Veteran journalist and former Bharatiya Janata Party minister Arun Shourie on Friday warned the media against becoming the Narendra Modi government’s “instruments for distracting your viewers and readers…from the main story”.
He was speaking at a meeting at the Press Club of India in Delhi to protest against the Central Bureau of Investigation’s raids on NDTV promoters Radhika and Prannoy Roy on Monday. The CBI has filed an FIR against the Roys in connection with a loss relating to a loan NDTV had taken from ICICI Bank.
Among other prominent people who attended the meeting were veteran journalist and former MPs HK Dua and Kuldip Nayar, jurist Fali Nariman, and senior journalist S. Nihal Singh.
Claiming that the Modi regime’s “genes are totalitarian”, the former minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government warned that the crackdown on independent media could widen in the next two years and offered concrete suggestions to journalists, exhorting them to stand united against any attempt to muzzle the press. Shourie told the large gathering of journalists, lawyers and activists to boycott the ministers of the government in protest and not to despair because “everything passes”. “And when they control the media completely, then people will see the great distance between what they are being made to swallow through the media and what is happening in their own lives,” he said.
Here’s the full text of his speech.
My dear friends, I want to begin by expressing my deep gratitude to Narendra Modi because he has brought so many friends together. And as a return the favour, I want to read him a couplet, which Kuldip Nayar will tell us who it is by:
Tum se pahle vo jo ik shakhs yahan takht-nashin tha
Us ko bhi apne khuda hone pe itna hi yaqin tha
[He who occupied this throne before you
He too believed himself to be God as much as you]
That is from a Pakistani poet [Habib Jalib]. I must protect myself by reading from the Granth Sahib: Ram gayo, Ravan gayo, jako Bhau Parvaar…Ye bhii jaayenge. [Ram is gone, so is Ravan, and these people too will go.]
We must have that confidence. There is no fact, no point in law that needs to be added after the person who has been the shield of freedom in India, Mr Fali Nariman, has given us such a good exposition.
I will address the question [journalist] Nihal Singh sahib proposed. The question is: What should we do? And as Mr Kuldip Nayar said, it was not necessary to answer this question at the time of the Emergency, for every generation is taught the lesson of freedom. For this time, once again that lesson has begun. The first thing we must recognise is that a new phase has begun.
Thus far the government was using two instruments.
One was to stuff the mouth of the media with the bribe of advertisement. There is a Zulu proverb that a dog with a bone in its mouth cannot bark. So, they were converting the media into a media with advertisements in its mouth so it cannot bark at them.
Second, they were controlling and managing the media by the subterranean spreading of fear: “Yaar, tum jaante nahii ho, Modi sab sun rahaa hai, uske paas saari team hai, ye hai, vo hai... Amit Shah CBI ko control kartaa hai, kal tumhaare par ye hogaa…”(“You know, Modi is listening to everything. He has this big team, he has this, he has that...Amit Shah controls the CBI, tomorrow they will do this to you...”)
Arre yaar, ye ho gayaa hai, phir bhi aadmi zindaa hai (points towards Prannoy Roy). Phir bhii channel chal rahii hai.” (But, this has happened – the CBI raids – and the man – Roy – is still alive. The channel is still telecasting.)
You must see they have got what they could from those two instruments. So now they are using the third instrument, which is overt pressure. And they have made NDTV an example of that. This will intensify in the coming months. One, because of the nature of the regime – its genes are totalitarian. What does totalitarian mean? Total domination over the entire geography of India, in every sphere of life – in all fora, they must dominate. So, they are extending it step by step, if you look at the pattern.
The second is that the gap between what they claim – in their advertisements and their speeches – and what the people are feeling on the ground in their lives – whether a farmer or a person who is losing his job – is wide already. And it will become wider in the next two years as investments do not revive…and other things happen. For that reason, they will then take to not just managing but suppressing the voices of dissent. That is the first thing to realise.
The second is that we must proceed with full faith as Nariman reminded us, as Kuldip has demonstrated throughout his life, that anybody in India who has raised his hand against the press, against the media, has had that hand burnt and has had to withdraw it.
Jagannath Mishra’s press bill, Rajiv Gandhi’s bill, Mrs Gandhi taking over The Indian Express – removing Ramnathji [Ramnath Goenka, the late proprietor of the newspaper] and putting a pseudo board there – everybody who raised their hand against the media, had their hand burnt and had to withdraw.
Dua [HK Dua] was just reminding us that at the time of the defamation bill, we had a meeting here, but I tell you…we did not have these many persons at that time as we have today.
