Criticise & Get Damned?

06 Jun,2017


By Ranjona Banerji


Context and timing: That’s what makes the CBI raids on the properties of NDTV’s main promoters so suspicious.

I fully understand that supporters of the Narendra Modi government will find the criticism of the CBI’s actions hard to swallow. But this column is not directed at them. It is about the media and attempts to silence the media – by anyone.

Before the bellowing begins, yes, the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 was the worst instance in the history of Independent India on authoritarian curtailment of fundamental rights. But what lessons have we learnt since then?

Sadly, the lesson is stark and dangerous: that every political party – no matter whether it fought against Mrs Gandhi during the Emergency – tries to influence and /or gag the media when in power.

During the Congress-led UPA’s last stint in power, we saw cases of sedition against cartoonists who criticised the way Parliament functions. In Maharashtra, sedition was applied liberally based on mischievous police complaints, including on two teenage girls for “liking” a Facebook post criticising the late Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena.

Were those actions criticised by the media? Yes, emphatically. Were Barkha Dutt, then with NDTV, and Vir Sanghvi, then with the Hindustan Times criticised for their connections to the Niira Radia tapes? Yes, roundly, strongly and emphatically. Sanghvi paid a heavy price and took a while to recover, in spite of his apologies. Dutt was examined critically and stringently on NDTV itself, by a panel of independent senior journalists.

I put this all out here because of the natural “whataboutery” that will emerge whenever anyone criticises the Narendra Modi government, the BJP and other elements of the Sangh Parivar. As a matter of interest, the owners of the newspaper I worked for in Ahmedabad, were under tremendous pressure from the Government of India (BJP-led NDA) to tone down its coverage of the 2002 riots in Gujarat. So let us not pretend that the BJP comes out all covered in flowers and glory when it comes to upholding the freedom of the press.

I would also like to make clear that the current outrage against the CBI raids on NDTV’s promoters is based on the now and on recent events. It has nothing to do with Alexander’s attempt to conquer India.

Nothing that happened before justifies what is happening now. Of all the news channels in India, NDTV, both in Hindi and English, have been more critical of the Modi-led BJP government. It should be remembered that NDTV’s Hindi channel was almost forced to stop broadcasting for one day last year on the pretext of “national security”. Ravish Kumar of NDTV India has been scathing in his attacks on the government and its policies, far more than his colleagues who broadcast in English. Some newspapers and some websites have been extremely critical and continue to be so. But NDTV stands out mainly because of the tremendous pro-government push by its competitors, disguised as “nationalism”.

I cannot comment on the power or influence of BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra within his party. But it is telling indeed that days after he accuses NDTV of having an “agenda” which he is going to “expose”, the CBI raids NDTV’s promoters. The message is clear: criticism leads to harassment.

If indeed NDTV’s official statement is correct and the loan to ICICI Bank has been paid and the complaint to the CBI has not been filed by the private bank, then the timing of these raids is even more questionable.

NDTV has taken a strong stand that it will not be intimidated. The Editors’ Guild has expressed its concern. At the time of writing this, broadcasters’ associations have not responded.

But for the media in general, there is a serious message here which will affect us all if we do not take it seriously. And it is made all the more frightening by the number of media houses which are succumbing to the pressures of pleasing a government in power.

Resist or perish. Whether you like it or not.


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist, commentator and columnist. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal


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