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Home / Opinion / Climate for media not exactly balmy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become a serial newsmaker who keeps journalists busy, reporters and analysts alike. His energy is such a welcome change from the United Progressive Alliance’s nothing-is-happening stasis that even the soreness over not being taken on his trips abroad has worn off and the big news guys are all investing in despatching their reporters and crews to cover his US tour.

The hyperactivity is helping to mask the concomitants—a ruling party whose normally communicative politicians have lost their tongues, and a body of ministers who now only communicate at press conferences. And again, if you check out the Press Information Bureau’s news releases, each day’s big newsmaker is usually Modi.

Openness is being replaced with publicity, which isn’t really the same thing. With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) adeptness at communications technology, the publicity is becoming surreal. After Modi’s Teachers’ Day satellite TV outing, Piyush Goyal, minister for coal, power and renewable energy, showcased his first 100 days with an all-India video press conference that covered 13 cities and lasted for two-and-a-half hours. The ministries then faithfully collated the news clips and generated tweets. We are told that other ministries think this is such a great idea that they are following suit.

Managing the government’s outreach is one thing. Managing the demands of an increasingly assertive fellow traveller flock inside and outside the ruling party is less easily done, assuming someone even wants them managed. A BJP parliamentarian wants a whistleblower removed from the All India Institiute of Medical Sciences and the health minister obliges, even as he says he is doing the removing at the Central Vigilance Commission’s behest.

The National Book Trust removes a chapter on Medha Patkar from a children’s book after an Ahmedabad non-governmental organization (NGO), whose founder is also director of a Gujarat government project, writes to the human resource development minister Smriti Irani. His objection is that Patkar is now a political person.

At another level, a Hindu Janajagruti Samiti delegation demanded that television anchor Nikhil Chinapa should stop his “vulgar" reality show MTV Splitsvilla on MTV India and preserve Indian culture, a demand that Chinapa shrugged off when they met him.

At the level of state governments, the climate for the media isn’t exactly balmy. In Tamil Nadu, ruled by All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Sun TV last month found the licence for its cable network cancelled by the ministry for information and broadcasting on the grounds that the home ministry had not given it a security clearance for registration as a multi-system operator (MSO). Apparently, under the second regime of the previous government, the broadcasting ministry had given a permanent registration to KAL Cable Network for 10 years in lieu of a security clearance. Sun, of course, called it political vendetta, went to court and earlier this month the Madras high court quashed the cancellation.

Working journalists in chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s state found this month that the city police had decided to keep a tab on their reporting of crime by having senior police officers handle them, meaning liase with them on their reporting, with four senior officials tasked with managing 26 print reporters from 11 media houses in Chennai. The miffed journalists have sent a petition to the Press Council for what that is worth.

Meanwhile, the Goa Police is trying to control crime news in a different way. Journalists there said on Wednesday that the police had begun blocking crime data last week by denying them access to daily situation reports, which they have been getting for years. In the run-up to this development, there has been vocal and consistent criticism of the media by chief minister Manohar Parrikar, who takes a dim view of the tribe.

In Telangana, the saga of MSOs blocking two Andhra Pradesh-owned channels—TV9 and ABN—began in June and continues still. The new assembly had taken objection to the language used by them in describing the new legislators, and chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao this month amplified his objection to the larger media coverage of his state threatening to bury the media, which of course was enough to start a fresh controversy. This is becoming a landmark case of censorship by distributors, now in its third month.

It isn’t as if a similar litany of free speech woes could not be attributed to the period when the previous coalition was in power. I have recorded a similar catalogue of censorship and restrictions in this column before this dispensation assumed office. The difference seems to be that never before have journalists had quite the same sense of being on their own where their access to information and the protection of their freedom to function is concerned.

True, information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar made disapproving noises about the action of the MSOs in Telangana. But that was some time ago, and so far nothing has changed on the ground.

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

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