How sections of media are standing up for truth in India

On April 16 this year, the front page of the Dainik Bhaskar newspaper, the largest circulated daily in the country, carried a haunting image that would define India’s deadly second wave of COVID-19. It was a photograph of multiple burning pyres in the city of Bhopal.

On May 14, Dainik Bhaskar published another haunting photo, This one showed corpses floating in the river Ganga, and the headline said ‘Ganga is ashamed’. The story said some 2000 bodies could be found.

Throughout the pandemic’s second wave, the media group did some of the most hard hitting stories on the COVID-19 crisis, from lack of oxygen in hospitals to the under reporting of the dead. They had dispatched over 40 reporting teams across 12 states. One of their editors, Om Gaur, recently wrote an oped for The New York Times titled ‘The Ganges Is Returning the Dead. It Does Not Lie.’

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Then came the raids

In the United States, this kind of journalism would have won a Pulitzer Prize. But in India, it invited raids by the Income Tax (IT) department instead. On the July 22, IT officials raided over 30 locations of Dainik Bhaskar in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. The homes and offices of the group’s promoters were also raided.

A UP based news channel, Bharat Samachar, which was also critical in its coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, was also raided in Lucknow, while the home of its editor was searched. The central government said it had nothing to do with the raids and was not involved, but that has only evoked a long eye roll by those who have been watching the government’s strong armed tactics against independent media.

Dainik Bhaskar’s Editor Om Gaur told NDTV that the raids were an obvious attempt to suppress independent journalism, asserting “we won’t give in to pressure.”

This is now a familiar playbook adopted by the BJP government, not just against the media, but anyone critical of them. Agencies like the IT department, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the National Investigation Agency (NIA), have all become an extension of the BJP — used and deployed only against political opponents or against the section of the press which still tries to hold the government to account, as it should in a democracy.

Loss of credibility

These agencies have lost credibility over the last few years and raids no longer shock or surprise anyone. Authorities know that in India, it is the process that is the punishment, so tying up media houses or opposition leaders in years and years of litigation is good enough, even if most cases will actually lead them nowhere.

Prannoy Roy and NDTV were the first to face the brunt of the BJP government’s targeted campaign against independent media. NDTV has faced a number of frivolous cases over the years and two years ago, CBI raids on Prannoy and Radhika Roy lead to widespread outrage in large sections of the media which termed it a witch-hunt.

NDTV’s crime? The channel simply does its job fairly and asks tough questions. But for the BJP government, only the media which grovels before them is real “journalism”.

Apart from the attacks on big media houses, the BJP government has thrown sedition and even terror charges against journalists. Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan has been jail since October last year while on the way to UP’s Hathras village after the alleged gang rape and murder of a young girl. Kappan has had the stringent anti-terror law, the UAPA, thrown at him.

Hounding of free press

In Kashmir, journalists are regularly hounded and bullied by the local police, called in for hours of questioning if there is a story authorities do not like, while others face terror charges.

Meanwhile revelations in the Pegasus snooping scandal reveal that dozens of Indian journalists may have been under intrusive surveillance; some of them gave their phones for forensic examination and found spyware traces.

It therefore came as no surprise that the 2021 World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a French NGO, again placed India at the 142nd rank out of 180 countries.

In 2016, India’s rank was 133 which has steadily climbed down to 142 in 2020. The RSF report says India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly.

They are exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials. This poor ranking comes despite lobbying attempts by the BJP government for a year to improve India’s rankings on this index.

Much of India’s media has become a mouthpiece for the BJP government, an embarrassment to the profession and what it is meant to stand for-truth to power. But those that are fighting back against the state’s strong arm tactics give us hope that you can’t make everyone servile and ultimately democracy will prevail.

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