Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor-in-chief of The Wire, recently shared an article from the online news outlet on his Twitter:
— Siddharth (@svaradarajan) April 26, 2020
The article argues that vociferous demands across certain sections of society—that there be minimum constitutionally mandated educational qualifications for a citizen to vote—are misguided and obtuse. It contends that those who make such arguments speak from a position of privilege and posits that a conglomerate of policy-making elites is less likely to cure a democracy of its ills and more likely to accentuate them.
Although it is arguable whether tweeting an article is necessarily endorsing it, anyone who knows anything of Varadarajan’s body of work would like to believe that he agrees with the content of the article. This is significant because he has recently had a frivolous FIR filed against him by the UP Police. If one takes Varadarajan’s case into account, one realizes that legit news media and journalists enjoy no especial respect in India.
What was Varadarajan’s alleged crime? Misattributing a quote to the Chief Minister of UP for which a corrigendum was duly issued. His crime was also correctly reporting that Adityanath had attended a Hindu religious event on March 25 despite there being a national lockdown in place. For this, he was accused of crimes like “spreading panic”, “spreading ill-will among classes”, etc.
The real problem here is not the purported seriousness of a regulation journalistic error, but the politics of the ruling class. Varadarajan’s journalism has, over the decades, focused on issues like equitable redistribution of resources and greater empowerment of the marginalized, typically concerns of the political Left. He has also been one of the few journalists who have not been mealy-mouthed about the violence and terrorism practised by the Hindu far-right in India.
While abuse of colonial-era laws by those in power is nothing new in our country, Hindutva forces have, since the ruling party’s coming to power, practised that art with a kind of unimaginable brazenness. All the charges against Varadarajan and The Wire would, indeed, be risible if their implications were not so terrifying for those of us who still want to live in a democracy.
L’affaire Varadarajan could, in fact, be seen as a case in point for Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2020 report on World Press Freedom for India, where our ranking has plummeted further to 142 in 2020, from an already abysmal 140 last year. It reads:
Ever since the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line has increased.
In January, right after the violence that was unleashed on hapless, unarmed JNU students by Hindutva thugs, Varadarajan wrote an article (perhaps a little overwrought, nevertheless not mincing words), where he also blasted a complicit media for its role in normalizing the continued violence against students and intellectuals in India:
“At the political level, the BJP and the Central government—with the collusion of the Delhi police and pliable media—launched an attack on the students. The first targets in 2016 were student activists framed on false charges like sedition. This is when the idiotic phrase ‘tukde tukde gang’ was introduced and its use industrialised across the right-wing corporate media. Next, the ambit was widened to tarnish the whole of the JNU student population as anti-national freeloaders.
And then came the full-fledged assault on the right of poor students to even come to JNU: by announcing a hike in hostel fees a few months ago. Cutting across political lines, JNU’s students resisted the fee hike. But presumably because of pressure from the RSS and BJP, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) detached itself from the movement and started taking the side of the administration.”
The RSF report further says, “Criminal prosecutions are meanwhile often used to gag journalists critical of the authorities, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment.” Well, it seems that the combined imagination of the UP government and the UP Police couldn’t pull the rabbit of a sedition charge against Varadarajan out of their hats.
Journalists who live in India have decidedly had much worse to deal with. As the RSF report says, unlike in 2018, a year when six journalists were killed in India, 2019 saw no murder of journalists. Yet that’s probably because journalists in India were simply luckier last year. Violence against journalists has only been ratcheted up ever since Hindutva forces registered a landslide win at the general election last year.
Indeed, anyone who has dared to speak aloud the truth has had to be fearful of being attacked or killed in the cesspool of Hindutva hate politics that Indian democracy has now been downgraded to. If not that, then there is the constant terror of the state harassing you through the abuse of or through the enactment of abusive laws like the current species of the UAPA.
The worst abuse of this violent law—meant to slap any number of Hindutva’s opponents with the ridiculous and stigmatizing label of a “terrorist”—can be seen in Kashmir, a region that has seen the most hideous forms of deliberate cruelty against Kashmiri Muslims by the state over the last nine months or so. The government has locked the media out of the valley, disabled internet connections there and severely restricted any kind of communication there. Reporting from the ground there has suffered as a result, allowing the government to present its mendacious stand that “everything is normal” in Kashmir. And journalists haven’t been spared, either.
In a country where politicians openly exhort their rabid followers to “shoot the traitors” in the heart of the national capital in an election season without so much as being struck with a ban by the Election Commission, let alone being booked by the Delhi police. The J&K police has had the gall to book respected Kashmiri journalist and author Gowhar Geelani for allegedly indulging in unlawful activities through social media posts. Here is Geelani’s Twitter page. His pinned tweet is from Aug 29, 2019, and it reads: “Kashmir is so ‘normal’ that markets, schools, colleges and universities haven’t opened since Aug 5. Major communication lines including mobile phones, Internet continue to remain shut and suspended since. Hundreds held in jails in and outside Kashmir. Media gagged. All is well.”
