Vol. XLI No. 43 October 22, 2017

DUJ Holds Seminar on Democracy in Danger

IN a sharp counter to the BJP Sangh Parivar’s campaign, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the state has been targeted as it champions the values of secularism, socialism and democracy.  He was speaking at a function organised by the Delhi Union of Journalists in the national capital on ‘Democracy in danger: unethical reporting/ attacks on independent journalism and journalists’ on October 15, at Kerala House. The chief minister said slogans like ‘Love Jehad’ have been used to disrupt the state’s centuries old communal harmony but the RSS will not succeed in its game plan. He slammed several media houses for ferociously targeting Kerala and congratulated those journalists who are standing up for the truth despite pressure from employers.

He said Kerala is the first to raise the voice of dissent whenever there are anti-people moves such as demonetisation which he described as a disaster, an ill- conceived, immature move. Kerala and its people have also rejected the beef ban, he said, as it has an adverse effect on dairy farming and the meat and leather industries. He listed out Kerala’s many achievements in the fields of healthcare, education, nutrition, child survival, gender budgeting and other social indicators in which the state leads, far ahead of others. He also said the spread of fake news through social media was being ably countered by the Keralite diaspora.

Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of ‘The Wire’, said India is going through a very difficult period with freedom of expression under attack, in ways parallel to the Emergency. He regretted that a section of the media is hand in glove with the government in promoting the agenda of fomenting hatred. He said the big media has big corporate investments and the support of the government. He pointed out that the media’s job was becoming more difficult as the RTI instrumentalities had been weakened, information was being blocked and it took months and multiple appeals to secure information from government authorities through the RTI. He pointed out that different sections of the people were under attack, particularly minorities, academics and students. University campuses that are places for debate and discussion and the raising of questions are being targeted. He said the entire attempt was to stop people from asking inconvenient questions.

John Brittas, editor of Kairali TV, said he was amazed to find Kerala being portrayed in the media as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism when it is a liberal, tolerant state. He pointed out that 45 per cent of the state’s population comprises minorities and inter-religion and inter-caste love marriages are common. He said there are cases of conversions for marriage, citing personal examples of such conversions from different religions to Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. He said the media should not distort facts, e.g., a leading English daily had falsely claimed that there have been 90 cases of love jehad, whereas these were cases of conversion.

Seema Mustafa, editor of ‘The Citizen’, said today people are being defined by various identities. Vicious social media attacks and threats to women journalists like her are common, she said. She reflected on the changes in media over the years, saying that with private TV channels big money came into the media. In the corporatised media, the mass of journalists became contract workers whose insecure jobs force them to toe the line. She said the honesty, independence and spirit of irreverence that was the hallmark of journalists in the 1980s has been deliberately killed by successive governments. She recalled how the Congress government had nearly managed to shut down the Asian Age daily over the issue of the nuclear deal.  Today, she said, we have created monsters in the form of propaganda channels that spew hatred night after night. These do not deserve to be called news channels, she said. She regretted the rot within journalism, saying too many of us today are servile, embedded, selfie journalists. It is not the role of journalists to rub shoulders with the powerful and ride in their corporate planes, she said. We are people’s watchdogs, she said.

Veteran journalist Sukumar Muralidharan pointed out the dangers of increasing monopolies in the media. He observed that corporate media has entrenched itself through cross-media monopolies over print, television, advertising and online media. Government controls in this sphere have been lax and the big media has colonised the entire spectrum. While FDI in media was controlled, foreign investment in Indian advertising agencies was opened up during the period of liberalisation, he said, leading to corporate control over the media revenue stream. He said government reports on the issue of cross-media monopolies, such as the ASCI report and the TRAI report had been mothballed. He said public service broadcasting could be used to counter the viewpoint of corporate media, if governments are determined to do so, mentioning that the United Front government had made some attempts in this direction but the Congress government had been lukewarm on the issue.

Thomas Dominic, president of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists’ Delhi chapter, spoke of the recent attacks on journalists such as Gouri Lankesh in Karnataka and Shantanu Bhowmik in Tripura. He said such attacks reflect the intolerant mindset of those in power today.

Veteran journalist and activist John Dayal said that dying is an occupational hazard for reporters as they work in the field covering all kinds of occurrences. However, it is also important to speak of the large number of journalists who have been silenced in other ways. Reporters can be easily intimidated because they can be sacked, he said. He pointed out that the new media is not necessarily different from the old, because in many cases it is the same corporates who have invested in websites and online media. There is a nexus between new/old media and the government. The same opinions, the same kind of unwritten censorship is therefore likely in new media too. He also said that independent journalists with inconvenient opinions have been quietly blacklisted by public broadcast channels.

A short video film about attacks on the media, with particular focus on the plight of mofussil journalists was shown by Kondaiah and A Amaraiah from National Alliance of Journalists. He said that life was very difficult for stringers in the rural areas of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana where any reports on the doings of the land mafia are met with reprisals including severe beatings. Local politicians are often involved in such attacks. The video gave flashes of all India attacks on journalists, listed some of the murders and attacks.

K Manjari, secretary Andhra Pradesh Working Journalists Federation, spoke of the gender bias prevalent in media. She said that for many years there had been an unwritten ban on women reporters on the excuse that they would require transport at night and would also demand maternity leave. Women like her had to fight it out. However, their opportunities continue to be limited. She herself had joined as a senior reporter and after 29 years had retired as a senior reporter. Not a single promotion had come her way. She also commented on media bias in reporting on women’s issues, particularly the prejudices that surface in headlines and reportage on crimes against women. She said the reports on the Aarushi murder case carried unsubstantiated allegations and conclusions on the morality of a 13 year old girl. The media had been too quick to judge.

SomDutt Sharma, general secretary of the All India Lawyers Union observed that the right of the citizen to privacy, the right to question, the right to scrutinise and the right to dissent are the core of the Indian constitution. He regretted the lethargy of the justice delivery system in defending the rights of citizens. On the recent case of ‘The Wire’ being attacked for its expose on Jay Amit Shah’s financial dealings, he said it cannot be called defamatory at this stage when not even an inquiry has been done to establish the truth or otherwise of the report carried by the Wire. He also said it was incorrect for a minister to publicly defend a private individual like Shah.

Sujata Madhok, general secretary of the DUJ, reiterated the long-standing DUJ demand for an independent media council to replace the toothless Press Council of India and cover the entire media spectrum.

SK Pande, president of the DUJ announced the formation of a National Alliance of Journalists with journalists, trade unions from several states as members and others proposing to join. He stressed how the KUWJ and DUJ were a cementing force for over 12 years. He regretted that journalism which  was described by Marquez as one of the best professions in the world was now turning out to be the worst, most exploited and hazardous. The ethics is missing and in sections of TV it is 24X7 noise and muzzling dissenting voices. Scientific temper as suggested by the first Press Commission was dying in the media.

Resolutions on the death of a Hindustan Times employee recently, on non-implementation of the wage board award, on the contempt slapped on ‘The Wire’ were unanimously passed. The formation of a National Gender Equity Council of journos was announced.