‘These are dangerous times for Indian media’: Siddharth Varadarajan

The founding editor of The Wire was speaking on “Reporting India in troubled times”, a panel discussion on the first death anniversary of former editor-in-chief of National Herald Neelabh Mishra

‘These are dangerous times for Indian media’: Siddharth Varadarajan

Ashutosh Sharma

Even though the Supreme Court has justified criminal defamation, it is being openly misused by big business houses to harass journalists reporting uncomfortable truth, pointed out the founding editor of The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan.

He was speaking on “Reporting India in troubled times”, a discussion moderated by Apoorvanand, writer and columnist.

“Although the Editors Guild has become proactive in recent years following a one day ban on NDTV (in 2016) and attacks on journalists, it doesn’t come out with clear statements on several critical issues,” he maintained, stressing on need for fostering solidarity on criminal defamation law.

Referring to the recent instances wherein businessmen like Gautam Adani and Anil Ambani have filed several defamation suits against media outlets and journalists, Varadarajan said: “When such cases start piling up, the owners and investors of media house start discouraging such work that invites trouble. ‘If Anil Ambani files cases, then don’t do that story. Don’t touch Adani if he files cases’. This becomes the attitude.”

“As a result of which media houses have abandoned reporting on several issues”, he noted, adding that “although such cases hardly hold water, it leads to a lot of harassment of the journalists.”

He stressed that “independent and brave reporting” that aims for unravelling truth is just not possible without a strong democratic set up comprising independent judiciary, vibrant university system, CAG and RTI. “Today, we see that journalism is in peril because several democratic institutions are also under an organised and systematic attack,” he said, adding “It has put a question mark on the future of democracy in the country as the right to dissent and freedom of speech is under attack. Media is just one reflection.”

The Wire is currently facing a defamation suit initiated by Jay Shah, son of BJP President Amit Shah, for publishing a report on alleged exponential spike in the revenues of his company in past few years. Anil Ambani’s Reliance Infrastructure has also sued the news website for Rs 6,000 crore for an online video on the Rafale deal.Last year, a Gujarat court had set aside the criminal defamation complaint, and accompanying summons, against the news website filed by the Adani Group for publishing an article.

Calling out this vindictive attitude, he said: “One of my colleagues has travelled to Bhuj 3-4 times in the recent past as Adani has filed a false case against him. The day before yesterday, Adani filed another defamation suit against my colleague MK Venu over a tweet.”

Varadarajan further stated that the journalists and media houses that hold anti-establishment views are being targeted in an organised and sustained fashion by trolls and even some bigger media houses. While he slammed TV channels like Times Now and Republic TV for peddling anti-Muslim agenda on regular basis, he decried how IT cells of several political parties have “weaponised social media against journalists” in recent years.

“The cordoning of journalists, especially women journalists, who have very strong anti-establishment views, puts a lot of pressure on them. One has to think several times before writing a report, worrying about the reactions on social media,” he maintained.

“Usually we understand when the State attacks journalists. But when we see bigger media houses attacking other media outlets, we can imagine that these are dangerous times,” he stressed, adding that “Media industry itself has become enemy of reporting.

Citing recent attacks on The Caravan magazine over its report on caste classification of CRPF jawans killed in Pulwama, he said the article could be a subject of debate, but the TV channels have started attacking the magazine and the journalists, describing them as anti-national.

He went on to add: “The same thing had happened two years ago when The Wire published an article on human-shield incident in Kashmir. Soon after (the then Union Minister) Venkaiah Naidu put out a tweet that the internationally acclaimed academic ProfessorPartha Chatterjeewas an anti-national, TV channels started calling him illiterate. Reporters were deployed outside his house to harass him.”

While listing the challenges to the reporting in the current times, he said that media itself has become the “enemy” of ground reporting. “Editors and owners of the mainstream media houses have started discouraging it. They don’t want to antagonise powers that be with the truth and it saves them a lot of money.”

“We hardly see a ground report on a TV channel now. They rarely depute an investigative journalist to visit a far-flung area,” he said, adding that “when ABP News debunked the claims of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the income of a woman farmer had doubled, the programme was dropped, the editor was sacked and thereafter we saw how the channel changed its stance.”

Chandramani Kaushik from Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district during a video conference with the Prime Minister last year that was broadcast by all the TV news channels, had claimed that her income had doubled after she started growing Sitafal (custard apple). ABP news journalist later reached Kanker village and met Chandramani and the other women farmers. The channel found that Chandramani was tutored to say all the good things that she did but the reality was different.

Talking about the brighter side of the social media, Varadarajan said, “Even though we are one hundredth of the Times of India group, our story on Jay Shah went viral. The government could not stop it.”

He also raised the issue of government stopping advertisement to Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader, Kashmir based English dailies.

Even if Narendra Modi government doesn’t get a second term, he said, things are not going to change for the media in the coming years.

Other speakers included Manoj Mitta, Anumeha Yadav, Meena Kotwal and Bhasha Singh.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines