Govt, media and Arnab

Poornima Joshi January 30 | Updated on January 31, 2020

Many reporters risk being made an example of, for asking even the most routine questions. File Photo   -  R V Moorthy

When detention and assault of journalists is the norm, the touching concern of a Minister over a TV star’s heckling is a story in itself

A stand-up comic made a TV star uncomfortable over what he has been passing off as journalism, and the whole world came crashing down, at least for Kunal Kamra, the comic. Kamra has been banned by four airlines after Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri’s prompt characterisation of his heckling of TV celebrity Arnab Goswami on board an IndiGo flight as “offensive behaviour designed to provoke and create disturbance”.

Just so that he was clear, the Minister also issued an advisory for other airlines to impose “similar restrictions” on Kamra. Neither the Minister nor any of the airlines waited even for the customary report from the pilot-in-command of the relevant aircraft before coming to the TV star’s rescue. The pilot who flew the aircraft where the incident took place, in the meantime, has clarified that Kamra’s behaviour did not qualify to be in the “Level 1 category” which, even when decided upon by a committee, invites a no-fly ban of three, not six, months.

Such touching concern by a Union Minister over a journalist’s welfare is rare given the ideal, adversarial nature of journalism. And one wouldn’t qualify to be a journalist if the immediate context is not explained for the incident to be understood in its entirety.

There is a world of difference between the chosen few, such as the TV Star whom the Minister and the airlines are busy cosseting, and the rest who are merely trying to do a job. The establishment’s gentle concern can be traced to the stark misrepresentation of the 17-year-old shooter at the students in Jamia Millia Islamia as a “Jamia protester” by the Republic TV. At the same time, journalists trying to merely report facts from the spot are routinely dragged out, pushed, detained and even beaten by the police.

On January 30, while star anchors were busy spinning the story about a shooter in Jamia Millia Islamia, three reporters on the spot – Shivesh Garg, Rajesh Kumar and Parthiv – were forcibly detained by the police in a stadium near Hari Nagar. These journalists showed the accreditation cards from the Press Information Bureau (PIB) to the police to explain that they had only come to Jamia to report but they were still roundly abused and kept in detention for hours.

Such treatment of journalists is part of a pattern under the ruling BJP. According to a list compiled by the Committee Against Assault on Journalists, a collective independent media and civil society groups to defend press freedom, as many as 14 journalists were gravely assaulted with just ten days between December 11-December 21 while covering anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests.

On December 15, a policeman assaulted Bushra Sheikh of the BBC when she was covering a students’ protest in South Delhi. Her hair was pulled, she was abused and hit with a baton by the police. In a statement, the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) noted that this has “now become a pattern to attack journalists, particularly women journalists, to intimidate them”.

According to Azan Javaid of the news portal The Print, his phone was snatched and he was hit as well as abused by the police in Srinagar on September 17 when he and some other reporters were trying to cover a protest. “This was when the policemen on duty started hitting me. It was only after the intervention of some other journalists that I was let go. At some distance, I saw another colleague being thrashed by Khan,” said Javaid in his first-person account published in the news portal.

On December 20, Omar Rashid, The Hindu correspondent in Lucknow was detained and abused by the police. Another journalist, Pawan Jaiswal and his source for the news report Rajkumar Pal, were slapped with an FIR in September last year, for criminal conspiracy (120 B CrPC), obstructing a public servant in discharging duty (186 IPC), cheating (420 IPC) against him for his report on a school in Mirzapur (Uttar Pradesh) that was serving only roti-namak (bread and salt) to children as their mid-day meal. He was accused of “maligning the image of the state government”.

After prolonged protests by local journalists and intervention by the Press Council of India, Jaiswal’s name has been withdrawn from the police report. “But my source Rajkumar Pal’s name is still there as the main accused. No one has denied the report that I filed. There is video evidence of it. But there is still an FIR and I don’t know when I will be targeted too,” Jaiswal told BusinessLine over the phone from Lucknow.

This is the reality journalists live with on an everyday basis. Reporters, especially those covering the BJP beat, risk being made an example of, for asking even the most routine questions. The moral of the story under the circumstances is – if someone in power is overly concerned about a journalist’s welfare, it is time to examine his/her journalistic credentials.

Published on January 31, 2020

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