At a time when important questions are being raised in India about media freedom following CBI raids on the properties of NDTV proprietors, it is easy to overlook the fact that when it comes to freedom of expression, the turf is still heavily skewed in favour of the Congress-Left ecosystem. Transient political power does not automatically imply hegemonic control over narrative.
It seems counter-intuitive to say so, especially at a time when the Left and the Congress are dwindling political forces and their ideological foe BJP is increasing its national footprint. Yet the contours of the recent NDTV controversy amply demonstrate the point.
To begin, the strident noise generated in India and even abroad over the raids in itself invalidates and renders ridiculous charges of 'undeclared Emergency'. The CBI, which linked the raids to the channel owners' alleged financial irregularities, has since released a media statement clarifying the reasons behind its action.
The institutions of media — Editors' Guild of India, Press Club of India and All India Newspaper Editors' Conference — have all come out in protest. The move has been fashioned as a "battle between fascism and freedom" and widely interpreted in media as a 'vindictive' NDA's ham-handed attempts to browbeat an adversarial voice.
See some commentaries here (Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express: Why CBI raids on NDTV are a bigger, more worrying story than just one media house coming under fire), here (Vidhi Doshi in The Washington Post: Crackdown on Indian news network sparks fear that press freedom is under threat ) and here (The Telegraph editorial: Silence, please). Some suggestions have also been made on how the "CBI move will make bankers jittery, hurt banking sector."
Political parties have duly picked up the strand, with an umbrella of Opposition warning the Centre not to "threaten media". Some would say Congress joining the chorus is rather ironic, considering its past conduct when it was in power (NDTV India ban: Note to Rahul; blocking channels was Congress brainchild.)
In an article titled 'CBI raids NDTV offices, founder Prannoy Roy's home', The Economic Times reported that "The CBI conducted searches at the offices of broadcast company New Delhi Television Ltd and the residence of its founders on Monday for allegedly defrauding ICICI Bank Rs 48 crore."
The government, however, has claimed that this is unsupported by facts and that NDTV offices were not raided. Union information and broadcasting minister Venkaiah Naidu has since clarified, "There is no raid on NDTV. The CBI has not entered the premises of the newsroom or TV studio or any other related offices of the media channel. The management and promoters have to stand scrutiny and answer to the people instead of blocking it and then making allegations."
If that is the case, it is quite different from saying NDTV "offices" were "raided". The federal agency, as Hindustan Times points out in a report, has named Prannoy Roy, his wife Radhika Roy "and a private company linked to NDTV – RRPR Holding Private Ltd – among others in a criminal case for allegedly causing losses to ICICI Bank."
Point is, any scrutiny of the financial deals of promoters/individuals is not tantamount to "attack on freedom of press". This clever conflation is only a tiny step away from the assumption that media is above the law. In fact, media's legitimacy of showing 'truth to power' arises out of a power that is entirely moral, and therefore, it must not only be Caesar's wife in deed but also appear to be so. Freedom of expression for journalism and freedom to commit financial wrongdoings are two different things. This is not to suggest that NDTV promoters are guilty of doing so but to dispel the conflation.
Very few voices in mainstream media have pointed out the logical fallacy in what has so far been a one-sided discourse. Malini Parthasarathy, former editor of The Hindu, is a rare exception.
Media houses should be as transparently open to public scrutiny as any other business in order to retain credibility and public trust
— Malini Parthasarathy (@MaliniP) June 6, 2017
NDTV should allow a probe & not retreat behind the shield of press freedom which is too weighty a concept to be invoked for personal issues https://t.co/XxXXziovXm
— Malini Parthasarathy (@MaliniP) June 6, 2017
It is the not the scope of this column to comment on the validity of CBI raids or whether or not a case is merited against the NDTV proprietors but only to point out that it is strange to allege, in the face of such scathing commentaries, that the government is out to muzzle all opposing voices.
The curious case of Opindia story and Facebook
If we really have to look for examples where principles of freedom of expression have been violated, we should look elsewhere, in obscure corners, beneath the blinding gloss of organised outrage. These instances may also reconfirm the double standards of India's mainstream media — which has sadly turned freedom of expression into a tool for political browbeating and ideological oppression.
