The fortnight of July 30-August 12 was a difficult one for the Indian press, or media as we call it. It started with the resignations of two journalists in charge of the Masterstroke programme on ABP News. It ended with two email interviews with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, published in India’s two largest English news dailies. The interviews seemed more like the newspapers had agreed to an exercise in self-promotion rather than wanting to question the prime minister.
To make matters worse, the week of August 13 began with the former student of JNU, Umar Khalid, being shot at in the heart of New Delhi. For more than two years now, some of the leading television news channels have been hurling abuse at Khalid. The press may not have held the gun that tried to kill Khalid, but these television channels certainly have created an atmosphere of hate in which individuals feel encouraged to commit hate crimes.
These are without any doubt dangerous times for the press in India. And if an important watchdog faces trouble, then Indian democracy is under threat.
Threats at three levels
The dangers that the media finds itself in are at different levels. The first is that we have a government in New Delhi that essentially does not like an independent media. It seems only interested in manipulating the press to build a positive image of itself. The second, related to the first, is that many large media houses seem to think that their main duty is not to exercise their freedom of speech but to respect the bottom line. They, therefore, run scared when the ruling establishment exerts pressure. They now exercise a good deal of self-censorship in their media coverage of the prime minister, in particular. The third level is a danger that many television channels in particular have themselves created: fawning over the government on the one side and playing with facts, offering incendiary coverage and whipping up anti-minority hysteria on the other side.
In a series of articles over the past fortnight, Scroll.in has tried to grapple with the individual events and the implications of these dangerous trends in India’s press. These have been covered in the news stories as well as in commentaries on the press. Here are three opinion pieces from that fortnight: one, two and three. For me, particularly chilling was this feature by Sruthisagar Yamunan about how programmes on television can be blocked by a “rogue carrier”. This was in the context of the television programme Masterstroke going off air in recent times. We do not know who was blocking Masterstroke, but we can guess who would have been happy that a programme that used to offer independent and critical reporting was not aired.
It is bad enough that these events are happening; it is worse that most of the media is silent about what is happening to others. Scroll.in, The Wire.in, and a few other online publications are the only ones discussing these issues. The mainstream print and television media have gone silent. The only coverage they provided was to the Editors’ Guild of India’s statement on these events.
The external attacks on the press are not unique to India. In the United States, there is something similar happening with President Donald Trump stoking distrust and anger towards the press. This is beginning to have dangerous consequences for the media. The American media has many faults but in this case, it is fighting back. Fighting by maintaining the spotlight on the Trump presidency; fighting by warning Trump – on at least one occasion in a face-to-face meeting – that he is weakening a core institution. You do not see either largely happening in India, and we must be worried on that count.
What Scroll.in, and others, can do better
Amidst this turbulence, it is important that the press does not lose sight of the need to adhere to professional practices. Its only protection against the assaults it faces is to provide journalism of the highest quality. It may not be easy, but Scroll.in along with everyone else needs to keep trying.
Two examples of where Scroll.in could work harder are in the terminology it uses in its stories and in its selection of stories and headlines.
To take the first, the words and terms a journalist uses can never be value-neutral. They can come loaded with prejudices even when they seem to be used harmlessly. An article published in Scroll.in on August 9 gave illustrative examples of the kind of words the media should not use. The examples the article raised were all legitimate ones. We may not agree with everything in this article – I did not – but it is important that we are alert to the issue.
My own concern with terminology, heightened in recent weeks, is the use of the term “illegal migrants”. Almost everyone in the Indian media uses this term without realising that it is meaningless and that it also brands certain individuals as criminals. This again is not unique to India. There is no perfect term for those who migrate across borders and do not have the documentation required by the host countries. “Undocumented migrants” may not be a perfect term but it is far superior to “illegal migrants”. This is the term now largely used in North America following considerable discussion in the first decade of this century. It may read and sound cumbersome but it conveys a better sense of those we are talking of and gives them a certain respect that they as people deserve.
Can Scroll.in stop using “illegal migrants”, and start using “undocumented migrants” or some other appropriate term?
On the second example, I was less than comfortable with a story connected with the Kathua case. The headline of the article, published on August 12, indicated that there might be an intimidation of witnesses. This is an important piece of news in a very important case and needs following up. Yet, reading the article, I had to reach the very end – two, may be three paragraphs – to read about intimidation, and that too in very general terms. The entire story was about a police case involving allegations of domestic violence against one of the activists at the forefront of highlighting the murder and alleged rape of the Kathua victim, an eight-year-old girl. The domestic violence case may well have been foisted and there may well be witness intimidation, but the article gave absolutely no evidence of any connection. The editors of Scroll.in need to be doubly careful in accepting stories in sensitive cases, edit them with great care and then choose the appropriate headline.
These are not interesting times for the media; they are difficult times for this pillar of democracy. That makes it all the more important to be rigorous in the practice of journalism.
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