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A bigger shame for us in India: Media in Pakistan has often shown extraordinary gumption in showing truth to military power

By Anand K Sahay*
It is instructive to run a comparison between the American media in the time of adversity and our so-called independent news platforms- both print and television. (Not counting FM stations, by way of radio we have only the All India Radio, a government outlet and it won’t be fair to expect it to play anything other than a partisan role on the government’s side.)
We seem to fare so poorly by comparison that it is hard to believe that some of the leading media companies of the country are a part of the equation of democracy, in which the media is meant to report not just truthfully but also the meaningful truth- the truth that matters by presenting facts obtained with due care for accuracy in a way that ordinary readers and viewers -- in other words, ordinary citizens -- may discern the reality on the ground and be enabled to make intelligent social, political and economic choices based on the information provided by the media.
Alas, we are a long way from that elementary goal, from that basic expectation from a free press in a democracy. Indeed, the Indian media has soiled its copybook by its abject failure to report and analyse the times we live in with any sense of gravity, or responsibility to the reader/viewer, which means accurate reporting of what is significant and careful analysis and responsible comments.
In the name of reporting, the name of the game is unbridled partisanship in favour of those in power. The daily flavour of reporting has been reduced to the syndrome of “war-palat war”, to use the Hindi expression so much in use now, meaning “attack-counter-attack”- a reference to the meaningless jibes and counter-jibes of politicians and religious hypocrites-turned politicians that fill the pages of our newspapers.
Seldom does the media bother going behind the war of words that offer nothing more than low-level entertainment -- usually in the form of a play on words or a reference to mythology -- on an everyday basis. In other words, as consumers of media we are kept in a state of being sheltered from the truth. This is exactly what the rulers would like. That makes the daily production of news a command performance, roughly speaking.
This wasn’t always the case. Our journalists, on the whole, are responsible professionals, and the record shows this. Also, our bigger news companies are not short on resources and are in a position to offer quality reporting and analyses. But what’s gone completely missing in the Modi era is spine. There is no backbone to speak of in our newspapers and news television, especially the latter.
A recent example highlights this. A web-based respected current affairs platform wrote an analytical story based on official documents to express surprise -- and without levelling any allegation -- that BJP president Amit Shah’s son’s defunct business suddenly showed its turnover had grown 16,000 times in the period that Mr. Modi has been Prime Minister.
The story caused a sensation. There was nothing to challenge on facts as the whole case rested on official data. Yet, the petty trader in question had the temerity to file a criminal and a civil defamation case for Rs. 100 crore against the editors of the media company and the journalist who broke the remarkable story. This was evidently done to frighten others in the media and ensure that they do not pick up the story and do any further investigation or analysis.
Our media blacked out the story and subsequently reported only that the BJP president’s son had filed a Rs 100 crore defamation suit against some journalists. That was it. No one bothered to report why Union ministers had jumped to a small trader’s defence and called the news about him “false, baseless, malicious” without revealing the basis for saying so. No one saw fit to link threads and report why the Additional Solicitor-General of India was given special permission to defend the unheard of trader in court.
Luckily, the BJP and the Modi government couldn’t control social media and the story got out anyway. The Press Club of India also organised a discussion to which the judicial luminary Fali S. Nariman, who was unable to attend, sent a message in which he observed, “Any support extended by a political party in power to a private person’s defamation suit against another private person (of any profession or calling) is condemnable and must be condemned.”
He called the story-break and the defamation suit a matter of “significant public interest”. This is another way of saying that a defamation suit has no leg to stand on if the judiciary guards its independence. Presiding over the discussion, the present writer expressed keenness to know from the government how many other traders in agriculture commodities (besides Mr. Shah’s son) had seen their turnover increase as astronomically as the BJP chief’s offspring had.
Really, there are no answers to such issues, except bare-faced silence. Yet, our media was not moved. In fact, the principal culprit among news channels, which runs a lot of discussions every single day in praise of the government and the ruling party and -- more significantly -- with the aim of attacking the BJP’s political opponents, completely blacked out the story. Out of fear apparently, or under instruction from the rulers, the channel in question did not even report the filing of the defamation suit, lest the matter spin out of control in a discussion.
Once BJP’s most important leader who now mans the sidelines, Lal Krishna Advani, had said scathingly, referring to the days of the Emergency, that the media was asked to bend but it chose to crawl. Today, there is no fiat for the media to bend, but leading sections of it crawl anyway. They know how to read the wind.
The irony is they do not even notice that they have long stopped living by any journalistic ethic or standard. It is in this respect that our US counterparts have demonstrated that they have stood up to power boldly and entirely on the basis of the work they put out with professional thoroughness and accuracy day after day. Their work has truly stood out in bleak times.
A bigger shame for us in India -- the media in Pakistan, which has been a military dictatorship for the most part, has from time to time shown extraordinary gumption in showing truth to military power. It pays the price for doing so but has not flinched from its professional obligation. Journalists are kidnapped and tortured or killed on a fairly regular basis. We should summon the humility to salute their courage instead of going on and on about being a free press in the world’s largest democracy.
No one in America thought Donald Trump was winning the presidential race and the US media too got it wrong. This seemed to give President Trump the licence, as it were, to treat the media as an adversary to be hounded, just like he treated the Democratic Party, especially Hillary Clinton, his rival for the presidency. From day one, descending to the level of the street in his abusive style, he began to accuse the media of presenting what he falsely called “fake news”, an expression made so common by him that it has recently made it to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The president threatened to have journalists with some leading US publications and television stations jailed. But the American press and television did not give one inch. Let alone flinch, they did not let a day go by without analysing the significant political and policy actions of the government and showed the US leader to be a megalomaniac who is giving the needy in his country a bad deal while warming the hearts of big business, and is making war-like noises on a regular basis, threatening international peace and stability.
In contrast, the Indian media sidles up to the rulers. We may only guess at the reasons. Has the government quietly threatened them with unravelling any irregularities they may be guilty of? Or, do they genuinely love the government and all its failures and are ready to accept at face value any spin the government puts on its pet schemes and projects which are causing misery and despair to the country?
We should look ourselves in the mirror and ask: Are we courtiers and court-jesters, or do we take rightful pride in being journalists and stand with the people of India by giving them the truth, and not the convenient truth?
---
*Senior journalist and commentator, former president of the Press Club of India

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