Modi govt dictates: News to fly under the radar

News agency’s cautioning their writers to avoid any personal mention of Narendra Modi and BJP

Modi govt dictates: News to fly under the radar

Sujata Anandan

Noted economist and former Union Minister Arun Shourie, speaking to a group of journalists in Mumbai last November, had an interesting story to relate about journalists in Delhi. He had had an interaction with some of them in their office and later the editor and two of his colleagues decided to take him out for coffee. Shourie was startled to note they all left their mobile phones behind on their desks. When he asked them about it, one of them said, “They will not be able to track us. They will think we are working in our offices. We can have a freer interaction without having to look over our shoulders.”

Shourie was horrified because these journalists were usually known to be fearless and had the courarge to speak truth to power. Yet now they were engaging in a cloak-and-dagger game with “them” in the government and the simple act of leaving a phone behind on your office desk was a great accomplishment and an occasion to celebrate.

“I notice that the fear reduces the further south you go from Delhi,” Shourie had said.

But even as he was making that statement, Niranjan Takle, the reporter who broke the story on the mysterious death of Justice BH Loya, was compelled to resign his job with a South Indian magazine which refused to publish the story, poking holes in it for months, making it clear to the reporter that it will not see the light of day. He had to offer the story to Caravan which was one of the rare publications which, headquartered in New Delhi, had the courage to publish 22 more reports on the same subject.

Papers in Mumbai and Chennai have been erring on the side of caution to avoid any personal mentions of Narendra Modi. 

I do not think this courage has anything to do with being in close proximity to New Delhi or as far south as possible. Papers in Mumbai and Chennai too have been erring on the side of caution and, like the ABP News editor demanded of his staff, they too have been cautioning their writers to avoid any personal mention of Narendra Modi and sometimes even the BJP. But, like one of the ABP journalists asked his editor, how do you avoid any mention of Modi when Modi and Modi alone runs the government and no one else is allowed a say in any matter?

Well, when you are a print journalist you have some leeway – you refer to the “current dispensation” instead of the “ruling BJP” and you get around the mention of Modi by referring to him as the chief architect of the government. For this, of course, you need the collusion of your editors who, if not based in New Delhi, know it is impossible for the watchdogs to check every newspaper in the country and every line published in them physically.

The keywords the watchdogs might use to look for mentions of Modi might miss the indirect references to him. But you know - and your editor knows - this cannot be done too often or else the watchdogs might catch on.

But TV has no resort to such dodges and must necessarily mention Modi by name and flash his picture where a newspaper may use a representative image for the same story. However, even for a print journalist it gets tiresome to dodge the truthful mentions again and again and as a reporter who has always been critical of the establishment, whether the Congress, the BJP or the Shiv Sena, the current atmosphere of fear does curtail one’s freedom somewhat.

To that extent, I must appreciate and place on record, the Shiv Sena’s indulgence of reporters even at a time they ran terror in Mumbai. The party did attack journalists who were critical of Bal Thackeray but Thackeray himself could distinguish between those who were genuinely critical of his ideology and those who had a vested interest in showing him down. He called them “supari journalists” - those who were paid by his rivals to run him down - and thought nothing of putting suparis out on them. Even so, no one got killed, only beaten up by his goons. At the height of his powers, Mumbai was never a city where journalists had to look over their shoulders for taking him on.

But that was also because those journalists taking him on had never taken any favours from him or the Shiv Sena. Those who had knew they had to maintain a discreet silence.

But, as is apparent from leading journalist Karan Thapar’s desperate struggle to get BJP spokespersons on his show, much of the journalism in the national capital is about one’s access to the ruling dispensation. That is why, in LK Advani’s infamous words, even during Emergency, when the journalists were asked to bend, they crawled.

Now they are not even being asked to crawl but prefer to prostate before the authorities anyway because of all their irons are in the government fire and of course, Modi has mastered the art of squeezing all those who may need licences (as television does), something he had perfected in Gujarat vis-à-vis both media and industry.

The crowd-funded digital space is today often the most courageous news space in India. You don’t need government largesse, you don’t have to bend over backwards. Only technology, then, can rescue our democracy.

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