Threatening and tarring the watchdogs
June 26, 2017

The press used to be known once upon a time as the Fourth Estate (the legislature, the executive and the judiciary being the three main wings of national vigilance). Freedom of expression is also enshrined in our Constitution. However, today, increasingly, the media seems to be vilified and constitutional guarantees tossed aside by authoritarian diktats, in the name of ‘ensuring national security’ and safeguarding law and order. Journalists who report on malpractices are being threatened. Sakuntala Narasimhan provides the perspective

In the third week of March this year, the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), a forum for women media professionals (including print, radio and television) put out a statement condemning the intimidation unleashed against a woman journalist who published a series of articles exposing corruption and massive malpractices by India’s largest miner and exporter of rare earth minerals, S. Vaikundarajan of Tamil Nadu, with details of politicians’ collusion in the illegal operation and looting of national assets (sand and minerals).

Following a series of four articles on the operation published in The Wire in January (https://thewire.in/tag/beach-sand-mining/) the writer, Chennai-based Sandhya Ravishankar, received a flood of abusive calls, even threats of violence and dire consequences, via Twitter and Facebook, from supporters of Vaikundarajan, according to her complaint to the Press Council. Blogs in English and Tamil targeted her too. She was also threatened with legal action for defamation, although her report is based on factual information that Vaikundarajan has not denied.

Watchdogs_Sakuntala

The threats have come on the letterhead of the mining company (VV Minerals), of which Vaikundarajan is founder-chairman. Two hundred criminal cases are reportedly pending against him. NWMI’s statement is being sent to the police demanding action against such intimidation, pointing out that this “does not bode well for freedom of the press and truth-telling in the public interest”. Only when the authorities (including the police and the cyber wing) ensure that journalists can fulfil their duty to inform the public unhindered by threats and pressure, can we hope to create an atmosphere of genuine freedom of expression, NWMI’s statement adds.

Sandhya is not the first journalist who has been threatened by those who control sand-mining, one of the most powerful lobbies in the state – Tamil magazine Vikatan and others have also been at the receiving end of the miner’s ire and false defamatory claim when they refer to the subject of illegal beach sand mining. Many mainstream newspapers and publications are afraid to write on the subject, fearing exactly such harassment and legal issues.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) includes on its website other examples of women journalists being vilified for exposing malpractices. Another award-winning Indian journalist (Neha Dixit) who wrote about child trafficking in Outlook magazine was similarly vilified as “depraved”.

Around the time that NWMI was putting out its statement condem-ning intimidation of journalists reporting on malpractices, the Karnataka Assembly announced the setting up of a panel to “gag the media” (as one news report in the Deccan Herald put it on 23 March); cutting across party divisions, legislators charged the media with “blackmail, extort-ion, character assassination, and misleading society”. (Interestingly, the assembly devoted “over four hours” to the topic, under a rule that allows only a “brief discussion of public importance”, setting aside more important issues such as distress caused by state-wide drought, and agitation by disgruntled anganwadi (nursery) employees. As for “misleading society”, the very next day, the same paper carried an item titled, ‘CM misleads the house regarding anganwadi remunerations’.

More recently, on March 29, the NWMI sent another protest letter to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi, and the director general of Police for Maharashtra, condemning the decision to slap a case against journalist Poonam Aggrawal, for writing for Quint about the use of jawans for menial jobs by higher level officials, and exploiting them under the sahayak or ‘buddy’ system. She was accused of “violating the Official Secrets  Act” and endangering the security of the nation. Lance Naik Mathew, who spoke to Poonam, subsequently   committed suicide (presumably fearing action by his superiors) and Poonam has also been accused of “abetment” in his suicide. This kind of intimidation is unacceptable if information that has a legitimate place in the public domain (about unethical treatment of jawans) is seen as “endangering the security of the nation”.

As I said, criticism of any kind, even legitimate, generates hostility among VIPs and in the corridors of power, which negates the spirit of democracy.

If media persons have been found wanting in terms of ethics-morals-honesty etc, examples are not wanting for slapping the same accusations on law makers – not a day passes without the papers carrying some expose or the other, about politicians’ misdeeds (I have a list of legislators and VIP politicians who have criminal cases pending against them, or have been implicated in misdeeds but continue to be ‘VIPs’).

