The Foundation for Media Professionals on Tuesday urged the government to respond to journalist Punya Prasun Bajpai’s allegations of interference by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in the content of news channels. The alleged interference “smacks of the notorious Emergency-era censorship”, the foundation said in a statement.
Bajpai, a prime-time anchor of ABP News channel, resigned on August 2. In an article in The Wire later, he claimed that the channel had asked him to avoid references to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his criticism of government policies during his show Masterstroke. Bajpai also said a 200-member team at the Information and Broadcasting Ministry monitors the content of news channels.
The Foundation for Media Professionals said that the “vindictive manner” in which Bajpai and two other journalists of the channel were treated after their critical reportage on the government’s policies was aimed at having a “chilling effect” on others in the profession.
The group said it “deplored the manner” in which pressure was allegedly brought on “the management of ABP News by an influential section of the ruling establishment to do away with the services of Punya Prasun Bajpai, Milind Khandekar, and Abhisar Sharma”.
ABP News Managing Editor Khandekar had resigned from the news channel a day before Bajpai, while Sharma was reportedly told to go on leave. Their departures prompted a flurry of questions about press freedom, the accountability of media owners, and the government’s attitude to criticism.
ABP News received flak since Bajpai’s prime-time show Masterstroke on July 8 featured a segment about a woman who had earlier claimed in a video interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that her farm income had doubled. The report said that the woman had been tutored to say so.
Several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders criticised the segment, claiming that it was false. Soon, some viewers complained that they were facing difficulties accessing the channel when Masterstroke was on air.
The Foundation for Media Professionals said the only “fault” of the three journalists was to “disseminate information that critically examined the government’s claims about the efficacy of some of its welfare programmes”. Praising Bajpai’s expose on Masterstroke, it said the programme was “a much-needed demonstration of watchdog journalism” and also criticised the disruption of its broadcast during prime-time.
The statement, signed by its president Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and director Manoj Mitta, was critical of the channel’s actions as well, saying “the management of ABP News did not cover itself with glory”.
Meanwhile, the All India Professionals’ Congress also issued a statement condemning the resignations. It tweeted a letter to the News Broadcasters Association and the Editors Guild of India, urging them to “investigate the rising attack on freedom of expression and independence of the Indian media”.
The letter said that the episode had shaken people’s confidence in the independence of news media. It also asked the Guild and NBA to answer questions on those responsible for subjecting citizens “to a distorted misrepresentation of facts through an act of wilful criminality”, among others, and urged them to expose the guilty.