Is the government muzzling the media: Rajdeep Sardesai speaks to DailyO

In a freewheeling conversation, the senior journalists says why he feels the media must turn its gaze inward as well.

 |  6-minute read |   07-06-2017
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It's a vitiated, anti-media atmosphere, with the CBI raids on NDTV premises, including at the residence of Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy, the owners of NDTV, for an apparent private complaint that they had not paid back loan worth Rs 48 crore to ICICI Bank, a private entity. Given that NPAs of public sector banks run into lakhs of crores, bad loan stay unrecovered, it’s important to ask if the government is using its machinery effectively, or to unleash vendetta on channels that ask uncomfortable questions.

Is there an undue pressure on Indian journalists to toe the government line, act as extensions of the regime’s propaganda departments? Are the news outlets that pose a challenge to the government an existential threat to the former? Is the media being muzzled?

We at DailyO posed this question to senior journalist and India Today TV consulting editor, Rajdeep Sardesai. In a freewheeling conversation on the state of the media, Sardesai emphatically declares that we must become journalists again, and like the American press at the moment, “rediscover our soul”, and become adversarial, interrogatory in spirit like we should be.

 

On current context

Sardesai said that irrespective of the individuals or the institutions involved, the law must take its own course, must be allowed to proceed. However, Sardesai cautioned that the manner, the circumstances and the publicly announced raids on a public figure and one of India’s finest journalists, do give out a sense of witch-hunt. Sardesai said the CBI, the IT department must provide far greater details, furnish adequate proofs before they carry out such raids.

Else, it amounts to a creating a smear campaign and character assassination on social media, in which those raided are pronounced guilty until proven innocent, and that is a complete reversal of the ideals and processes of jurisprudence. Authorities cannot be seen to be using their discretionary powers to target certain invididuals or institutions, giving it out the sense that the government is trying to fix someone. That is troubling, said Sardesai.

Do immediate triggers matter?

The speculations, conjectures, whether a BJP spokesperson was asked to leave the show by an NDTV anchor, all these, Sardesai says, are surround sounds, which can be overcome if you have a transparent legal process, an investigative machinery that works equally for all. Such questions are being posed because doubts exist in the public mind. That shouldn’t be the case.

There should be no impression of any kind of witch-hunt, on anybody or institution, even though no one or no organisation is above scrutiny. In this 360 degree media age of ours, it’s important that facts are put out in the public domain.

Tax raids on media

Tax raids, after the Finance Act 2017, can happen to any one, so singling out the media, particularly those who don’t agree with this “nationalist-versus-anti-national” distinction, isn’t the point. We need to turn the gaze inwards, raise the bar, elevate our own standards. But discretionary powers must be used wisely, rule of law must’t be used as a cover. Those who owe thousands of crores to banks, and are allowed to restructure their debts, when that happens, going after someone who owes a paltry amount to a private bank, makes one ask questions, speculate.

Are secular journalists more vulnerable?

Governments over the years have tended to control and gag the media, so that’s nothing new. We can’t say it started on May 17, 2014. This is the country that saw the Emergency under the Congress party, says Sardesai. But he adds that he’s worried how polarized the debate has become – especially the national versus antinational, the secular versus others – this has been added to the debate, which amounts to treating your ideological adversaries as enemies.

Asking questions is a fundamental right, and as a citizen of the Indian democracy, the right to dissent is integral, says Sardesai. But to interpret that as antinational, is extremely troubling. Using words such as “presstitutes” by even ministers, making blanket allegations of paid media – this is character assassination, destroying the credibility of the media, and opening the space for potential muzzling of the media. Because in order to survive you have to ingratiate yourself, become part of the chamcha media. But if you want to be an honest journalist questioning everyone, then those in power who don’t like the questioning, brand you as antinational, said Sardesai.

The larger goal is to emasculate, enfeeble the media, turn us from the watchdog to the lapdog, says Sardesai. Progressive democratic societies live by the idea of a free, vibrant media. Without that, we become an authoritarian, intolerant society.

Is social media supplanting mainstream media?

While it’s true that PM Narendra Modi hasn’t taken press conferences or open interviews in India, that equally applies to other leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, who don’t speak freely to the press, says Sardesai. Even the late Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, and others, don’t encourage free press. We have created a culture of authoritarian leaders who now think they don’t need the MSM to reach their citizens, voters; that they can directly talk to everyone via social media.

Social media is a one-way communication, and about creating armies of cheerleaders and trolls. If the Fourth Estate does it job and speaks truth to power, leaders unleash the troll army on them, says Sardesai. Social media has become a noxious chamber of intolerance, noisy and unfortunately driven by agendas, rather than driven by genuine pursuit of the truth. This is a sorry state, says Sardesai, for our leaders, since they are not getting the correct feedback and are locked in an echo chamber of what they want to hear.

But MSM can’t be trapped and dependent on social media trends, even though the public debate has now been expanded to break the monopoly of a few journalists and columnists. That said, nothing has stopped the MSM to put out the real issues which don’t trend on social media, such as the farmers plight, debt burden, malnutrition, quality of hospitals, education, etc.

How can the media strike back, and stay united?

Sardesai says journalists need to rediscover their soul, reread the holy covenant of speaking truth to power. The gaze must be turned inwards. Just like the American media has discovered its purpose since the election of Donald Trump, Indian media needs to go back to its adversarial, interrogatory roots.

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