Prashant Kanojia vs Yogi Adityanath: What's the Pulitzer-kind of journalism we are defending in name of press freedom here?

In February 2006, Alok Tomar, editor of a Hindi magazine called Shabdarth, was arrested by the special cell of Delhi Police for republishing a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad which had appeared earlier in a Danish newspaper. In the dead of night, he was carted away by sleuths in a manner which was no different from the one adopted by the Uttar Pradesh Police in arresting Prashant Kanojia, a TV journalist, from Delhi.

 Prashant Kanojia vs Yogi Adityanath: Whats the Pulitzer-kind of journalism we are defending in name of press freedom here?

Journalist Prashant Kanojia was released on bail. 101Reporters

Though Tomar proclaimed his secular credentials while reproducing the contentious cartoon, his pleas were ignored. The police slapped him with criminal charges of disturbing social order and promoting communal discord. His jailing was as uneventful as his release on bail. There was no murmur of support for Tomar or whiff of a protest against the police action.

Tomar did exceed his brief as an editor in republishing the cartoon which had created controversy worldwide and hurt a community’s religious sentiments. Tomar’s act was justifiably judged as deliberately provocative even though it hardly merited his arrest. Evidently, the arrest was necessitated not by the requirement of law but the lurking fear of violence that a community had the potential to unleash. Tomar was never accorded the high honour of being a warrior for press freedom and thank god for that.

But that raises the question, why then have all the freedom of press of warriors now lined up behind Kanojia to defend his right for independent journalism as if he has produced some Pulitzer-kind of work?

It will be wrong to create a moral equivalence between Tomar’s case and Kanojia’s. Such a comparison is bad syllogism. Yet, to defend Kanojia in the name of press freedom for his “right” to spread mischievous and scandalous information about a woman besotted with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is nothing but a gross travesty of truth. For journalists to defend the independence of journalism, the least it needs is the prevalence of journalism. Where is journalism in this case?

Take for instance the manner in which the woman in the video was egged on to say something “scandalous” about Yogi Adityanath. At first glance, it was apparent that the woman needed medical attention more than the media’s attention. Since her pronouncements had the potential for spreading like wildfire, Kanojia and other journalists found in it an attractive recipe for instant fame.

Their indiscretion was not confined to purveying wrong information wilfully. They infringed on the religious sentiments associated with the powerful Nath Sampradaya of Hindus. Alongside his role as the chief minister, Yogi Adityanath heads the temporal seat of Gorakhdham Peeth. It is an article of faith among the devotees of the Nath Sampradaya to regard the head monk as a celibate. Celibacy is not exercised as a choice. Rather, it is integral to the religious persona of the head of the peeth, Yogi Adityanath in this case. For millions of followers of the Nath Sampradaya, the purveying of unfounded rumours and the mocking of Yogi’s celibacy is as serious a sacrilege as republishing that controversial work of the Danish cartoonist.

As in that case, the administration indeed used force disproportionately, there is no dispute about that. Likewise, there is also no doubt that journalists, led by the Editors Guild of India, need serious introspection on who they stand with and what they stand up for. Can we pass off a piece of unsubstantiated, scurrilous and salacious gossip as journalism and elevate it to the level of a principle worth defending?

In this context, it is instructive to read the statement put out by the Editors Guild condemning the arrest of Kanojia and two others (the editor and owner of the news channel that aired the so-called story).

“The Editors Guild of India condemns the arrest of Noida-based journalist Prashant Kanojia and the editor and head of a NOIDA-based television channel, Nation Live – Ishita Singh and Anuj Shukla- by the Uttar Pradesh government…The police action is high-handed, arbitrary and amounts to an authoritarian misuse of laws. The Guild sees it as an effort to intimidate the press, and stifle freedom of expression.

The FIR is based on the journalist sharing on Twitter the video of a woman claiming a “relationship” with the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The television channel had broadcast a video on the same issue. Whatever the accuracy of the woman’s claims, to register a case of criminal defamation against the journalists for sharing it on the social media and airing it on a television channel is a brazen misuse of law….”

Large parts of the statement are context-setting matters of fact, including the bit about the police excesses. So, I have highlighted only the phrases that form the crux of the Guild’s argument and are critical to this discussion.

Two things are clear from the highlighted text. One, the Guild has stepped in because of the attempts to “intimidate the press” and “stifle freedom of expression”. Two, the Guild is defending the freedom of expression of not citizen Kanojia but journalist Kanojia, which is its remit as described in its ‘about us’ section: “The Editors Guild was founded in 1978 with the twin objectives of protecting press freedom and for raising the standards of editorial leadership of newspapers and magazines.”

That being the case, shouldn’t the Guild have stopped to think what constitutes journalism, the freedom of which it has taken upon itself to safeguard? Does a scurrilous tweet become journalism because a journalist has put it out? Are we to assume that anything a journalist does is journalism and hence deserving of being put on the pedestal of press freedom? What if a journalist is caught extorting money — don’t stretch your imagination, a lot of that is already happening — will he/she still enjoy the protective cover of freedom? Will the Guild stand up for them? Of course, not. Then how has it put out this statement of unqualified support to Kanojia?

Where it has qualified its statement, it has made a hash of it. By saying “whatever the accuracy of the woman’s claims” the Guild has shown a stunning lack of adherence to its stated objective of raising the standards of journalism. A news channel puts out a video that has the potential to character assassinate a monk, also a holder of a constitutional post, and that’s of no consequence to the Editors Guild? This could well have been a case of careless framing by the Guild, used as it is to putting out homilies about press freedom with robotic regularity. But it is this kind of blind, unquestioning support to all kinds of journalistic enterprise, “whatever its accuracy” that has caused the plummeting of the credibility of the Indian media. If the Guild had commented on the frivolous nature of the report even in passing, the 290-word statement would have had more credibility to it.

The Editors Guild and all the editors who speak for independent journalism must care a bit about who and what is representing that freedom. If, after what he has one, Prashant Kanojia is to be the face of India’s press freedom, there is a serious problem with the way the media has internalised that freedom.

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Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 17:45:56 IST