His (un)Holinesshttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/his-unholiness-asaram-bapu-rape-case-conviction-world-press-freedom-indian-media-5154421/

His (un)Holiness

Asaram Bapu’s ungodly acts and India’s slip down the slopes of press freedom.

Asaram Bapu’s ungodly acts and India’s slip down the slopes of press freedom.
On Wednesday, when the Jodhpur court ruled against Asaram Bapu, all the news channels referred to him as plain Asaram.

It took just a few years for Asaram Bapu to be reduced to Rapist Asaram. When the story broke four years ago, the self-styled godman was Bapu until proven otherwise. (All godmen are self-styled, of course. God has no truck with this nonsense.) But on Wednesday, when the Jodhpur court ruled against him, all the news channels referred to him as plain Asaram. Arnab Goswami had hit the ground running — to borrow a mannerism from the marines — and had a full-fledged firefight running in the studio even when other channels like NewsX were confirming the conviction. The bottom of the screen bore the legend: “Broken in Republic.” What, the Republic firefight?

Despite relentless noise pollution from Indira Tiwari, lately of the Hindu Mahasabha, Goswami managed to get a few words in: “He’s a fraud, a rapist, a blot on the Hindu religion,” he roared. “Shame on you (presumably the BJP) for allowing the use of religion to justify the rape of a 15-year-old.” Meanwhile, on India Today TV, an anchor heckled a talkative whataboutist of the Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasabha, who wanted to know about the rape of refugees in Kashmir. After the shameless attempts to communalise the rape in Kathua of an eight-year-old, it appears that a certain door to the primrose path has closed. Earlier, such opinions would have been humoured in the name of even-handedness. It isn’t the case any more.

Meanwhile, Goswami was still going at Asaram, running out of imprecations and canvassing his panelists for more. “Dhokkebaaz, dhongi baba,” they supplied. “I wish I could have called him a joker,” fumed Goswami, “but he is a dangerous joker, a fraud.” That’s scarcely invective, though. It is the age of malevolent clowns, and some of them are in the studio.

The show did offer something of value, offsetting hearing impairment: it drew attention to witnesses who had died in the course of the investigation and trial, collateral damage that is easy to overlook. And the surreal calm that had descended on every TV studio except Republic’s was in stark contrast with the high feelings that were on display when the Asaram story first broke. Maybe the precedent of the portmanteau-like Ram Rahim Insan, who was put away for 20 years on two rape charges amidst considerable drama, has had a sobering influence. Incidentally, amidst all the shows investigating who was behind the rise of Asaram, Mirror Now brought in KK Manan, Asaram’s first counsel in the matter, for a sober counterview. Without naming names, he hinted that enmity within Asaram’s circle was instrumental in his downfall.

On Thusday morning, the news was the NaMo app, wall to wall, across news channels. Almost all were broadcasting live from the app as the prime minister hit out the Congress for the jibe about “north Indian imports” campaigning for the forthcoming Karnataka elections, asserted that the BJP stands for vikas while the other side stands for lies and divisive politics, expressed concerns about an indecisive verdict and asked for a thumping majority, to bring in the vikas that the nation is, er, enjoying. He also answered rather convenient questions from MLAs in the state, on a split screen. “I must reach China tomorrow, but the next stop on my itinerary will be Karnataka,” he added.

This would have been normal on the app, which exists for the express purpose of connecting the PM with his flock and his voters. But when the traffic is spewed out on mass media, it looks a little out of place. One had to click the remote several times to find any other programming — Wion, being focused on overseas news, had a story on the talks between the Koreas, and the business channels and NDTV were preoccupied with the market opening. But the uniform coverage of the app’s message, which was really a campaign speech, betrayed signs of intelligent design.

The World Press Freedom Index is out from Reporters Without Borders, and it makes grim reading. “Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders… poses a threat to democracy.” And India, which has slipped in the index, comes in for special criticism.

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But now to an index less grim, the Indy100. The news site of The Independent, which uses reader response to prioritise stories, has responded to the media hysteria over Prince William and Kate Middleton’s third child with old-style British dryness. Their headline of the brief read: ‘A woman, Kate Middleton, gave birth to a baby boy this morning.’ The closing line: ‘According to the US census Bureau, approximately 361,481 babies are born around the world every day.’

Just for perspective.