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Home > 2022 > A new low of Indian media | Narender Nagarwal

Mainstream, VOL LX No 35 New Delhi, August 20, 2022

A new low of Indian media | Narender Nagarwal

Friday 19 August 2022

by Narender Nagarwal *

Latest developments in the media galore have raised serious concerns of media credibility and future of civil liberties in India. Two recent cases unequivocally demonstrate how the Indian media has waged a protracted battle to maintain its autonomy, truthfulness, and journalistic freedom. Since the media is a significant component in civil liberties, it is in the best interests of democracy, the rule of law, and nation-building to have an independent and fearless media. The significance of this battle for all who cherished the India’s press freedom and civil liberties since independence, as India has marvelous track record to protect journalistic ethos.

The divided media

It is matter of fact that current media has been divided into the two groups-a group that sympathetic or loyal towards the government who enjoyed all privileges, benefits and exclusive interviews-this media largely known as pliable press or Godi Media. The other group is known for its critical reporting, analysis and unmasking the falsehood time to time. This media largely comes under the category of unsympathetic towards government or better to call real journalism. Recently, certain reports of unsympathetic media have put the government in an uncomfortable situation both at domestic as well as global stage. The state looked at the central agencies to silenced the critics and dissenters who chose not be part of pliable media. As the present regime stubborn to not to admit its failures, and tried to dodge the truth with rosy picture of economy, health, education, finance and development.

Mohammad Zubair episode:

The first case is the how the Alt News co-founder Mohammad Zubair was arrested and languishing in jail for the tweet which obviously comes in trivial sort. The reason for the arrest of Zubair is not his tweets but how Alt News has crumbled the toxic game-plan of the government. Zubair simply scrabbled out the blasphemous video of a Nupur Sharma in the global media discourse that forced the government to take action against their own spokesperson. Zubair’s revelation has destroyed the carefully cultivated picture of the government especially for the global stage. The international image of the country was well-thought-out strategy constructed by diplomats and party supporters for the Middle-East was miffed by Zubair’s tweet disclosing Nupur Sharma’s venomous tirade against the Prophet and Islam. The ruling party considered the Zubair like media activists who posed a threat to their larger operation as a result of the discovery of their Islamophobia, bigotry and Hindutva agenda which led to an unprecedented foreign policy crisis. The several Gulf nations have come out openly and demands stern action against those who did this blasphemous offence, all these developments forced BJP to disown its spokesperson. Apart from the Gulf nation, several European Nations and international rights bodies too criticised the government over harassment of leading journalist, human rights defenders and academics of the country-Rana Ayyub, Teesta Sitalwad, Javed Mohammad, Anand Teltumbde, and Siddique Kappan.

Rohit Ranjan episode

The second case altogether different from earlier one. This case is finest example of how ruling party protect their loyal media persons and can go to any extent to save them. The Zee news anchor Rohit Ranjan who broadcasted a doctored video of Rahul Gandhi in their programme aiming to tarnish the image of the Congress leader over the Udaipur killing incident. In Zee news show, Rohit Ranajn, aired a statement made by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi following alleged violence by the Students’ Federation of India in Wayanad. The video seems to show Gandhi making a comment about Kanhaiya Lal’s murder in Udaipur. This was deliberate and conscious act by the Rohit Ranajn aimed at to disrepute Rahul Gandhi. A case was registered against the anchor Rohit Ranjan in Chhattisgrah and police team were dispatched to UP for his custody. The UP police devised a well-thought-out strategy to save Rohit Ranjan, and a peculiar scene between the two provincial police took place at Rohit Ranjan’s residence in Ghaziabad. Since, Rohit Ranjan is connected to the present government and UP police created the circumstances that made Chhattisgrah police to remain empty hands. The UP police secured the Ranjan custody aiming to free him from the clutches of Chhattisgarh police team and released him on the bail same day. The incident made clear how journalists belonged to the pliable media group receive unprecedented support from the state and those who work for upholding the truth are remain vulnerable in a post-truth society where they never know when they will be held accountable for what they say or write. The best illustration of Rohit Ranjan like journalists who are close to the government and party and enjoyed all state privilege and benefits and in case they face legal battle all state machinery placed for their safe passage.

Judicial response

The present case is identical to what Arnab Goswami, the Republic’s editor-in-chief, experienced a few years ago. In an unusual hearing held during a holiday break, the Supreme Court granted bail to the news anchor Arnab Goswami just eight days after his arrest. The supreme court hasn’t demonstrated the same enthusiasm for other imprisoned journalists and activists. The arrest and subsequent bail of Arnab follows a string of cases involving journalists, students and activists, many of whom have been charged under draconian laws such as sedition, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the National Security Act (NSA). At present around 52 habeas corpus petitions are pending before the Supreme Court and no certainty when these people will be freed. The judiciary cannot be remained unstiffened when serious attempt of undermining the press rights and civil liberties is underway. In the language of Justice Deepak Gupta, the selective approach of the supreme court is a matter of deep concern and even more worried development is that police openly acted at the behest of their political bosses. If the people are to be arrested merely on trivial issue, the court should come forward to rescue the people and award compensation for wrongful arrest. The freedom of speech and media rights in democracy are uncompromising facets and if it comes under pressure, that is certainly not good for the healthy democracy.

Muzzling the dissenters

Muzzling the independent media voices not abnormal for the Sangh Parivar, in 2017, the CBI raided the NDTV offices and most the claims were concocted, lies and factually incorrect. In the said searches launched by the CBI to unearth the alleged fraudulent activities by the NDTV but nothing recovered that incriminate Pranay Roy and his wife-the message was clear-we can suppress you even if you have done nothing illegal. Again in 2021, the office and staff of the Newsclick and Newsluandary news portals were raided by the income-tax department. In the said search operation, there were many flows on the part of tax authorities. The whole exercise is to intimidate the uncompromising media who keep exposing the lies and falsehood of the government. The mobile of the editorial staff was impounded, they were slapped with notices and many unfounded claims were made against the editors. It appears that right of privacy is stillborn in respect of some people, particularly media-persons. It is well settled that journalist can’t be force to disclose the source of their information-being privileged information. But in the instant case the authorities have crossed the all limits to harass the media persons associated to Newsclick and Newslaundary.

The issue of deep crisis of media freedom and civil liberties has been on the forefront at international scenario. The scathing outburst of Germany foreign office about the Mohammad Zubair’s unlawful custody over trivial tweets has put the country’s media freedom and crisis at the international forum. The Germany foreign office stated that “the Alt News co-founder in jail for unmasking the falsehood over facts and it is so ridiculous to read this news and Embassy of Germany is closely monitoring the situation at New Delhi”. The G-7 countries also expressed their deep concern over shrinking space of public debate, free press and pluralistic media and India’s multicultural ethos in the recent past. Undoubtedly it is the toughest time for media rights and civil liberties in India. At this point it is worthwhile to mention that a great responsibility devolves on us to be true and uphold the flag of civil liberties and media freedom. The government is keep telling to the global players of human rights that we have acted as per law and within constitutional framework but in a digital world everything is crystal clear if scrutinized the matter deeply. At the end, we shouldn’t forget the fact that supreme court is not only final interpreter of the Constitution but also custodian of fundamental rights and civil liberties. The supreme court has constitutional obligation to defend the Constitution and the rights of the people if the space for media freedom and civil liberties continues to be reduced.

* (Author: Narender Nagarwal teaches at Faculty of Law, University of Delhi)

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