A day after the departure of ABP News Network Managing Editor Milind Khandekar, it has emerged that fellow journalist Punya Prasun Bajpai also quit the news organisation. Bajpai confirmed his resignation to Scroll.in on Thursday, but said he would not elaborate on the details.
Bajpai hosted a primetime show called Masterstroke.
ABP News Network has not issued a statement about the depatures. But Avinash Pandey, the ABP News chief operating officer, told exchange4media that Khandekar had been instrumental in shaping and strengthening the editorial structure at the organisation “His service has been indeed much valuable to the organisation,” Pandey said. “It has been an honor working with a wonderful colleague like him all these past years. We wish him boundless success in all his future endeavors.”
The moves within the newsroom have made waves far beyond the journalism community. Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewal said on Twitter that the resignations were the result of an attempt to “suppress truth being spoken to power”.
In Parliament, Trinamool Congress MP Derek OBrien spoke of pressure on journalists.
Last month, the channel elicted strong comments from the government for a story on Masterstroke in the wake of a video interaction Prime Minister Narendra Modi held on June 20 with beneficiaries of various government programmes. A participant from Chhattisgarh, Chandramani Kaushik, told Modi on the show said that her income had doubled after she switched from cultivating paddy to growing custard apples.
But Masterstroke said that the woman had been tutored to make false claims.
The programme gained wider attention when Congress President Rahul Gandhi tweeted a clip of it.
The programme was criticised by number of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including Rajyavardhan Rathore, the minister of state for information and broadcasting. He alleged that journalists had been driven by an agenda to oppose Narendra Modi.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also tweeted her criticism of the story.
ABP News sent a reporter back to the woman’s village to re-investigate. “This is ABP News’ response to the questions you have raised,” they tweeted on Monday night, addressing the ministers who had dubbed their report “fake news”.
Following this episode, BJP officials began to boycott the channel, people familiar with the network said.
In addition, Twitter users had complained that they had been unable to get access to ABP news at the time when Masterstroke, Bajpai’s show, was being aired. People familiar with the network said disturbances in the channel’s signal began around July 13.
“Things began to change after the first week of July,” said a senior journalist in the channel who did not want to be identified. “We persisted with whatever we were doing. For us, news is news. But we are living through polarised times, where whatever you do is seen as pro-Modi, anti-Modi.”
On July 17, Bajpai congratulated those powerful persons who were able to disrupt even the satellite signal during the transmission of his programme.
Many other users commented on the signal being disrupted.
On July 23, Bajpai said that the channel would keep telling the truth despite the alleged blocks – “You will black out the screen during Masterstroke, but we will treat that as the ‘black board’ and write the truth on it.”
On July 26, Bajpai tweeted that instead of paying any attention to starvation deaths, unemployment, farmer suicides, clean air and water, the focus seemed only to be on disrupting the signals of his programme, Masterstroke.
Thereafter, Bajpai took to tweeting out the videos of his programme. On July 30, a journalist from The Print tagged Tata Sky in his tweet about the blackout, asking for an explanation.
When others joined in and asked the same question, Tata Sky responded that the problem seemed intermittently to be at the ABP end.
Airtel confirmed the same.
This seemed to make it even more confusing.
While Bajpai resigned on Thursday, another journalist at the network, Abhisar Sharma, has gone on leave.
Updated on August 3, 11 pm
Scroll.in has been able to confirm, after conversations with multiple personnel in the channel, the following sequence of events that led to the resignations. These accounts corroborate what the Wire, followed by the Newslaundry, have reported.
ABP insiders said that while the pressure over Khandekar intensified after the Chhattisgarh report, it reached a breaking point soon after Abhisar Sharma’s show, Aaj Ki Badi Khabar, went live on July 30.
Sharma began the show by juxtaposing a shootout in a crowded restaurant in Sultanpur district of Uttar Pradesh on July 29 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the state on the same day. While Modi had talked about the improving law and order situation in Lucknow and the state, and announced investments worth thousands of crores, Sharma said the Sultanpur incident revealed the hollowness of these claims.
It was at this point that the channel’s executive director and chief executive officer Atideb Sarkar stormed into the newsroom, ABP insiders said. Sarkar publicly questioned the need to link Modi’s name with this incident, these insiders said, and repeatedly demanded that Sharma be immediately taken off air, while Khandekar asked him to discuss the matter in a close-door conversation, pointing out that it was not possible to take an anchor off air midway through a live programme.
This showdown, insiders said, was a culmination of Khandekar’s refusal to restrain or remove Bajpai. The management, under pressure from the ruling establishment, had earlier raised objections even to Sharma’s video blogs on Facebook, apart from his work on the channel, demanding that he refrain from criticising the government of the day, these insiders said.
The next day, Sharma was grounded for 15 days. But Bajpai’s show was as hard-hitting as before on July 31. Insiders say there was increasing pressure on Khandekar to restrain Bajpai, but he chose to resign the day after, on August 1, and Bajpai followed on August 2.
Scroll.in has sent Sarkar a questionnaire and will update this story if he responds.
On July 31, Sharma announced on Facebook that he had been named this year’s journalist of the year by Delhi’s Hindi Academy. On August 2, he posted the following as his response to the honour.
“I believe journalism can only be on one side and that is: Opposition. Because in a fight between the downtrodden and the powerful, neutrality has no meaning. In such cases, neutrality strengthens the powerful and the oppressor. Therefore the person in power needs to be questioned. He is the one who is answerable. Being neutral here would be facetious. Particularly when the one sitting in power is afraid of questions; dodges all unsettling questions; tries to silence those who raise such questions. In such situations, the journalist’s duty is only to act as the Opposition. Neutrality only weakens the weak and gives the powerful an opportunity to escape. This has become even more relevant in today’s context when the government spends a lot of time in fixing the media. Here you will have to take two steps forward to raise questions. And those in power too should understand that the clearer the verdict in their favour, the more is their accountability. As even Spiderman has said: With great power comes great responsibility.”