Monday, March 20, 2023
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Don’t deny journalists the right to report with dignity, least of all for liberalism

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Jignesh Mevani is new to this. With stature, he will grow a thicker skin and learn that denial of access to a journalist at an open event can’t be justified.

There have been three recent incidents of professional, full-time journalists being humiliated and harassed at or thrown out of public events.

It isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. The first one I remember, and in which I might have featured indirectly (as cause, not victim) was when the late Indira Gandhi refused to answer a question from an India Today reporter saying she didn’t answer questions from journalists of anti-national publications.

She repeated that at another media event soon after. Her anger was first over the fact that the magazine published pictures of the dead and bleeding victims of the Nellie massacre (in Assam), while the Non-Aligned Movement summit and her hug-fest with Fidel Castro was on in New Delhi.

The Indian Express, for which I covered the Northeast and broke the Nellie massacre story, had refused to carry those pictures—B.G. Verghese, then editor, put his foot down, saying the victims looked obviously Muslim and would create “implications”. But that is another story.

The second story that got Indira Gandhi furious carried my byline. A February 1984 multi-page investigation, with pictures, exposing Sri Lankan Tamil rebels’ (mostly LTTE) training camps being run by our agencies in our Tamil Nadu.

The first, generally, brought us support from the rest of the media. The second brought much outrage. The establishment MEA press was furious that somebody had “leaked” such an important covert element of Indian policy. Yet, only one paper actually attacked us publicly.

It was Blitz owner R.K. Karanjia’s (now defunct) The Daily. In a front-page story headlined “It isn’t India Today, it’s Lanka Today”, it said that the story was a plant from the Sri Lankan deputy high commissioner in Colombo, who had brought me a bottle of whiskey.

I was young, furious, and wanted us to sue. My editor, Aroon Purie, said: “Karanjia loves court notices. Just send him a funny letter.”

So, I wrote to him, something like, ‘I have seen your story with great interest, including the insinuations it makes. Let me just suggest that you raise the value of the bribe you said was given to me. Because if reporters of India Today can be bought with a bottle of Scotch, yours won’t fetch more than a glass of moonshine’.

The matter rested there. I saw Karanjia a few times subsequently, and he reminded me my note was funny—though he never published it. The reporter who wrote The Daily story became a happy acquaintance over time. We also published him a few times in the publication I edited later.

Now, if this were to happen today, heavens would fall. The channels I call Commando Comic channels in preference to Arun Shourie’s description ,‘North Korean channels’, would have launched a prime-time jihad. Anti-national, anti-Modi Lutyens liberals selling out the country, calling for audit of their accounts, assets, to check if the reporter was caught lighting mombattis at Wagah (me, not guilty of that to be sure). A few angry veterans would have demanded capital punishment for this high treason, and maybe some (genuine) Tamil victims of Lankan atrocities would have been paraded.

This isn’t fictional. I have seen similar scenes play out under the watch of the same warriors six years ago when we broke that story on the unexplained Army movements in January 2012 that spooked the Manmohan Singh government into calling an informal, late-night Cabinet Committee on Security.

Or more recently, an even more comical outrage asking what was I doing at a big, turning-point press conference by the four judges? Comical, because it is a little late for me to be re-educated into believing that the one place journalists are not supposed to be is at important press conferences. Or, that a journalist being in the right place at the right time isn’t reporter’s luck, but a vile conspiracy.

Do I bother, therefore, if journalists from the same channels, serving the same warrior anchors, are now humiliated, harassed and expelled from media events? Should I bother, or even give a damn? Shouldn’t I just sit back with a smile, applaud and say, enjoy what you do to others. Hoist with your own petard. Mazaa aaya na bachchu!

I’m afraid I do bother. I also weigh in on their side, unequivocally. I’m also deeply disappointed that much celebration of this humiliation of these TV reporters is coming from prominent—some even eminent—names from what is acknowledged to be the liberal intelligentsia. No censorship, no denial of access to a public event, no public humiliation of anybody passes any test of liberalism.

For heaven’s sake, in our hallowed, real Republic , the courts have even barred the handcuffing of convicts of heinous crimes and terror. We celebrate that respect for human dignity as great liberalism, and then hail the public shaming of journalists as a brave liberal response because they are doing lousy journalism.

It doesn’t work. We know there is no law against hypocrisy. But nobody has any business to stop any journalist, of whatever view, working for an organisation with whatever agenda, from doing his or her work. You can refuse to answer questions, not invite them to “invitations-only” events. But you can’t do the equivalent of putting dunce caps on their heads and parading them as thugs representing India’s Breitbarts, or may be worse. No Cultural Revolution has broken out here.

Because if you do it today, then others would do it to the ones they don’t like. And there will be many more of us as victims, and those attacking us will be enormously more numerous than a few scores who might come to back us at press clubs and such other safer places.

The principle that all journalists have the right to work with safety and dignity must have no exceptions. It should be always observed, irrespective of affiliations or quality of journalism. Chennai journalists who spoke up for the reporter being turned out by Jignesh Mevani struck a virtuous blow for this principle. They deserve our professional gratitude.

Mevani is new to this. As he grows in stature and experience, he will also grow a thicker skin and course-correct. Elsewhere, and especially at the press clubs, other journalists must ensure this principle is never allowed to be violated, least of all by non-journalists who come in as guests.

Once again: in a true liberal system, Left, Right and Centre, New York Times and Breitbart, all have the right to the same freedoms. In fact, if Breitbart wasn’t there, what would make NYTWashington PostCNN and now Politico, look so much better?

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  1. //Chennai journalists who spoke up for the reporter being turned out by Jignesh Mevani struck a virtuous blow for this principle. They deserve our professional gratitude.// Simple… Mevani told reporters that he do not want to speak with republic tv reporter then all the journalist walked out .. that’s all. As like journalists, the guest also has right to choose to whom he want to talk..
    If the Chennai journalists has professional gratitude, they should have walkedout during with H.Raja interview at Thanjavur, where H.Raja shouted a particular journalists as anti nationalist.. but the media still covered his interview without any gratitude …

  2. Hey, I like Republic and Times now. And I feel insulted when u call them North Korean.
    But then media opposite to them is aunty national, Pakistani .
    So I fell less insulted.

  3. If the Prime Minister can get away with not holding any press conference in almost 4 years and not giving any interviews to the press, whilst airing his and the thoughts of the government of the day through select media channels, then what is wrong in Mr. Mevani refusing to speak to such channels? Such channels do not enjoy any legitimacy but are propped up by their bosses. They are known to air select sound bytes so why Mr. Mevani should allow them such access? Its his press conference after all.

  4. One agrees entirely with the central idea of this column, but it may be time for these two channels to ponder what they are doing to lower the esteem in which the media is still held. People who deal professionally with Kashmir have reported how much damage these channels are causing not just to the Kashmiri people but also to India’s national interest. My Gandhian response is to have stopped watching these channels completely.

  5. R K Karanjia was a great fan of the Shah of Iran. Not moonshine, he must have been sent quite a few barrels of oil.

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