A black day for media and democracy

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Practice | 16/02/2016
Sedition charges, BJP assaulters, attackers in lawyers’ robes, nationalist anchors—the media’s freedom was tested on Monday by all of these.

Video grab above shows Delhi Police Commissioner BS Bassi in the foreground


With barely a week to go for the budget session of Parliament, the brutal attacks on the media covering the ongoing JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) sedition case in the Patiala Courts on Monday, have dealt another body blow to our Constitutional guarantee of a free press.

While male journalists were slapped, threatened and beaten by men wearing lawyers coats, women journalists were roughed up, intimidated, cornered and their mobile phones taken away by alleged BJP (Bharatiya Janta Party) supporters. Even as this piece is being written, journalists in Delhi are out on the streets of the nation’s capital taking out a protest march to the Supreme Court. Two First Information Reports (FIRs) have been filed – one for the attacks on the journalists and JNU students and faculty by the lawyers and BJP supporters,  and  the other on the attack on a Communist Party (CPI) member by the BJP leader O P Sharma,  clearly spotted in the videos shot by different television channels at the courts.

In fast developing events on Tuesday, the journalists have gone in an appeal to Supreme Court to seek justice for the attacks on them in Patiala courts on Monday.

In a show of solidarity journalists from different channels and newspapers squatted on the lawns of the Supreme Court demanding justice for the attacks on them.  Barkha Dutt told Rahul Kanwal of  India Today in a special programme ,  “Journalists want to stress that their right to report is fundamental…It is about a principle..not the level of violence but who were responsible..the police did nothing and the lawyers led the charge. We want the right to report without intimidation and fear.”

Rajdeep Sardesai said: ' This is taking place in front of the Temple of Justice...we have come here to the Supreme Court to seek justice. What happened yesterday was a clear violation of freedom of speech...journalists have become soft targets..we have a pen or microphone ..not a sword ...we have no option but to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court and hope they take suo motto action against those who are guilty.' 

Twitter condemnation:

The first reactions and condemnations from senior journalists started pouring out on Twitter on Monday as soon as the shameful violence broke out in Patiala Court.

Hindustan Times (HT) tweeted – “HT reporter Rocky Soibam just thrown out of Patiala Court by a mob of lawyers.”

Barkha Dutt issued this unequivocal condemnation on the attacks on journalists and students in her tweet : “Absolutely sickening what is playing out at court..nationalism is being used as an excuse to spew venom, unleash hatred”.

Rajdeep Sardesai’s tweet condemned the shooting down of the messenger – “Why is the media being bashed up or, are our reporters, who track a story diligently also ‘anti-national’? Will someone say sorry!! Corrupt politicians give sermons as ‘desh bhakts’..the ‘real patriots’ are millions of Indians who do a hard day’s work.”

Shekhar Gupta drew an analogy from a famous Hindi film to describe the situation: ”Seriously how did the IPS manage to keep talent like Bassi  (Delhi’s Police Commissioner) hidden! There hasn’t been a more fun figure in Khaki since Asrani as jailor in “Sholay”!

Ayesha Kidwai, senior faculty from JNU tweeted : ”We have been pushed..sexually harassed but refused to move until the judge ordered it and the police escort came.”

Sagarika Ghose’s tweet mocked the sedition charge: “JNU faculty sexually harassed–shame! shame! shame! If shouting slogans for Afzal Guru is criminal offense, should the entire J&K assembly be jailed! What about the Tamil Nadu Assembly which protected Rajiv killers! Dear Mr Bassi, please jail entire J&K Assembly and entire TN Assembly! Sloganeering, heated exchanges in colleges by students is never sedition, violence and violent activities are punishable under the law.”

Reporters like NDTV’s Sonal Malhotra tweeted eye-witness accounts from Ground Zero: “BJP supporters brutally beat up four of our colleagues..I was there and they were attacked completely unprovoked.. when I tried to take a video of the beating on my phone, BJP supporters threatened to break my phone..we are now standing in a quiet corner”. Later at night, this young and competent woman journalist reported live on the horror they had encountered in that hour in the Patiala Court.

