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13 June, 2017

A chilling message to media

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “a day to reiterate our unwavering support towards a free and vibrant press.” The weeks that followed revealed the wide gulf between this pious wish and his administration’s practice.

A few days before that tweet, the Central Bureau of Investigation had received a complaint alleging fraud in a transaction between NDTV, a leading media organisation, and the ICICI Bank, both private companies. The complainant, Sanjay Dutt, was a shareholder of both the companies and had been pursuing allegations against the media company and its promoters, Prannoy Roy and his wife, Radhika, in various forums for four years with little success.

On June 2 the CBI registered an 88-page first information report on the basis of Dutt’s complaint and two days later it conducted searches at four places belonging to the Roys. It was not the first time that an investigating agency had acted against media owners but the attendant circumstances suggested that this one was intended to send a chilling message to the entire media.

NDTV is one of the earliest private news television companies and played a major role in bringing to national attention the enormity of the anti-Muslim riots that swept Gujarat in 2002 soon after Modi became the state chief minister. Just a few days ago, one of its anchors, Nidhi Razdan, had asked Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Sambit Patra to apologise or leave her show as he alleged the channel had an agenda.

Two central government agencies, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax department, had started looking into NDTV’s finances soon after Modi became the Prime Minister. They served notices on the Roys in connection with certain transactions, and they moved the courts with regard to some of them.

Last November the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered the group’s Hindi channel, NDTV India, to go off the air for a day for revealing sensitive information in its coverage of the attack on the Pathankot airbase in violation of the rules regarding reporting of terror incidents. Media organisations had protested against singling out the channel for action sparing others who, too, had shown similar visuals.

Last week, at a largely attended meeting of journalists in New Delhi to demonstrate solidarity with the Roys, eminent jurist Fali S Nariman pointed to infirmities in the CBI conduct. It had acted not on the basis of any crime-related discovery but on a lone private complaint. The criminal conspiracy and cheating alleged in the complaint had taken place during 2008-09 and it did not say why the matter was not brought to the agency’s attention earlier.

Instead of instituting a criminal inquiry and conducting raids, the CBI should have asked Dutt to file a complaint in a criminal court, Nariman said.

Veteran journalists who spoke at the meeting likened the current situation to what prevailed during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime and called upon the media fraternity to stand together to safeguard press freedom. Prannoy Roy asserted he and his wife had done no wrong, and the action against them was a signal to the media that the government could get them even if they had done nothing.

A majority of the media has been uncritical of the government and there is in the electronic media a group of fawning fans ready to fight Modi’s and his party’s battles as if they were their own. But Modi remains distrustful of the media and avoids press conferences.

The CBI’s uncalled-for action on a private complaint with regard to transactions involving private companies has once again turned the focus on the functioning of that agency.

Set up by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in 1963, the CBI established an early reputation as a competent investigative agency. That reputation now lies in ruins. After reviewing the way it handled a scandal of the United Progressive Alliance government, a Supreme Court judge had dubbed it a caged parrot repeating its master’s voice.

Ranjit Sinha who headed the CBI at that time said the court’s assessment was correct. The agency later appealed to the court to free it from governmental interference but nothing came of it.

The BJP, then in the opposition, had lambasted the UPA government using the judge’s remarks about the CBI. Last month leading lawyer and former Congress minister, Kapil Sibal said the CBI was now the long arm of the Modi government and it was holding out threats to people to secure favourable statements. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 13, 2017. 

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