Not many, for instance, would be aware of a curious instance on Tuesday when Facebook prevented users from posting on its platform a link to a news article that appeared on opindia.com. The article in question wasn't "fake news", neither did it contain any "malicious" or "abusive content". It was an interview of Sadhvi Pragya's lawyer by the website's editor where the lead counsel opined that the accused "should have got bail in half an hour" because the case against her was weak.
Sadhvi Pragya, an accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, finally received bail in 25 April this year in Bombay High Court after spending eight years in custody. In the article, her senior counsel told the interviewer: "When I looked at the facts of the case, I wondered why she had been denied bail for so long. She should have got bail within half an hour in the first instance itself."
In the course of the interview, the lawyer went on to discuss in great detail why NIA's case against Sadhvi Pragya was weak, stressing that the biggest evidence against her had "two glaring disputes". There might be conjecture about the senior counsel's arguments that shall be duly adjudicated in a court of law when the trial resumes but nowhere in the entire report were signs of "abuse", a response Facebook gave when users attempted to share the link. Under the header, "Warning: This message contains blocked content", the Facebook message read: "Your message couldn't be sent because it includes content that other people on Facebook have reported as abusive."
Facebook has blocked link to our interview of Sadhvi Pragya's lawyer due to mass reporting. Some people hate truth https://t.co/z0rv2kt4yl
— OpIndia.com (@OpIndia_com) June 6, 2017
People are getting such messages when they try to share. This is a crowd that muzzles voices and then talks about free speech! pic.twitter.com/zhGnRrIpzt
— OpIndia.com (@OpIndia_com) June 6, 2017
It seemed a clear case where Facebook's security infrastructure was hoodwinked by motivated gangs which maliciously targeted a bona fide news report and sent out coordinated messages to convince Facebook that it had "abusive content".
Following counter reports, Facebook lifted the block. The point being made is, a news article which attempted to add a new perspective on Sadhvi Pragya's role in Malegaon blasts, was targeted. This was a clear attempt to muzzle a voice and yet there was hardly any noise about the incident except sporadic ones in social media. Opindia is perceived to be a right-leaning platform. If a left-leaning media outlet had been similarly targeted, rest assured there would have been a lot of noise about it.
It is also to be noted that Sadhvi Pragya, who was held in custody for eight years before getting bail, received none of the coverage that mainstream media offered to other accused of the case who were similarly held in custody. In fact, lawyer and rights activist Shehzad Poonawalla, a Congress party supporter, wrote in Daily O that "Indian Muslims will lose faith in democracy if Sadhvi Pragya walks free."
I shall close out the argument with one more example of such dichotomy. Veteran actor and BJP lawmaker Paresh Rawal was forced by Twitter to withdraw a controversial tweet on 'human shield' row where he said writer Arundhati Roy should be tied in front of an army jeep to stop stone-pelters in Kashmir. In a statement, Rawal was quoted, as saying by NDTV: "With this letter, I inform to all my supporters and citizens of this country that I am being coerced to delete something I tweeted on 21 May, or else Twitter would block my account."
Interestingly, JNU scholar Shehla Rashid, former vice-president of JNU Students' Union, posted a similar tweet where she appeared to morph Indian cricketer Gautam Gambhir's image in front of the jeep.
Gautam Gambhir tied to an army vehicle, while he was on his way to vote in the bypoll. pic.twitter.com/iVTXcjfrfV
— Shehla Rashid (@Shehla_Rashid) April 15, 2017
Some users have pointed out that Twitter India's application of freedom of expression principles is inconsistent.
— Priti Gandhi (@MrsGandhi) May 24, 2017
It is nobody's case that media's freedom is curbed. That gnaws at the very foundations of liberal democracy. However, charges against the government that it is muzzling opposition voices or browbeating media into submission are weighty and shouldn't be bandied about in gay abandon. Doing so is counterproductive and serves to make important issues appear frivolous.
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Updated Date: Jun 08, 2017 10:17:12 IST