Updated: December 12, 2016 12:08:59 am
It may be a coincidence or it may be a coordinated and concerted amplification of political power, but journalistic interrogation as embodied in the act of raising questions is increasingly in bad odour these days. This is disturbing news for the honest journalist wishing to put issues of important concern before the public. Questions, after all, are central to journalism, they are the basic tools for gathering the raw material from which news stories are fashioned. But the ministers of the government of India, it seems, see no great use for them.
Consider these recent observations made by junior ministers and their bosses. Response of the minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju, when asked by the media for his reaction to the Bhopal jailbreak: “We should stop this habit of raising doubts and questioning the authorities and the police. This is not a good culture. What we are observing in India is that people have developed this habit of raising unnecessary doubts and questions. Facts will come out.”
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Comment of Union Minister for Urban Development and Information and Broadcasting, Venkaiah Naidu, in a newspaper interview, on the coverage of the “surgical strikes”: “The media should understand what is in national interest… A journalist or a TV anchor, according to me, is basically a citizen of India. Every citizen has a responsibility to the country. Keep that in mind and do whatever you want to do, there is no restriction…”
Retort of the Union Textile Minister Smriti Irani, when asked by a news anchor about what she thought of demonetisation: “Rajdeep, the whole world knows that I do not speak to you much and I am surprised that Rajdeep Sardesai is stalking a woman”. “But Ma’am I am just asking you a question,” responds the anchor.
Observation of the Union Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit : The media are not presenting the real picture about demonetisation because of their tendency to pose “leading questions” to the public.
Remarks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi,during a election rally at Moradabad on December 3: “Ek reporter December 1 ko, subah se bank ke bahar khadi ho gayi. Wo logon ko sawal poochne lagi, unko bhadkane wale sawal, unko gussa aaye aise sawal. Magar maine dekha ki kaise woh reporter ne kaafi time baad imaandari se reporting kiya. Aakhir mein usne bhi bola ki use tajjub hai ki kaise ye log subah se, thand me, lainon me khade hain aur phir bhi khush hain (On the morning of December 1, one reporter was standing outside the bank. She asked people questions, leading questions, questions designed to stoke anger. But I noticed that after a while, she did honest reporting. Ultimately, she too said that she was surprised as to how these people were standing since the morning, in the cold, in a line, and were still happy).”
Each of these discrete statements is revealing. Rijju’s words imply that the good, “cultured” media should submit to the superior wisdom of the higher authorities and wait for correct information to reach them because, as he puts it, the “facts will come out”. There is little or no recognition here of the value of an institution independent of the power apparatus, such as the media, that is meant to inform the public sphere in a functioning democracy and hold power to account. Incidentally, the facts of the Bhopal encounters haven’t emerged yet.
Naidu’s stance is a variation of this: The mediaperson is required to be an obedient subject of the State and conscious at all times of his/her duty to submit to the vision of the nation as framed by the State. Once this principle is kept in mind, he assures the media, there is no need to worry about the government imposing restrictions — unless, of course, it happens to be NDTV India. As for Irani, she has the legitimate right not to speak to journalists, but by collapsing the act of questioning with that of stalking she seeks to tar the media with the same brush utilised by her illustrious, much bemedalled colleague, who routinely employs the word “presstitute” to define the media in order to denigrate the institution before the public.
Jaitley is far too urbane to stoop to such crassness. His is a different complaint: The demonetisation story is being extrapolated by the media interlocutors in a way that makes invisible the careful thinking behind the move while making visible the public distress over it. The fact is that the mainstream media has been generally supportive and occasionally euphoric over demonetisation. But even the occasional report of genuine distress appears to raise hackles in the corridors of power because it contravenes the approved script.
This also means that every word the media puts out is being monitored by the ruling dispensation which happens to be the most mediatised in India’s history and one that spares no effort or expense in generating its own publicity. Nothing reveals this more than the prime minister’s words in Moradabad. He is watching the media very, very closely and he wants the people to be happy.
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