Ever since the CBI raided the home of the NDTV promoter Prannoy Roy earlier this week, a concerted campaign has been launched by a section of the media, alleging that the freedom of the press is under severe threat from the Narendra Modi-led government.
This campaign got a serious boost when some of the prominent names in the Indian media – Kuldip Nayar, HK Dua and Arun Shourie – made a passionate plea to fight against the Modi government on 9 June at a special meeting organised by the Press Club of India on its premises in New Delhi.
Arun Shourie's speech went viral on social media. Comforting Roy on the dais, Shourie reminded the government that "anybody in India who has raised his hand against the press, against the media, has had that hand burnt and has had to withdraw it."
But that was not all. Shourie also gave a sermon why ever government minister must be boycotted, why anything positive about the government’s work must not be published (he was particularly severe on Venkaiah Naidu, who, according to him, cannot write a single paragraph coherently but long pieces under his byline appear in all major newspapers) and stated that the media should concentrate on stories that will ensure the toppling of the Modi regime, which he described as “the government of two-and-half-men."
Surprisingly, neither Shourie nor any other distinguished speaker at the Press Club cared about the basic fact that the raid was on Roy’s private properties following tax-related cases dating back to previous regimes. The raid was not on NDTV. The CBI did not enter NDTV's offices nor harass its journalists.
In fact, the Modi government, in its last three years, has not intervened in the functioning of any media house that has used reams of newsprint and countless hours of time on the hour to criticise the prime minister and his government's policies.
This is completely unlike the period during the Emergency and under the subsequent governments. One may quote here from in interview that Shourie, then editor of The Indian Express, gave to India Today, few months before the Rajiv Gandhi-government contemplated bringing out the controversial “defamation bill” to curb free speech : “They (the government) have tried all their disinformation tricks, planting of documents, forging letters, extorting statements, accusing us of passing official secrets out of the country, calling dissenters CIA agents.” Shourie was describing how “during and after Operation Bluestar, 20 government cases were filed against the Express”.
In contrast, what is happening in Roy’s case, pointed out brilliantly by Sandip Ghose in Firstpost, is that the distinction between the proprietor and his business activities and the news organisation is being blurred. In this case, the proprietor is using the journalists working for him to protect his other interests, which is a dangerous game.
If the logic of the eminent media personalities like Shourie is to be taken to its logical conclusion, then the time isn't far when journalists will be fighting political battles on behalf of their news organisations and their masters, many of whom are politicians.
According to a 2012 report by Business Standard, more than a third of news channels in India are owned by politicians or political affiliates, particularly in states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Punjab. Similarly, some powerful print establishments are also owned by politicians.
The second problem with Shourie’s thesis is its lack of consistency. Shourie today defends Roy. By the same logic, he should have defended the owners of the Sakshi group (Jagan Reddy), Eenadu (Ramoji Rao), Deccan Chronicle (T Venkattram Reddy), and Sahara media (Subroto Roy), all of them were taken to task by various governments, some even landing in jail.
One may add here the example of Outlook magazine. When Shourie was a senior Cabinet minister in the Vajpayee government in 2001, the Income Tax authorities conducted raids on the R Raheja group. Vinod Mehta, the then editor of Outlook, cited political vendetta behind the raids. Where was Shourie then?
The third problem with the likes of Shourie is their selectivity. To them, an attack on a proprietor like Roy is a threat to freedom of the press. But has any of them – Shourie, Dua, Nayar or S Nihal Singh— expressed any anguish for the journalists facing increasing job cuts in recent years by these very proprietors?
Leading news establishments are closing their offices all over the country. Those who hold on to their jobs have to make do with substantial pay cuts. That news establishments cannot, in this day and age, remain philanthropic organisations and that they have to make money or break even is an important matter in itself.
But at stake is the principle of press freedom itself: If we do not know what is happening in our states, small towns and the country side in the absence of professional journalists, what sort of media would the likes of Shourie like us to have? Will they advise Roy to take back hundreds of journalists he has fired in recent years?
But what's more serious is the silence of the eminent editors over the increasingly violent attacks that the journalists are facing. One is amazed that Shourie has not been outspoken on this phenomenon. Why did not we see a big gathering of eminent editors to express their concerns when on 8 June, 2015 Shahjahanpur-based journalist Jagendra Singh, who had been set ablaze on 1 June allegedly by goons of state minister Ram Murti Verma (under Akhilesh Yadav as chief minister), died of burns?
Singh had been writing extensively about Verma’s alleged involvement in corruption, land grabs and illegal mining. Such attacks are aplenty in other states as well. This is the real threat to the the freedom of press. But Shourie and his ilk do not find these incidents disturbing enough or important enough to come to the Delhi Press Club and express their concerns or solidarity.
One remembers in this context the mob violence in Maharashtra against the prominent regional newspaper Lokmat about two years ago. Spearheaded by Congress legislator Shaikh Rashid, Muslim protestors attacked multiple offices of the paper, just because it had carried a cartoon showing various currency symbols pouring into a piggy bank whose snout carried an image from the jihadist group's flag: A white seal with black Arabic lettering that reads "Muhammad is the messenger of God."
The paper quickly apologised for the “offence”, but Rashid continued threatening and demanding an official inquiry into the newspaper's alleged transgression. What explains the studied silence of our eminent journalists like Shourie on this matter?
Which brings me back to my initial point: Those veterans who shared their tears for the loss of press freedom on Friday are elites fighting for elites in the media. They're hardly concerned with those least represented or the Indian media as a whole.
And when one talks of these elites like Shourie, one can even further narrow it down: They are associated with the so-called mainstream media operating out of Delhi. They are more concerned about the well-being or interests of the proprietors, particularly those who call themselves Editor-in-Chief, not the real journalists in the field.
One should not be misled by the campaigns launched by the likes of Shourie, particularly when their concerns for press freedom are only camouflage for their increasing irrelevance under the Modi government. The truth is that under previous regimes, they were given ministerships (Shourie), Padma awards, Rajya Sabha nominations, and other such prizes such as ambassadorships (Nayar and Dua), including jobs in government and myriad cultural and social organisations that come with low salaries but high perks such as houses in Delhi.
Modi has neglected them. Obviously, they are angry. This is particularly true of Shourie, who until 26 May, 2014 (the day Modi assumed office) was one of the biggest supporters and advisers of the prime minister. Shourie turned on Modi when he did not find a place, as widely anticipated, in the Cabinet.
All this is not to challenge the competence of eminent journalists like Shourie. They have, undoubtedly, been among our finest public servants. But their current battle against the Modi regime has nothing to do with journalism. It is purely political and personal. The more they try to make this about journalism, the more they raise questions about their credibility.
Updated Date: Jun 11, 2017 15:28 PM