Ranjona Banerji: For the media, the bar just keeps being set lower and lower

05 Jun,2020

By Ranjona Banerji


What responsibility does a news outlet have for the behaviour of a columnist? For instance, are hate comments and rape threats made in public, but not in the columns, all right? Does a news outlet gain or lose by being associated with racists and misogynists?

In recent times, many news outlets have taken such comments seriously. You could be cynical and say the seriousness comes from the degree of public outrage or you could believe that news outlets have principles. Look at recent events, at face value. A reputed economist is accused of plagiarism on social media for an article she wrote for the Indian Express. The newspaper puts in a line acknowledging the person that Shamika Ravi “borrowed” from. Then another accusation is made about another instance of plagiarism within the same opinion piece.

This time the newspaper checks with the person from whom material was taken without attribution. Presumably the person was not happy because the newspaper announces that the piece has been taken down. Ravi apologises publicly blaming her “team”. A reputed business school she is associated with takes objection to her using their name in her social media bio and disassociates itself from her.

Thus reputations be affected for transgressions of law and acceptable behaviour, if such accusations are taken seriously and if there is enough bad publicity.

However, the case of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, “defence analyst” and columnist with The Print India, is another matter. Iyer-Mitra is a known offender when it comes to Islamophobic, misogynistic and various other kinds of very personal and distasteful abuse on social media. A couple of years ago he even went to jail for his tweets about Odisha which upset the state legislature. This was one of those peculiar “free speech” moments where even those whom Iyer-Mitra had routinely abused stood up for him while his right-wing “journalist” friends wept and railed at the unfair treatment meted out to him. And yes, prison was a bit much and certainly overreach by the legislature.


Contrite as he seemed then, clearly Iyer-Mitra has regained his venom. This was his response to a tweet by Mohammed Zubair of AltNews, about a doctor in Kanpur who had said that medical resources were being wasted on Muslims and worse: “Tell you what Jihadi Jabbar, if you agree I’ll come to your house, flash your mum, spit on her, piss in your living room and demand pork Vindaloo for 3 months. Let’s see if your mum sends me to jail/jungle or keeps feeding me biriyani and wasting expensive test kits & beds on me. Ok?”

Not surprisingly, there was shock and outrage and condemnation. The tweet, as is self-evident, threatens sexual abuse against Zubair’s mother and is in every word Islamophobic. A hate tweet by any reckoning. As anger grew, Iyer-Mitra deleted the tweet but there is really no such thing on social media. Screenshots are everywhere. To date, there has been no response from Print India, although journalists and columnists who work and write for it have objected to Iyer-Mitra’s comments. Which is very brave of them, when you consider that a few hours after the online anger broke, the Print’s official Twitter handle was publicising his latest column.

Such unconscionable silence from The Print India not only emboldens such toxicity, it shows a complete lack of responsibility. Senior journalists work at The Print India not least its editor-owner the redoubtable Shekhar Gupta, of many decades of experience and also part of the Editors Guild. (Never forget how quickly the Guild jumped to the defence of Smita Prakash of ANI after Rahul Gandhi called her “pliable”. Compare that with Iyer-Mitra’s abuse of Zubair.) That so many at The Print have been silent for so long leads one to believe that they agree with Iyer-Mitra and that they do not care about the filth that he spews. A great and terrible shame and blot on all of us journalists.


In a small gesture, the Institute of Peace and Conflict of which Iyer-Mitra is a member, tweeted in the context of Iyer-Mitra’s tweet that it “takes hate speech seriously and does not condone it in any form”. An internal review is apparently underway. Whatever happens, this is at least an acknowledgement.

These are not just terrible times for the planet. For the media, the bar just keeps being set lower and lower.


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



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