If you read only the print media, you would be oblivious to the news that two top executives of a leading media house have suddenly chosen to step down. Whether or not it is deliberate policy to avoid reporting such developments in the media, these resignations are ominous enough to invite introspection about the future of the Indian media.

It should come as no surprise that the resignations of two top executives, editor-in-chief Milind Khandekar and popular anchor Punya Prasoon Bajpai of APB News network, the television arm of the Ananda Bazar Patrika group, more than hint at government interference. This government is doing it; previous governments have also done it, albeit in other ways.

But should this be cause for worry for members of the media and larger civil society that believes a democracy needs a media that is reasonably protected from direct or indirect government interference? They should. For even if this development is not new or unusual, it is disquieting.

These days, each time such an instance comes to light, the almost-predictable response is to invoke the Emergency of 1975 when the Congress party government of Indira Gandhi imposed press censorship on the media. Today, even if government or ruling party pressure on the media does constitute indirect curbs on the freedom of expression, the comparison ends there. Indira Gandhi used existing laws to impose and justify press censorship. There was a face to the censor – an official who sat in a government office, or representatives who were sent to newspaper offices. The government felt compelled to issue what it termed “guidelines” that the media was supposed to follow.

There is no such structure in place today. There is no official censor. You have a government that swears by the freedom of the press. And yet there is increasing evidence that the long arm of the government is finding ways to compel media houses that question or expose its wrong-doings to fall in line.

This government deflects criticism or conjecture about pressure on the media to conform by constantly emphasising that the Congress party was much worse, especially during the Emergency. Yet there is a big difference between the events of the past and the developments today.

This generation, which gets its news on smart phones and will probably never know the joy of the tactile feel of holding a newspaper, is probably be unaware that despite the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Constitution, India passed a law in 1956, the Newspaper (Price and Page) Act. This restricted the number of pages a newspaper could print and the price it could charge the customer. It was legislated on the premise that smaller newspapers needed to be protected from the large media houses that could charge less for bigger papers because they had deep pockets. So the ostensible purpose was salutary – to protect the small against the big.

Subsequently, in 1972, under the government’s newsprint policy, a cap was placed of a maximum of 10 pages that a newspaper could print each day. Following the same argument of protecting smaller papers, in 1981 the government also introduced graded duties on imported newsprint, charging bigger circulating newspapers more. This was challenged in the Supreme Court by several large newspaper houses who argued that the policy impinged on their fundamental right to freedom of expression. They won the case.

Facilitating diversity

This history has to be seen against the background of the belief that prevailed in those bad old “socialist” days, as some would have it, that the media space should accommodate the small players and that the state should facilitate this. The state saw its role in interfering, if you will, in the infrastructure of the media. It even laid down the ratio of advertising to editorial content, something that one cannot imagine being policy in this day and age. Despite this, the bigger newspaper houses continued to prosper (although they constantly complained about government restrictions).

In fact, given the hostile relations between the government and some of the big media houses, it is an irony that even though they chafed at government restrictions on the grounds of freedom of expression, they quietly fell in line when actual censorship was imposed during the Emergency. On the other hand, some of the smaller publications, which should have been beholden to government for “protecting” them from the big media players, vehemently fought against censorship.

Job security

The other area where media houses resented government policy was in labour practices. Under the Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955, which the court upheld in 1958 and again in 2014 when newspaper owners challenged it, journalists had job security. They could not be hired and fired without notice and reason. Wage boards were set-up to determine the salaries newspaper employees should be paid according to the size of the media house.

All this is history now with the majority of journalists hired on short-term contracts that can be terminated at short notice. This lack of job security ensures that on the whole, individual journalists avoid falling foul of the owners of their establishments. Although those with a higher profile and greater social capital can take risks, not many do.

In 21st century India, media houses are free to expand, hold cross-media interests in print and television, and flood their newspapers with so many advertisements that you have to hunt for the articles. As a result, the business of news is no more “all the news that’s fit to print”, but only the news that sells the “product” in the “market”.

If there is government interference today with media content, it is entirely covert. You cannot prove any quid pro quo. For instance, it was widely suggested that last year the former editor of the Hindustan Times, Bobby Ghosh, was asked to leave because the owners got word that the party in power was unhappy with some of the paper’s coverage, in particular the Hate Tracker that recorded hate crimes that had taken place since 2014. There is no way to prove what leverage the ruling party or the government used on the owners of the paper. But the coincidence of Ghosh’s departure and the pulling down of the Hate Tracker online could not be missed.

As an aside, it is worth remembering that in 1975, even before Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, the much-respected BG Verghese was asked to step down as editor of Hindustan Times because of an editorial he wrote that was critical of India’s takeover of Sikkim. The paper then was known to be close to the party in power.

Indira Gandhi receiving the Bharat Ratna in 1972. Credit: Rane Prakash/HT Photo

Unanswered questions

In the case of the recent development in the ABP News Network, we do not know what kind of pressure was put on the owners to nudge the two top journalists to step down and a third to go on leave. The Ananda Bazar Patrika group is a family-owned business with its primary interest in media. It also owns Ananda Bazar Patrika, the leading Bengali newspaper, and the English language, The Telegraph. ABP News Network is the result of the merger of Star News, which was owned by Star India, and ABP Ltd when the two set up a joint venture, Media Content and Communication Services in 2012. Subsequently Star India pulled out.

ABP News Network has a national profile, unlike the group’s print publications that are largely restricted to the east, as it owns Hindi, Bengali and Marathi television news channels. Yet, it does not have the reach or spread of some of the larger media houses. Also unlike The Telegraph, which has been consistently critical of the Modi government, ABP News was not known to be so. Hence why this pressure on it after just one report about how a woman farmer was tutored to tell a positive story during the Prime Minister’s Mann ki Baat interaction with farmers in Chattisgarh? And why did it succumb? The answers will remain in the realm of conjecture.

The reason this latest attempt to force a media house to fall in line is worrying is that it establishes, if indeed that were needed, that we have at the helm of affairs in India a party that wants not just a Congress-mukt Bharat, but also a free-media-mukt Bharat.

There is little doubt now that through encouraging friendly corporations to take control of the media, and by way of some arm-twisting, the ruling dispensation is determine to ensure that the Indian media is completely in sync with the dominant narrative and that His Master’s Voice, or rather his Mann ki Baat will resonate across media houses.