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Wake Up Dear Media, It Is Now Or Never!

Today, one phone call from a ruling party’s politician can cost a journalist their bread and butter.

There is a clear pattern in which Narendra Modi deals with the media. The pattern emerged late in 2013 when he was declared the Prime Ministerial candidate and it had become clear that he was going to be the next boss. The pattern also suggests that he has learnt from his mistakes. In 2002, when journalists blamed him for the riots, he indulged them and instead of pacifying, ended up antagonising them.

2013-14 onwards, Modi started ignoring the journalists and indulged media owners instead. They were ready to gratify him. Some organized special events to promote Modi where celebrity journalists were not allowed to ask pertinent questions. Modi’s interviews were given to lapdog journalists. He was never going to let a Karan Thapar anywhere near him. In a quid pro quo, BJP pleased these media houses by giving them the highest number of advertisements and, in turn, newspapers and TV channels gave his maximum coverage at prime time and on the front pages. Modi and the capitalist media owners fought 2014 Lok Sabha election jointly, and won.

The recent developments in the Hindi news channel, ABP News, have reiterated the pattern, even though ABP news is not known to be a fierce critic of Modi government. Yet the management was pressurized to stop a prime time show which had exposed Prime Minister’s claims made during his video conferencing session with ‘beneficiaries’ of a government scheme. Consequently, a managing editor and an anchor resigned and another anchor was sent on compulsory leave. Although the Information and Broadcasting Minister denied this on the Lok Sabha floor, everyone knows the truth.

This is in line with what has happened in the last four years. Modi has not addressed a single press conference in this period. He called former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh ‘Maun Mohan’ for not speaking out on crucial issues, but now Modi himself speaks selectively and only with his favourite journalists. For his interviews, there are preconditions like- the interviewer cannot ask counter questions.

Narendra Modi and the BJP have used ‘Saam-Daam-Dand-Bhed’ to tackle the media. Editors are replaced by media managers who are lured in by revenues. A web portal that published a story about the financial gains made by BJP President Amit Shah’s son, was dragged to court. When a weekly known for its analytical content published a story on Modi’s friend Adani, it was slapped with a defamation notice and the editor had to resign. An anchor critical of the Modi government is targeted on social media. Women journalists continuously receive rape threats. Not a single TV channel other than Arnab Goswami‘s Republic, which is owned by an NDA MP, was given a license during this period. The situation in the regional media industry is worse.

In a recent dialogue with Karan Thapar, noted historian Ramachandra Guha refused to refer to the current climate as an “undeclared emergency”. According to Guha, the situation was graver during the Emergency when for the first time in independent India, press censorship was imposed. Several prominent journalists were put behind bars during the Emergency and few media owners like Ramnath Goenka or The Statesman’s C.R. Irani stood up to Indira Gandhi’s might. But today, Modi doesn’t need to jail journalists. He has succeeded by putting media managements in his pocket. I still remember L.K. Advani’s famous statement given after the emergency was lifted. He told journalists, “When you were asked to bend, you crawled.” Today, media owners and some editors have surrendered entirely to the powers that be. When they are asked to crawl, they happily prostrate. One phone call from a ruling party’s politician can cost a journalist their bread and butter. After the ABP incident, any journalist with financial responsibilities would think twice before taking on the government. Is this not an undeclared emergency?

India is not the only country where the press is under siege. US president Donald Trump’s favourite pass time is media bashing. But journalists in America are standing up to him. Recently, during a press conference, a journalist repeatedly asked Trump’s press secretary to say that the media is not the enemy of people. Even a reporter with Fox News stood up for CNN and NBC journalists, after Trump had called them names during a press conference. However, in India, even the Editors Guild has not uttered a word in the past 72 hours. It shows the rising pressures and polarisation in today’s media, unlike at the time of the Bihar Press Bill or Rajiv Gandhi’s Defamation Bill, when the entire media had stood united in opposition of the bills.

We need to be consistent with our protests and speak out not just when NDTV is victimised. And this protest should not be limited to media persons. An attack on the media is an attack on democracy. A vibrant media is the hallmark of a functioning democracy. All citizens should join in to protect the freedom of expression. One may have several misgivings about the media, but this is the time to fight for democracy. It is now or never.

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