Finger on your Lips!

17 Jan,2023



By Ranjona Banerji


Ranjona Banerji“Official attempts to curb information and debate trigger suspicion,” says a Times of India editorial on the gag order issued by the National Disaster Management Authority on the Indian Space Research Organisation, after satellite images of ground subsidence in the Himalayan town of Joshimath were released to the public.

For the people of Joshimath, the ISRO images substantiated their suspicions. For India’s officials, ISRO halted some attempts at official obfuscation and control of information.

At least, that’s what the edit tells us.

But did the officials act alone or was there some other power that wanted information to be suppressed?

Everything in India, as we well know, and especially those of us in the media know, is politics.

So did the NDMA act alone or was there a diktat from elsewhere?

Sadly, most media houses have no sources in the ruling party, so they cannot inform the public of anything brewing. They do have direct access to the BJP’s public relations department however, which is why top TV anchors always know at least five minutes before the PM is about to go somewhere or do something, so that they can announce it on Twitter. An honourable exception is a particular news agency which showed up for a clandestine swearing-in ceremony before most politicians even found out about it. That news agency has top sources.

Of course, all media houses have plenty of sources in the Congress and other opposition parties so they always know which disgruntled obscure party member has organised his or her own desertion to the BJP and wants maximum publicity for this act.

So, this “gag order” on state agencies like ISRO has not been called a travesty of democracy, of authoritarianism and so on. It’s just some bureaucrats thinking too much of themselves, ha ha ha, this is how India is.

I have named The Times of India but the situation is no different in the rest of the Indian mainstream media.

Or else, it would have investigated inequality in India itself, rather than just publish the stellar job done by Oxfam India.

Frankly, the numbers presented by Oxfam are horrific: That the top 10 per cent of India holds 77 per cent of India’s wealth, that 73 per cent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to only the richest one per cent and that 670 million people saw only a one per cent increase in their wealth.

Let’s forgive today’s journalists for not finding this out themselves. We know, we know all the excuses. They are not allowed to work. Their owners are horrific. Such stories would never get published anyway. Who cares about the poor when we have so many billionaires and so on.

But it is more sinister than that. Misinformation has to be spread that so that no stain is cast on the current administration and especially on the current prime minister. That work trumps all others.

And the manner in which this misinformation spreads and takes hold is definitely remarkable. An interaction with senior school children in this week provided a small insight. They were certain that Narendra Modi as prime minister had done a stellar job in increasing employment in India and pushing India’s GDP higher. These were intelligent, aware children. Where did they get this idea from? Their teachers, their parents, the media?

Take for instance the inauguration of a private cruise ship by the prime minister last week. Why Modi should inaugurate a privately-run cruise is not up for discussion. Or let’s buy the excuse that this was a tourism-boosting exercise and that since the cruise ship ran down the Ganga in which Modi has a personal interest, it was the correct thing to do. How should the media present the news that the cruise ship ran aground three days later because of the shallow waters of the river in Bihar?

Exactly the same way the media largely ignored the fact that the roll on roll off boat that the PM inaugurated did not work a couple of days later or the seaplane he inaugurated did subsequently not take off. The brief for the media is to provide publicity for the event. And build Modi’s image as India’s greatest leader. Not to follow up on the story or to even mention the PM. Excoriation, jest, sneers, jeers – these are all reserved for opposition politicians.

Thus the Economic Times uses a photograph of Modi to illustrate its news article about the song Naatu Naatu, from the film RRR, winning best original song at the Golden Globes.

He won it for India, didn’t he?


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She writes on MxMIndia on Tuesdays and Fridays. Her views here are personal.


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