The resignations this week of two journalists from ABP News, whose work had attracted criticism from the government, has led to consternation among other members of the press in India. ABP News managing editor, Milind Khandekar resigned from the news channel on August 1 and prime-time anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai followed the next day. Their departures have prompted a flurry of questions about press freedom, the accountability of media owners and the government’s attitude to criticism.

“The larger part of media has become subject to one political view of India,” said veteran Mrinal Pande. “These were some of the few senior journalists who stood their ground and presented both sides of the questions.”

ABP News has been coming in for flak since Bajpai’s primetime show Masterstroke on July 8 featured a segment about a woman who said in a video interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 20 that that her farm income had doubled. However, the ABP News report said that the woman had been tutored to say so. Several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders criticised the segment, claiming that it was false. In the wake of this fracas, some viewers complained that they were facing difficulties accessing the channel when Masterstroke was on air.

“I don’t think they were very aggressively partisan,” Pande said. “They were always watchable and I’m not going to watch the channel anymore because it will follow the routine that most Hindi channels follow anyway. I would expect journalistic bodies to protest this.”

‘Sad and depressing’

The resignations of Khandekar and Bajpai have led to questions about the freedom of the press in India, and in particular the willingness of media owners to cave in to government pressure.

“It’s sad and depressing to see what’s happened and I think it’s the owners, in this instance, who really need to be questioned,” said journalist and author Rajdeep Sardesai. “Forget the government for a moment. Every government wants to control the media narrative. We don’t know at what form or level the government was involved. The owners of the channel are accountable. They crawl when asked to bend, then they are the ones who need to be questioned... the way they’ve handled the situation. Their role needs to be subject to far better interrogation.”

Ravish Kumar, who anchors a primetime show on NDTV India, said that the incident raises larger questions about Indian journalism. “The management of the media has always prostrated at the government’s knees,” he said. “This is happening so openly and brazenly.”
He said that in such instances, media owners also need to be questioned about their obligations to the government.

Shekhar Gupta of The Print, who is the president of the Editors’ Guild of India, said that he could not comment until he had more clarity from the former ABP News journalists. “We are talking to the ABP journalists and waiting for them to say something,” Gupta said. “The process of conversation is on so I’d rather not say anything. At some point, when we have more clarity you will hear from us.”

Selectively interrupted

One aspect of the story has drawn special concern. Viewers over the last month have complained of not being able to view Masterstroke when it was on air, though it is still unclear how or why this was happening.

“To me, that is the most frightening and chilling thing that I hear in this episode,” said journalist Barkha Dutt. “Someone has to explain whether it’s the network, the carriers or the government. If the allegation is true, how can a channel’s broadcast be selectively interrupted? This makes the licence of the channel redundant.”

In this case, she added, the government pays closer attention to Hindi and other regional channels.

‘Test of democracy’

Raghav Bahl, founder of The Quint, said while the resignations are something to be concerned about, media organisations have always faced pressure either politically or commercially. “It is difficult to talk about specific cases because we don’t know what the internal dynamics are,” he said. “Pressures are a part of journalism. It is up to organisations to take a call on how to deal with them...I would hesitate to say that this is the first time this is happening.”

Ravish Kumar, who has been a strong critic of the government’s attempts to silence dissent, pointed to the larger picture beyond just the resignations.

“Now, it’s the people who have to answer about what kind of journalism they want to give their money to... the people who took a risk, they lost their jobs. I have been getting messages that now it’s my turn. In the world’s biggest democracy, people cannot tolerate four journalists? This is the test of democracy. We cannot become a world leader like this. How much do people value independent media?”