The print media in India is alive and kicking. If there were any doubts about this, the last few weeks have dispelled them.

Two of the biggest exposés this season have come from print. One from Somesh Jha of Business Standard, published on January 31, on the jobs data in the National Statistical Commission’s employment survey 2017-’18 that the government has been desperately trying to hide because it reveals the extent of unemployment, the highest in 45 years.

And the other, a story that is still unraveling every day, is the series by N Ram in The Hindu about the controversial Rafale deal between France and India. Both Jha and Ram have produced documentary evidence that has put government spokespersons on the spot while trying to explain their side of the story.

The two stories are a reminder of how journalism needs to be done, slowly and painstakingly until what is put out to the public is convincing.

While no one yet has faulted the facts in these stories, sometimes complex stories like the Rafale imbroglio pose a challenge to the lay reader. For instance, the first story in The Hindu on the pricing issue was dense and contained information that the uninformed reader would have struggled to follow. Did India under the current government pay more for each of the 36 fighter jets than it would have for the earlier deal of 126 jets negotiated by the previous government? Now, according to the report tabled in Parliament by the Comptroller and Auditor General, it did not. But the documents emerging in the public realm suggest that this is not yet a settled fact.

However, the two stories that followed this one were clearer and unravelled several important aspects of the deal, such as a set of parallel negotiations being conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office without the official negotiating team from the Ministry of Defence being informed, and changes in certain clauses that allowed the seller to get away without giving a sovereign guarantee. The latter has been confirmed by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Jha’s stories on the jobs data could not have been clearer and the reader would be left in no doubt about why in election season, a government would not want such facts to be in the public domain.

Calling out the bluff of the government is the job of the media in a democracy. That is the importance of these two exposes.

It is also the job of the media to fact check and point out the misinformation, and sometimes lies, put out by the people in power. When politicians, like the prime minister, receive widespread coverage for all their public events, what they say at these occasions is out there without any questions being asked about the veracity of the statements being made.

Death sentences in India

One such statement was made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a meeting in Surat at the end of January where, according to ANI, he said: “There used to be rapes in this country earlier too, it is a shame that we still hear about such cases. Now, culprits are hanged within 3 days, 7 days, 11 days and a month. Steps are being taken continuously to get daughters justice and results are evident.”

This statement, posted on Twitter by ANI, brought forth a number of adverse comments, calling out the inaccuracy of Modi’s statement. Even Scroll.in carried an article on this.

However, another fact check by Mumbai Mirror pointed out that in the translation of Modi’s speech, ANI had erred. Where the PM had spoken of the death sentence, the agency had used the word “hanged”.

The paper also pointed out that indeed, there had been judgments in lower courts awarding the death penalty to rapists within a short period. The cases quoted are all from Madhya Pradesh: one was awarded in July within 22 days, another in the same month within 46 days and one in August within three days. There have been no hangings in India for rape since 2004, when Dhananjoy Chatterjee was executed for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl.

What is worrying about the prime minister’s statement is not that it was not factual, but that it was, at least partially, true. If judges are handing out death sentences so rapidly, should we not be worried? Not only those of us who are principally against capital punishment. But because such hasty decisions are precisely the reason there was opposition to the introduction of the death penalty for rape by the Justice Verma Committee in its 2013 report. It had argued then that “in the larger interests of society, and having regard to the current thinking in favour of abolition of the death penalty, and also to avoid the argument of any sentencing arbitrariness, we are not inclined to recommend the death penalty”.

In any case, official data from the National Crime Records Bureau (only available until 2016) illustrates that the introduction of capital punishment for rape has made no difference to the crime rate.

Second, also of concern is the prime minister taking credit for these rulings. “Steps are being taken continuously to get daughters justice and results are evident,” he said. What steps are these that his government is taking that are resulting in such rulings? Are public prosecutors being incentivised to push through rape cases? Are lower court judges being nudged into delivering quick rulings?

The law was amended in 2013, and the death penalty was introduced for the “rarest of rare” cases, before his party came to power. One would really like to know what the prime minister meant. But no one has asked him. And in any case, he is not available for pesky questions from the press.

(Photo credit: Shailesh Andrade/Reuters).
(Photo credit: Shailesh Andrade/Reuters).

India’s sex ratio

Take another similar claim that the prime minister made about the sex ratio improving under his watch.

On more than one occasion, Modi has lauded his government’s Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme, crediting it with having improved the sex ratio and female literacy levels in Haryana, Rajasthan and several other states. While that might be true in the case of specific districts in these states, the reality is somewhat different as an editorial in The Telegraph points out. Indeed, even if there is an improvement in some states, in the southern states with better female literacy rates, there has been a perceptible decline in the sex ratio.

Another report in The Telegraph illustrates this by giving data from Bihar where in a district like Vaishali, although the female literacy rate has improved from 50.49% in 2001 to 68.57% in 2011, the sex ratio has declined from 937 girls per 1,000 boys in 2001 to 894 in 2011.

And overall, the sex ratio at birth in India has declined from 887 in 2014 to 877 in 2016.

This is something not just the government, but Indian society as a whole needs to worry about. Clearly, governments cannot pat themselves on the back if female literacy rates increase and assume that this will inevitably result in an improvement in the sex ratio. The roots of son preference, and therefore sex selection, are embedded in a patriarchal culture that appears not to be dented either by government literacy programmes, or by stringent laws.