The second point I would like to make: the facts are clear. Nariman has put them out. NDTV has put them out. The CBI is not able to answer those facts. Actually there is a story on The Wire today, I think. What has happened to the complaints that were filed not just by the private individuals but by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence against two of the biggest houses for defrauding the country of Rs 30,000 crore and causing a loss to the exchequer and how the CBI has not acted on that. So, the facts are irrefutable. But I want to suggest something else: this is not the time to sit in judgement on each other. I say this from the experience of my personal life. When you have to serve, your service must be absolutely non-judgemental because the mind suggests so many reasons as to why I should not help him – Arre yaar, vo cigarette saarii umr piitaa thaa, ab usko cancer honaa hii hai, so let him suffer. [He used to smoke cigarettes all his life, no surprise that he got cancer, so let him suffer.] No, this is not the time to sit in judgement. You must totally support and help.
You must be of support and help and assistance and service of your friend. Because they will try to divide the press by insinuating such things and they will use you, they will use the existing media to defame the rest of the media. So, please do not become an instrument in that.
The second thing is: stand by each other because I can assure you that nothing demoralises a person as much as the fact that their peers have not stood by them. I have seen this in civil service. In the last regime, three CBI inquiries were instituted against decisions that were taken under me. But I had told the CBI, I wrote to them that they [the civil servants] are not responsible for anything, because I am the one who took those decisions. But the fact that the rest of the civil servants did not stand by those civil servants really demoralised them. So we must stand by each other in this.
Fali Nariman quoted the very famous lines of a Lutheran pastor in Germany who opposed what Hitler called the coordination of churches. But there is an even older one – 2,000-year-old – by Rabbi Hillel which says,
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am for myself alone, who am I?
If not now – when?”
And I tell you, it is my grievance against my colleagues in the press that we have not been vigilant in this. Last year, by accident, I happened to be called to Jaipur for a journalists’ meet and there I found out the harassment and the financial loss which had been inflicted on Rajasthan Patrika. But being an average reader of New Delhi or Delhi newspapers, I did not know of that at all. So we must be on the lookout for any attempt, not just on a very prominent person like Prannoy but any attempt anywhere in the country because that is how fear is spread in those regions...
And the reason for that is the governments watch reactions – you can be absolutely certain that the fact that so many journalists are gathered here is being watched by the government. And I can tell you they are very sensitive even to the social media. Ek puurii team hai unki jo dekhtii hai kii twitter pe kyaa chal rahaa hai, Facebook per
kyaa chal rahaa hai. To jab vo dekhenge ke itne log ikatthaa hue hain, Ravish Kumar jaise nidar log ikathaa hue hain to vo jaanenge unhone ek galat step liyaa hai. [They have a full team that keeps a tab on what is happening on Twitter and Facebook, so when they see how many people have gathered here, how many fearless people like Ravish Kumar have gathered here, they will realise that they have taken a wrong step] and they have to find a way to retreat it.
But there is a way in which we help governments. The easiest cop out for journalists is to tell, what they call, both sides of the story. Prannoy Roy ke paas jaa kar puuchh lo, ke, “Sir what are the facts?” Phir CBI ke paas puuchh lo, “Sir, what are the facts?” [First go to Prannoy Roy and ask him, “Sir, what are the facts?” Then go to the CBI and and ask, “Sir, what are the facts?”] This business of neutrality, perfect neutrality between the man who sets fire and the fire-fighter – this is the way the governments will use you, so you must resist it.
Sir, therefore, go beyond it and watch out for each which is taken to stop the free flow of free information. It is a very sad thing that we have not reacted as a community to the way the RTI [Right to Information] is being choked. Raj Kamal Jha of The Indian Express was telling me – they are doing excellent work; (turns to Kuldip Nayar and S Nihal Singh), Kuldipji and Nihalji, both of them have been editors there – that almost every request is turned down in the first round. It is only at the appeal stage which, if you had pursisted for many months that something distorted or partial comes out. But we in the press are not broadcasting these facts. And yet that is one of the most precious rights that we have. So I will urge that any encroachment on the flow of information, not just on freedom of speech. As Fali will remind us, Justice Bhagwati has said, “I can speak only if I have information.” So, the freedom to acquire information, receive information, flows from the freedom of speech.
I feel the government is using social media to spread lies and abuse against everyone it does not like, so some of you should counter that and be as active on social media because Modi has a whole team in the Prime Minister’s Office headed by a guy called Hiren Joshi, who many of you would have encountered and whose only job is to watch social media and keep the Prime Minister informed. So he is sensitive to that; that is his weakness. And especially what is happening in foreign media, so inform the foreign media of everything that is happening here.
Secondly use social media to inform the government that we are also watching what you are watching. One important point I want to make here – I have seen in the last three-four years many journalists have succumbed to this come – that is never delude yourself into believing that a little concession will buy you peace.
