Attacking freedom of press is dangerous

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ndtv protestSpeaking at a gathering of journalists, including a galaxy of senior members like Arun Shourie, Shekhar Gupta, H K Dua, Kuldip Nayyar and Om Thanvi at the Press Club of India in the wake of attacks on NDTV promoters, the well-known lawyer Fali Nariman said the manner and circumstances of the raids give him reasons to believe that it was “definitely an unjustified attack on press and media freedom”.

He, like the other eminent speaker at the meeting, made it amply clear that no one was asking for any immunity to any journalist or media house against criminal investigation and prosecution. However, the background and the action initiated by the CBI left little scope of any doubt that the media house was singled out deliberately and the aim of the raids was to send ominous signals to other media organisations.

A little background of circumstances leading to the sudden raids at the premises of Pranoy Roy and his wife Radhika Roy is in order. The Modi government, which has successfully brought large sections of media under its influence, is known to have been unhappy with the NDTV for its coverage of Kashmir and other issues.

Two days before the raids were conducted by the CBI, known to be a “caged parrot” of the government of the day, an NDTV anchor had humiliated and asked a BJP spokesman Sambit Patra to leave the show. It happened after Patra, participating in a discussion anchored by Nidhi Rajdan, remarked that the TV channel had an ‘agenda’. She asked him to withdraw the comment and he steadfastly refused to do so. The discussion turned into a war of words between the two. Ultimately Nidhi asked him to leave the studio and to never come back on the show. Patra said he would not leave and shall continue to ‘expose’ the channel. His voice and visual was subsequently taken off the telecast.

Most observers had expected some kind of retaliation by the government which brooks little tolerance for criticism but few expected a CBI raid at the premises of NDTV promoters Pronoy and Radhika Roy.

Two aspects of the raid stand out and establish that there was more to the raids than merely CBI conducting its professional duties.

Firstly, the CBI ‘sleuths’ conducted the raids on the basis of a complaint lodged by an individual who claimed to be a shareholder of the NDTV and the ICICI Bank. He had alleged in his complaint that the Roys had ‘defrauded’ the bank back in 2008-2009. He had alleged that the bank was put to a loss of 42 crore. It is important to note that the bank itself was not the complaintant even though some of its officers had allegedly ‘colluded’ with the NDTV promoters. It is also significant that the complaint was lodged after eight years of the alleged fraud.

The complainant, who appears to be a disgruntled individual, had been frequently lodging complaints against the Roys. To his credit he had been marking a copy of all his complaints to the Roys. However it was not done in this particular case.

Secondly, CBI does not take up investigations into cases where public exchequer is not involved. ICICI is a private bank and not even the complainant. Though the CBI has taken the plea that a Supreme Court order in the past had mandated that the CBI can take cognisance of complaints involving private banks, it had so far not done it. Thus it went out of the way to take cognisance of the complaint and then raid the premises. What’s more, it did not bother to take the version of the Roys even during any preliminary investigations and went for the raids solely on the basis of a complaint of an individuals. It did not have even the fig leaf of conducting an ‘investigation’ and depended solely on the complaint of a disgruntled former associate of NDTV.

It is, therefore, obvious as daylight that the CBI, true to its reputation, allowed itself to be used for intimidating NDTV, and in turn, the entire media, that it can get after it. The government chose to strike at one of the ‘weakest’ media organisations which does not enjoy the support of any major industrialist or top politician. As things stand today, a majority of media organisations particularly those in the field of electronic media, have succumbed to government pressure or are under its control through industrialists or politicians. NDTV has no such godfather.
In fact NDTV was also attacked last year when an Inter Ministry Committee (IMC) had ordered that the channel would be shut down for a day because of its reportage during the Pathankot airbase attack early last year. NDTV had not shown anything extra than what the other channels were showing. Yet it was picked up for punishment. It was only after much protest from the media and a stay from the Supreme Court that the decision was kept in abeyance.

Thus there is little doubt that even in the present case, the BJP led NDA government had gone out of its way to teach a ‘lesson’ to the NDTV, and in turn, to the media in general.

The raids on NDTV and the government’s attitude towards the media is part of a pattern. No government likes the media which is seen a stumbling block or a critic of the government. The Modi government, has however, gone much beyond than just disliking it. He was known to be keeping ‘unfriendly’ media at bay even in Gujarat.

Yet he must have created a record for steadfastly refusing to present himself for a press conference. I don’t think any other prime minister in the past would have not addressed a press conference. He has been, of course, giving interviews to select mediapersons. Obviously this must have been done as a ‘favour’ and an understanding that they would not ask uncomfortable questions. Besides, he has also stopped the practice of mediapersons accompanying the prime minister on his visits abroad.

Consequently all his conversations have been one sided — whether while addressing public meetings or through his “maan ki baat”. He has even avoided answering questions in Parliament.

All this is not happy augury for the media as well as democracy. Senior and independent media professionals, including respected former editors, are genuinely worried. Not since the time of Emergency or during the time when former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi sought to bring a Bill to restrict media, that the journalists have got together to voice their concerns.

The government has so far not come out with any statement on the issue and has not sought to reassure journalists that it believes in the freedom of press. This is really disconcerting. It appears that the government is not bothered. On the other hand a mass campaign has been launched on the social media to denigrate the media. Most of the times, the Modi ‘bhakts’ turn abusive and call all those opposed to the government thinking as “anti-nationals”.

The media plays an important role in democracy. There may be blacksheep in media just as these are in all spheres of life but to paint everyone black and to try to hunt down anyone critical of government, has dangerous portents. As Voltaire, although it is disputed if he was the real author of the quote, said it: “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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