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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

An impunity that can be countered

Thursday, 14 September 2017 11:49
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AS Panneerselvan


There are 2 types of impunity that undermine press freedom. The first kind is obvious: the physical and verbal attacks, maiming, and killing of journalists. In the wake of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh's murder, the focus is rightly on this visible form of impunity enjoyed by anti-social elements who unleash fear among journalists. One wonders whether anyone in the Government read the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report of 2016, "Dangerous pursuit: In India, journalists who cover corruption may pay with their lives."

The report said: "In the 27 cases of journalists murdered for their work in India since CPJ began keeping records in 1992, there have been no convictions. More than half of those killed reported regularly on corruption. The cases of Jagendra Singh, Umesh Rajput, and Akshay Singh, who died between 2011 and 2015, show how small-town journalists face greater risk in their reporting than those from larger outlets, and how India's culture of impunity is leaving the country's press vulnerable to threats and attacks."

The second kind of impunity appears to be below the journalistic radar. Diana Athill, the wise Editor who will turn hundred this December, says there is a peculiarly middle-class technique of dealing with awkward facts: "If something is disagreeable let's pretend it isn't there." This column tries to understand why some reports are wrong, what are the internal and the external factors responsible, and what can be done to redress the matter and effect a course correction. The reporting in the run-up to the recent Cabinet reshuffle is an example.

Reporting on the Cabinet reshuffle

While the entire news media, irrespective of platform, failed to get the facts right, I am going to only examine the reports carried by this newspaper. The report, "Union Cabinet rejig being worked out" (Sept. 1, 2017), was a front-page story. It talked about the possibility of Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti resigning. It also indicated the possibility of Janata Dal (United) MPs RCP Singh and Santosh Kumar joining the Government. The next day, the lead story titled "At least 6 Ministers put in papers to facilitate rejig" said quoting sources that almost all the resignations have been sought on the basis of assessment of performance, "especially the Skill India and Namami Gange initiatives, both close to Prime Minister Modi's heart". The report mentioned that States such as Himachal Pradesh, which is going to polls this year, may find representation, and that Health Minister JP Nadda's portfolio may change and he may be asked to look at party affairs in the State. The report included the possibility of 2 berths to the Shiv Sena (1 Cabinet rank and 1 Minister of State) and the inclusion of Conrad Sangma, National People's Party leader from Meghalaya. On September 3, the day of swearing-in, both the headline ("Former officials, ex-diplomat likely to join Modi Cabinet") and the strapline ("9 new Ministers to ensure delivery ahead of Assembly, LS polls; allies ignored") finally got the composition of the new Ministers right. Then came the troubling part, the editorialised headline: "In Cabinet rejig, PM Modi rewards performance" (September 5, 2017).

How did the media get its information wrong? If it were one newspaper or one TV channel, we could blame the reporter for seeking information from ill-informed sources. On the other hand, it looks like there was deliberate misleading of the media. That is the only plausible explanation for this mass failure. We need to look at the data to understand the size of the Indian media. According to the Registrar of Newspapers for India, the number of newspapers and periodicals registered till March 2015 was 1,05,443. The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting's corresponding figure for television channels is 832. Herein lies the below-the-radar impunity.

Earlier, the task of misleading was outsourced to spin doctors. Now leaders themselves tend to consciously mislead. While it is nearly impossible to avoid granting anonymity to sources in journalism, journalists should name the source if the information is false. This would restore the balance between journalists and politicians, and improve the quality of information flow. (Courtesy: The Hindu)


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