I have scrolled down for nearly half-an-hour, looking for anything that even remotely resembles inciting violence, and I have come up with nothing. I doubt I would find anything if I scrolled down further. It would take quite a warped imagination, or perhaps the lack of any, to accuse such a distinctly peaceful individual of terrorism. Two other Kashmiri journalists, young photojournalist Masrat Zahra and experienced journalist Peerzada Ashiq, have either been booked under the UAPA, or harassed by the police for faithfully reporting the truth on the state’s abuses (and perhaps also for being Muslim) in a Kashmir that has been under siege since last August.
As referred to in the Varadarajan article shared earlier, the near-total leaning of the news media, especially broadcast media, to right-wing interests is a matter of enormous concern to a vulnerable democracy like India’s. A culture has assiduously been built over the last few years, where Hindu far-right talking points are regurgitated on prime-time television, masquerading as “news” and “expert opinion”.
An integral part of this media malaise has been the deliberate and systematic demonization of Muslims, which has reached shouty fever-pitch ever since Hindutva’s box office hit at the polls last year. Those who have been trying to tell true stories of real violence against Muslims on the ground have had a very tough time. Journalists documenting the anti-Muslim “riots” in Delhi, right after AAP’s win at the state polls, were harassed, threatened, humiliated and attacked.
On the other hand, far-right media has constantly portrayed any protest against Hindutva-inflicted injustice upon Muslims as “anti-national” or some similar claptrap. The decidedly peaceful protests against the discriminatory CAA at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi were subjected relentlessly to such attacks by the right-wing media, some of them calling the Shaheen Bagh women “Islamic fundamentalists”.
In Kashmir, specifically, most media concerns have simply chosen to faithfully transmit the government’s lies to citizens. No questions have been asked, no accountability demanded—the very things the press is there to do. Any truth we know of the state’s abuses in Kashmir are because of extreme individual courage shown by a handful of independent or investigative journalists.
The increasingly confident Islamophobic bent of the far-right prime-time propaganda machine, on legacy media as well as on digital media, is something that has become alarmingly evident during the ongoing pandemic. Even though the Tablighi Jamaat was one of many gatherings, religious or otherwise, where COVID-19 positive people gathered and spread the infection, media houses were fixated, irrespective of their political bent, on this particular one, thereby letting the false and malicious idea that Muslims are deliberate vectors of the virus sound plausible.
Quite conveniently, the ICMR was let off the hook despite steadfastly refusing to carry out comprehensive community testing, claiming that there was “no community spread”, and the absence of solid data allowed the government to make the rather dubious claim that 30% of India’s positive cases came from the Jamaat, something that was reported rather uncritically by the media. This is probably why the critical reporting of Yogi’s lockdown misadventure made some people get their knickers in a twist. Rules are never the same, and when the same, never played by. No wonder then, that it is so easy to fling mud at Kashmiri Muslim journalists who report fearlessly on the abuses of state power in the valley.
Ever since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems thatthe government has found excuses to clamp down on freedom of information exchange. It’s worked like a dream for the authoritarians. Caravan has reported that “six hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week nationwide lockdown, on 24 March, he personally asked over twenty owners and editors from the mainstream print media to publish positive stories about the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Also, highlighting how fearful the media houses have become of violence from the fascist machinery now in government, “[almost] all of them appeared enamoured by what some described as an important “gesture” from Modi, of considering their opinions.” Even further, asked whether their interaction with Modi would affect their editorial judgement regarding publication of pieces critical of the government’s policy failures during the pandemic,”two of them explicitly said they would publish a critical piece despite the interaction, while three said they would not do so but for different reasons, not due to the interaction. One of them asked … to omit references to such question while referring to our conversation in this report. Others refused to comment at all.”
A former MP from the Biju Janata Dal, T. Satpathy, who quit active politics last year to focus on journalism and now edits Orissa Post, was also at the pre-lockdown video conference with Modi. He said that Modi wanted the editors to use the “credibility” of the print media to stop the spread of fake news around COVID-19 and publish only “the truth.” When asked what he would do if the truth involved writing a critical piece on the government’s health policy—for instance, about its failure to stockpile personal protective equipment—Satpathy answered, “Nobody asked that” to the prime minister.