In July 2015 the Ministry of Home Affairs instructed its officials not to entertain journalists without prior appointment, “to prevent leaks”. In a democracy, ministries work ‘for the people’; besides, ‘leaks’ occur only with the collusion of officials with access to information; journalists do not, and cannot, riffle through stacks of files on an official’s table (with or without prior appointment). The same ministers will, however, be only too pleased to spare time and talk if journalists promise ‘good coverage’, especially when elections are in the offing (I know, from personal experience).

Chastising hurts, right? Even if the public has a right to know what goes on in the corridors of power. Not that all journalists are angels or paragons of virtue, either – some coverage, especially on television, when sensationalising an issue, sweeps reporters off their feet; but that does not condone curtailing the media’s right to expose misdeeds, by representatives of the people who govern and make laws ‘for the people’. If that right (to inform) was not central to democratic ethics, what was the whole idea of protests against censorship imposed on the media during the Emergency? Does ‘freedom’ become important only when it is threatened? If the media cannot help promote vigilance and act as watchdogs, who can?

Veteran journalist Sucheta Dalal on her Money Life site,  points out that SEBI (Securities and Exchange Board of India) has recently gagged its staff and forbidden them to talk to the media. “Fear and distrust of the media now extends to regulators (like SEBI) as well; this goes against the spirit of transparency promised by Prime Minister Modi.” When Money Life wrote to the head of SEBI, he did not respond.

Elsewhere, US President Donald Trump called the media “most dishonest” and unleashed a bitter attack on journalists, calling them “among the most dishonest human beings on earth”. One of his earliest complaints after his installation as president was that the media described the turnout at his inauguration as “smaller than that at Obama’s inauguration”. Not true, Trump fumed. Photographs taken at the inauguration, juxtaposed with those taken at Obama’s, show clearly that the numbers at the Trump inauguration were indeed less. It was just a statement of fact. Nevertheless, the president banned media from covering meetings at the White House like they used to previously.

India and the US are both “leading democracies of the world”. The people have a right to know. (otherwise it is not democracy). During the British rule in India, colonial prohibitions ensured that even iconic Hindi writer Premchand was pulled up for ‘sedition’ after publishing articles in favour of nationalistic pride. But that was colonial rule, and we were at the time ‘subjects’ owing allegiance to the British king.

Ah, sedition! That brings to mind a gamut of other kinds of ‘muzzling’ – cancelling lectures by those known for ‘independent thought’, arresting or beating up students for organising free discussions and debates, meddling with text books to alter content about history and political evolution, dismissing administrators who speak up against orders they consider unjust, and appointing others willing to tow a certain political line and ideology. All of which has been reported in the press, with eloquent pictures of policemen using brute force to break up gatherings of protestors. Dissent is an essential ingredient of democratic governance, to ensure that both sides of an argument get a legitimate hearing. Throttling dissent amounts to decapitating democracy, as several legal luminaries and social experts have pointed out.

“The NWMI (http://www.nwmindia.org/) stands by Sandhya Ravishankar and all journalists who have been harassed and intimidated by those in power”, says the statement put out by the network. It is not just NWMB, the wider public – the consumers of news who have a right to know – need to stand in solidarity too, with those who undertake the task of vigilance, often at great risk to their life, limb and reputation (remember journalist Jagendra Singh who was set on fire and killed for exposing corruption among politicians last year?) That way, we can also ensure that mainstream media will not be hesitant to play its part as the Fourth Estate.

Therein lies true democracy. Merely casting one’s vote is only one small part of the process. If safeguarding geographical borders is vitally important, no less important is safeguarding cleanliness and probity in public life – by exposing wrong doing. Who can do that, except the media? If there are aberrations (biased reportage, exaggerations or profit-driven coverage) we need to tackle that, rather than tarring the entire community of purveyors of news.

“These are times of danger and turmoil for independent media,” says crowd-funded New Internationalist of UK in a recent comment, suggesting a five-point plan to tackle this. One of them is for transferring ownership (of the media) to readers (to democratise content). The trend however, is for mainstream media to be increasingly under not merely corporate ownership but cartels. Perhaps, then, the ball is now in readers’ courts?

(The writer, based in Bengaluru, is herself a recipient of the Media Foundation’s Chameli Devi Award for Outstanding Woman Journalist 1983. Her fortnightly columns on gender issues and consumer rights ran in the Deccan Herald for 27 years. She had earlier worked for The Times of India in Mumbai.)

April – June 2017