them guilty?
[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on July 18, 2010.]