He added, “Nobody has the spunk to do it. Let’s be honest.” As can be seen, the current government is using the fascist version of “soft power” to preemptively silence major print and broadcast media houses on serious issues like failure to stockpile PPE for public health workers, failure to detect positive incoming cases at airports and a total lack of commitment to community testing. And that’s why the galloping inflation in positive cases despite data suppression is made to seem to most of us unsuspecting citizens as inevitable.
On 31st March, the government tried to get the blessings of the Supreme Court on its intent to pre-censor COVID-19 coverage. We are being taken right back to the colonial era. The Health Ministry now takes questions only from state media Doordarshan and Asian News International, both of which are committed to showing the government in a positive light. Any critical reporting is characterized as “fake news”.
If this is the effect of “soft power”, then imagine what the effect of “hard power”could be. Brazen calls for violence against journalists who dare to write pieces critical of the government’s failures in handling the pandemic is on view in the public and social media spaces. It has been even worse for women journalists, not least because fascism employs the worst misogynistic instincts of people who support it. Vidya Krishnan, for instance, who recently published a critical piece on The Atlantic discussing the government’s various failures, has faced calls to rape or kill her from people who are supporters of the ruling party.
All of this is a nod to the headline of the Press Freedom report of the RSF on India for 2020, “Modi tightens his grip on the media“. None of this is to suggest that these things are new in India, but only to point out that despite there being no murder of journalists, journalists who dare to their job are basically working unprotected and insecure, with little more than exceptional personal courage to motivate them.
And working and even living in this constant state of fear, as journalist and Ph.D. in anthropology Sarah Kendzior discusses in a podcast, weakens bonds among those who are committed to fight injustice or even to report the truth. The whole idea of fascism is to break the sense of community among people by engendering divisions and by introducing existential anxieties, so that fear preempts critical thinking and most people willingly give up power to authoritarian forces.
This template of state-sponsored harassment and violence is being adopted by the ruling party’s political cronies elsewhere. Journalists who are doing their jobs, naturally, are also being victimized. A journalist in Tamil Nadu, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, has been arrested and charged with violating the Epidemic Diseases Act and “inciting public mischief”, because he reported corruption by state agencies over distribution of essentials during lockdown. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called for his immediate release. There is little hope that any heed will be paid to the demand.
Since COVID-19 has gone global, we know how governments across the world have responded to the crisis. And it seems that many, if not most, governments have used one excuse or the other to stifle free flow of information. As The Economist reports:
False information about the disease can be dangerous. Many regimes are using this truism as an excuse to ban “fake news”, by which they often mean honest criticism. Peddlers of “falsehood” in Zimbabwe now face 20 years in prison. The head of a covid-19 committee under Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan warlord, says: “We consider anyone who criticises to be a traitor.” Jordan, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates have banned print newspapers, claiming that they might transmit the virus.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who, you might remember, was India’s guest on its Republic Day this year, has flat out denied that the COVID-19 is a public health crisis. This kind of dangerous callousness has led to the ballooning of infections and deaths in Brazil. And he is still defiant about it all. As he asks, indeed, “so what?” Why pretend to care about boring issues like public health when ‘the people’ will give a fascist demagogue all the power he can corner for himself?
In India, of course, the pretense has been possible due to a careful cultivation of a sanitized image of the Prime Minister, who has always avoided press conferences and giving interviews to journalists sceptical of his assumed goodwill and statesmanship. It’s lethal all the same, not just for the people, and according to the RSF report, not literally for journalists this year, but for public accountability, and consequently for democracy itself.
As the aforementioned piece in The Economist suggests, “Judging by what has already been reported, power grabbers on every continent are exploiting COVID-19 to entrench themselves. But with journalists and human-rights activists unable to venture out, nobody knows whether the unreported abuses are worse. How many dissidents have been jailed for “violating quarantine rules”? Of the vast sums being mobilised to tackle the pandemic, how much has been stolen by strongmen and their flunkeys? A recent World Bank study found that big inflows of aid to poor countries coincided with big outflows to offshore havens with secretive shell companies and banks—and that was before autocrats started grabbing COVID-related emergency powers. Better checks are needed.”
As we head to World Press Freedom Day on 3 May this year, it might be important to take stock of the precarious situation we are in: a crumbling fourth pillar of democracy under the weight of ever-growing violent fascism, as well as a rapid unravelling of the culture of transparency and accountability that had been built painstakingly over generations of struggle and sacrifice, a situation only made further worse by a global pandemic that hurts the body politic more than the demagogues who seek to seize the power it has given itself, while endangering it in every possible way. And the most zealous among us are becoming cheerleaders for our own destruction, taking the demagogues’ word at face value and bending to meet their wishes in vilifying the media. At a time when the fourth pillar of democracy needs its foundation the most, and vice versa, we are abandoning each other.