Many of you think that if you give prominence to the articles of some of these ministers or if you give them airtime, they will help you in a crisis. Mera dost hai Venkaiah Naidu, hamare apne paper Indian Express main, us ke three-quarters of a page – Kuldip ji ne mujhe bhi nahi di utni space – ka article hai. Woh Venkaiah Naidu ko teesri class ki jo chhoti notebook hoti hai who deejiye, ask him to fill one page coherently on any random issue…Magar aap us ke article chapay ja rahe ho when you know he cannot write.
[My friend Venkaiah Naidu, he gets three-fourths of a page in our own newspaper, The Indian Express, to write an article. Kuldip Nayar did not ever give me so much space. The same Venkaiah Naidu – you give him a small notebook for class three and ask him to fill one page with something coherent on any random issue... You publish his article when you known he cannot write.]
But you think that by giving him that space, by giving that much airtime to these fellows, you are buying peace. No, in fact, when the assault comes on you, none of them will help. Ek toh baat yeh hai ki yahan koi minister to hai nahin, dhai aadmiyon ki sarkar hai, toh ye bechare to Swami Agnivesh ke bandhua mazduur hain. Toh vo help aapko us tarah nahin kar sakte. (The thing is there is no minister today, this is the government of two and a half men. These people – ministers – are bonded labourers. They cannot help you.)
In fact, what they will be doing is that someone among them is a friend of Prannoy Roy, he will be fearing that Modi will think ‘I am a friend of Prannoy Roy’, toh is se dur raho [so I better stay away from him]. Don’t think you can make peace by buying some small concessions. Instead of buying peace with concessions, I would urge non-cooperation, boycott. Just deny them that…just boycott their press conferences.
Dua sahib reminded us about the defamation bill. One of the most effective tools we used at that time was by telephoning editors all over the country. We said one thing: “If a minister of Rajiv Gandhi’s government comes to your city, in the press conference first ask them, are you for or against the defamation bill. If he does not answer, or if he gives an ambiguous answer, or if he says ‘yes’ just get up and leave.” Publicity is the oxygen of terrorists, it is also the oxygen of “bandhua labour”. Woh dikhana chaahte hain Modi ko, ki saab maine itni achhi taqrir di, meri itni achi coverage hui. [These “bonded labour” ministers want to show Modi the coverage they got and the arguments they gave for government policies.] So just deny them that. Just boycott their press conferences.
Never call them to your meetings, never call to your functions somebody whom you would not call but for the fact that he is a minister. Just do that little bit of noncooperation and see the effect.
There is no country in the world in which official pronouncements are given as much space and prominence as in India. You should publish them in the classified advertisement page. Instead, you should republish what sites like Alt News, SM Hoax-Slayer, and Factchecker are saying, and what they are excavating by comparing the claims of the government with the facts. Today, papers republish tweets of Sharad Yadav, Narendra Modi, and so on. Arre, usme kya wisdom rakhaa hai? Utne hi space me aap batlaaiye ke Alt News ne aaj kyaa chhaapa. Us se jo truth hai, vo baahar aayegaa. [What wisdom is there in their tweets? In that same space, you should publish what Alt-News has published that day. That will bring out the truth.]
By now you know their [government’s] techniques. One of their techniques is that if something inconvenient happens today, they say start another story just now….Don’t become instruments for distracting your viewers and your readers. Keep their focus on the main story. That is very important.
Redouble the work that is annoying the government. The best guarantee to you that you are on the right track is that the government is annoyed with what you are finding out. News is what the government wants to hide, everything else is propaganda. You should excavate that.
In the end, please remember we have only three protections. One is our own solidarity. Second are the courts. Give prominence to every step the government takes to undermine the judiciary. It is very necessary. And the third is the protection of our own readers. As I was saying, use Twitter and Facebook to inform the government that you are watching but do not become Twitter handles yourself. You must go into the depth of facts of those issues that are life and death issues for the reader, so when the hand is raised against you, the reader feels that the hand has been raised against him or her.
A year will not pass now when it will become even more impossible to acquire and disseminate information through normal mainstream channels or media. Therefore it is very important that all of us turn to the youngsters who have mastery of hacking, of bypassing government censors, of using internet creatively to acquire…and disseminate information. If the Chinese can bypass the Chinese state, then certainly we should be able to do it. Please make your contacts now and set up such groups of Indians here or abroad to bypass the censorship of the government. If finally, they are able to control everything, don’t despair. As I said earlier, firstly, everything passes. The other factor is that when they control the media completely, then the people will see the great distance between what they are being made to swallow through the media and what is happening in their own lives. And this government, which worships cows, will be left holding dead cows.