Ranjona Banerji: Did government criticism on ABP News lead to exits?

03 Aug,2018

By Ranjona Banerji

 

For many who watch television news avidly in India, ABP News is usually a favourite channel. It features more journalism than many other “news” channels. It is part of the Ananda Bazaar Patrika group, which includes its flagship English newspaper The Telegraph and the very popular Bengali news channel ABP Ananda. Therefore, this week’s sudden departures and changes at ABP News has got media watchers and gossips alike in a state of shock.

ABP stood out because it appeared fearless in its criticism of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre and from all appearances, ABP News has paid the price for that. Its editor in chief Milind Khandekar has resigned, its primetime show Masterstroke anchored by PunyaPrasun Bajpai has been taken off air and he has resigned and Abhisar Sharma, very vocal in his criticism of the government on air and on social media has been taken off air and asked to go off Twitter.

There are apparently two triggers. The first is a show which Bajpai did where it was claimed that the interaction which Modi had with women in Chhattisgarh was staged and the women were tutored to say they were doing well, regardless of their actual condition. The second was Sharma juxtaposing claims that the UP government headed by Ajay Singh Bisht was successful in fighting crime with two recent brutal murders.

For the rest of the media, salacious gossip aside, there is a very real danger of official crackdowns on journalists and media owners who criticise this government. ABP News insiders are talking about TRPs and money and claiming that is why these changes have happened. Others claim that the order to make these changes came from within the Sarkar family itself.

For fans of The Telegraph, something does not ring true here. The Telegraph has undoubtedly been the bravest amongst Indian newspapers in the way it has mocked and questioned the Prime Minister as well as other Union ministers. The lead story in August 3’s paper (according to its website) is the Mumbai High Court’s observations on the “tragic phase of fear” that India is currently going through.

https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/tragic-phaseof-fear-court-249683?ref=hm-ft-stry-1

Ironically, happenings at ABP News are fanning those feelings of fear.

Increasingly, the onus on protecting media freedoms now rests with media owners and not only on journalists. Governments and political parties will come and go. But the media’s first responsibility to its consumers will remain. And before Bennett Coleman can jump in with its marketing arguments, yes, the consumer includes corporates which also know that governments will come and go. The stand taken by several American corporations against decisions made by the Donald Trump government in the USA has shown more courage than many Indian media houses and journalists put together, not to mention our brave business houses. You might argue that US corporates have only questioned the Trump administration in a cynical way of appealling to their consumers, but that’s good a reason as any to fight against injustice.

It may sound very bombastic, but the future of democracy is at stake here. There is no point harking back to the Emergency or to anti-media actions taken by other governments or parties. The media has to deal with the present threat, and the present threat is the BJP-led government at the Centre. If publishers are going to collapse rather than fight back, they are only ringing their own death knells.

As it is, the way news is consumed is changing faster than I can write this. Indeed, it is possible that no newspaper would ever carry what I write here because of incipient fears. The new frontier is the internet and that in fact is what ABP News is having to deal with when it comes to the spread of rumours and reactions from journalists.

Both thewire.in and scroll.in have articles on the ABP News story, apart from several media trade websites. It does not take much reading between the lines to see the problems that journalists and media houses are facing. It is also interesting that veteran columnist Coomi Kapoor, who is generally seen as pro BJP, also commented on the “autocracy” of the Modi-led government, in the Indian Express, referencing events at ABP News without mentioning either: “The Modi government has perhaps taken black listing to a new level of autocracy. For instance, two famous news anchors are no longer to be seen on TV channels.”

Are we at a time of reckoning? You better believe it!

https://thewire.in/media/abhisar-sharma-abp-news-punya-prasun-bajpai-amit-shah-media-censorship

https://scroll.in/article/889026/resignations-of-two-journalists-at-abp-news-cause-disquiet-in-newsrooms-and-far-beyond

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/indian-womens-press-corps-iwpc-rahul-gandhi-meets-women-journalists-5285380/

 

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

 

 

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