The Jammu and Kashmir government’s recent decision to disband and take control of land and buildings allotted to the Srinagar Press Club, underscores consistent attempts on part of the ruling BJP regime to throttle the media. The development comes close on the heels of the government’s denial of in-person access to journalists to Parliament proceedings, a step first taken before the Budget Session in 2020 ostensibly to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and thereafter extended from one session to another.
The action in Srinagar has also come after moves in recent months to end Press Information Bureau (PIB) accreditation, a step which appears to have been kick-started by inordinate delay in renewing existing PIB cards that primarily provide access to journalists to government offices. The termination of the practice of PIB accreditation of journalists will further insulate the government from media scrutiny and make governance more opaque.
In addition, the Tripura government and state police have come under the scanner while dealing with communal conflict and journalists reporting on these incidents late last year. A fact-finding team of the Editors Guild of India has adversely commented on the administration’s decision to use UAPA against journalists, at times even for the ‘offence’ of tweeting or putting up Facebook posts.
As it is, the COVID-19 pandemic has been used as a ruse to launch a crackdown on the media and several cases were filed against media persons since then, including against the redoubtable late television personality Vinod Dua. He was booked for sedition, a charge levelled against several other journalists too by a regime that became more offensive towards the Fourth Estate after re-election in May 2019. However, in a June 2021 ruling, the apex court not just quashed the case against Dua, but stated that journalists were “entitled to protection” under the noted Kedar Nath Singh case (1962). The judgement specified that oral and written interventions can be termed seditious and journalists punished, only if they incited violence or public disorder.
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Significantly, the government has repeatedly set up sections of journalists against their peers, especially the principled lot who can be termed as prisoners of conscience. A group of journalists played a dubious role in disbanding the Srinagar Press Club by initially taking over it with the direct complicity of state police, before the institution was disbanded. This was not a faction fight between two groups of journalists. Eventually, after the registration of the club was cancelled dubiously by the administration, the Editor Guild’s noted that with repression being order in the Union Territory, the club had become an “important institution for fighting for protection and rights of journalists”. Its dissolution is a major setback to the rights movement in the Valley.
Significantly, a majority of journalists and professional associations have protested at restrictions on the access of media representatives to Parliament. But, a small section of them retain access by securing it as personal privilege from ministers and MPs close to the leadership. The conduct of these groups of journalists, the ones in Srinagar, or other sections that have perfected the ‘art of copy-paste’ journalism, wherein government handout or statements are ritualistically recycled, is the cause for the term ‘godi media’ (lapdog media), first coined by noted television anchor Ravish Kumar, becoming part of common lexicon.
All these developments have to be seen in conjunction with the antagonistic view of the media that Prime Minister Narendra Modi displayed from time he started holding public officers in October 2001, when he was sworn in as the Gujarat chief minister. At that time, there had been a tradition, dating back to when Keshubhai Patel was chief minister that provided a five-days-a-week bus service for Ahmedabad based journalists to go to Gandhinagar at a designated time from a pre-arranged place and return to the metropolis in the evening after government offices closed for the day. In the course of the day, the journalists did their daily rounds, meeting sources and attending briefings, after which they headed back to their offices in Ahmedabad to write their reports of the day.
Within days of assuming office, Modi withdrew this privilege, forcing journalists to either use their own vehicles or poor resources. His antagonism towards media persons steeled after the 2002 Gujarat riots and stood in sharp contrast when as a relatively junior appartchik in the early 1990s he facilitated journalists. As Modi started preparing for a national role, he projected himself victim of incessant media campaign and primarily blamed the Delhi-based English media.
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The infamous interview with Karan Thapar in 2007, when he took off his microphone, epitomised his approach towards journalists: he was prepared to answer questions, but only within the comfort zone. The recent copycat action of Uttar Pradesh deputy Chief Minister, Keshav Prasad Maurya, who ripped off his microphone during an interview with a BBC journalist, because he was probed on the Haridwar hate speeches, shows continuity of the Modi template and absence of respect for journalists fulfilling professional duties.
That Modi as Prime Minister would reduce ‘access of journalists became amply clear after he discontinued the practice of taking a media squad on foreign trips. He also put in place a system to establish direct communication with people bypassing mainstream media by using social media apps and his radio talk show, Mann Ki Baat, modelled on Fireside Chats that US President Franklin D Roosevelt ran between 1933 and 1944 to reach people directly over an adversarial media. Quite clearly, ‘compliance’ is the password to the door which provides access to information beyond press releases.
After she became Finance Minister in 2019, Nirmala Sitharaman put in place restrictions on the entry of media persons into North Block, allowing entry to only those accredited journalists who had prior appointment with an official. It was also a way to keep track of bureaucrats who interacted with reporters. As a result, the bonhomie at a dinner hosted by the Finance Ministry after the annual budget is done and dusted was missing in 2019, when several journalists boycotted the social occasion because the minister refused to withdraw the restrictions on movement of journalists within the ministry. The Editors Guild of India condemned the reporting restrictions as a “gag on media freedom”.
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The Srinagar incident demonstrates that this government wishes to continue riding roughshod over the media and that it plays scant regard to India’s falling rankings in the Global Press Freedom Index on which it is currently 142 in list of 180 countries. Unsurprisingly the government runs down the annual exercise of Reporters Without Borders, terming its methodology as “opaque and biased rankings.” To prove it point, a Niti Aayog paper quotes Goh Chok Tong, former Prime Minister of Singapore, as saying that the WPFI was “a subjective measure computed through the prism of western liberals.” Now, everyone knows that the press in Singapore is hardly the role model for a robust and independent media and the government is certainly not open to being put under scrutiny for being a “controlled democracy”.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)