Ranjona Banerji: When freedom of press is far from an absolute…

16 Aug,2016

By Ranjona Banerji


Earlier this month, as we have discussed in these columns, Outlook magazine did an investigative report on young girls being taken from Assam and Manipur, by RSS-linked organisations, to Gujarat and Punjab, in violation of several child protection laws. The fallout of this story has been manifold and it has gone beyond abuse on social media.


According to talk within the media, Krishna Prasad, editor-in-chief of Outlook has been removed because of pressure from the RSS and the government. A semi-official response – semi because it comes from Prasad’s replacement and not from the management – is that the replacement has been in talks with the management for months.


Whatever the “inside” story, there is little doubt that Outlook and the writer of the article Neha Dixit were both put under tremendous pressure from government and RSS sources, including a criminal complaint.



The problem is that for governments in India and for courts, regardless of the Constitution, freedom of the press is far from an absolute. It is a commodity to be abused and adjusted to suit current ideas. This pressure on the media has separate from the pressures journalists feel from their own managements or from corporate interests.


Hartosh Singh Bal has made a compelling argument for the need for a “freedom of the press” bill, to set media independence in law as it were.



By this argument, the Constitution is not enough because it does not specify press freedom. It assumes a certain maturity from governments which we have seen that in practice, they do not have. We have the additional problem in India of all media, not just the news media, being constrained by various traditional and community sensitivities, which makes free expression something of a lie at times.


Always, you have to come back to The Emergency or start there, in a discussion on media freedoms. However, those dark years apart, there is little doubt within the media that dark days are upon us. As the Outlook issue underlines.


Here’s an example of how things were different even during the terrible Gujarat riots of 2002, when there was immense pressure on the media to go easy on the Gujarat government. I worked for The Times of India in Gujarat then and the message from the top to our Ahmedabad office was clear: carry on reporting and analysing events as they happened, no matter how angry it made Narendra Modi’s government in Gujarat or the NDA government at the Centre. Our coverage also made our marketing department unhappy, but no one paid attention to them.


Contrast the events in Gujarat 2002 – between 1000 and 2000 people killed in riots — to the Outlook story about 31 girls being taken from their homes and you see how easily managements capitulate these days. It is ironic that Outlook is the example here since the late Vinod Mehta, who founded Outlook, was well-known for falling foul of managements, after upsetting everyone from Rajiv Gandhi onwards.


Intriguingly, many years ago, there were similar investigations into an RSS-linked organisation called Friends of Tribals making inroads into Bengal’s Tribal areas and forcing children into the Hindu fold. There was outrage from the Hindutva forces of course, but not this sort of pressure on the media to back off or else face criminal charges. Different times.


From a journalistic point of view though, the Outlook investigation ticked all the boxes. It had interviews with all sides of the story, it had officialdom bearing in and it had the tone from a government agency report. This was not an “opinion” that upsets our troll friends so much, especially those “experts” who have no clue about how the news media operates or indeed the various roles which all qualify you to be a journalist.


Though in fact, any journalist who sucks up to the establishment – that’s the one you should be wary of.


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