Then there were the bizarre developments on an alleged Hafeez Saeed Twitter handle which had claimed it had masterminded the JNU protests. This turned out to be a fake handle and an embarrassment one for the Home Minister who had originally flagged it saying the LeT ( Lashkar-e-Taiba) leader was backing the JNU students. Since then Hafeez Saeed has also tweeted saying he had put out no such tweets or hatched any such plans with JNU students!


The Video battle:

Channels like Times Now who were running a slug titled “Stop anti- India campaign” did something on which the jury will be out in terms of media ethics for a long time to come. The channel started playing the infamous and much contested video on Monday where some unidentified youth wearing masks were sloganeering against the hanging of Afsal Guru and raising pro- Azaadi slogans on Kashmir in the JNU campus. The channel was also circling and putting pointers on alleged JNU students, interestingly, only those with Muslim names.

Although the veracity of the videos and the persons who are raising the slogans is still a matter of inquiry, Times Now Editor Arnab Goswami kept playing the video in a loop on prime time and loudly condemning everyone who had any other viewpoint, as ‘hypocrites’. A video that would have remained in the social media domain was given legitimacy and prime time coverage by the same Goswami who objected to the slogans that were being raised. Can the “Nation’’ in turn ask the channel whether TRPs are more important than true patriotism? Some other channels were playing old recordings of Kanahiya Kumar’s speech on the night of the JNUSU presidential debate. But it was being shown as if the speech was being made on Feb 9 and 10.

Taking the cue from Goswami’s hysterical screaming was BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra who kept putting his hand on his heart and, in turn, asked the ‘Nation’ to hold their hands on their heart and say whether they supported these ‘terrorists’. “Let the Nation decide” he kept saying borrowing Goswami’s famous line every night on television. It was a rather amusing jugalbandhi between Patra and Goswami locked as they were, in a nationalist frenzy determined to shout down every other panellist. In fact, Goswami better beware...because Patra has taken the cue from Goswami every night on prime time and now perfected the hawkish debating on television. Indeed he would make a very good replacement anchor in Goswami’s place!

Later on, in the same Times Now programme Patra’s dramatics peaked as he demanded that all fellow panellists on Monday night’s debate on Times Now who included Prakash Ambedkar and journalist Saba Naqvi  to raise the slogan of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. “C’mn join me in saying Bharat Mata ki Jai if you really love India!” the BJP leader hollered. Goswami let him repeat that at least five to six times before he stepped in: “No one has to prove their patriotism just because you want them to Mr Patra”.  Patra was finally silenced when Goswami, in the following segment, finally picked up the issue of attacks on media and students and asked him what they would do to the BJP leader who had been filmed beating up someone and instigating the attackers. Patra had no answer.

Rohit Sardana, Zee News anchor, is also another hawkish anchor like Arnab Goswami. They colour their debates with their own view points on nationalism and dub others who have a different point of view as anti-India. When one watches these two channels in particular, one wonders what the News Broadcasters Association is upto, or whether it exists at all?

Meanwhile on CNN-IBN, anchor Zakka Jacob was saying that their channel had taken an editorial call not to telecast the different videos that were floating around: “Checking the authenticity of these videos is the job of the police and not television channels” Jacob said explaining his stand of not using them. Sudhanshu Trivedi of BJP, who was a guest at his panel discussion on Monday evening, was virulent in his attack: “Your channel is biased ..you are showing the footage of the violence outside Patiala Court on Monday,  but refusing to show the JNU videos!”. To this Jacob retorted: “ Yes I am showing the footage that has been taken by my cameraman outside the court and I can vouch for its authenticity but I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the other videos not taken by us!”. Earlier in  the programme Jacob had boxed in Trivedi with the following exchange.

Jacob to Trivedi: "Do you support your MLA when he says that anyone who raises pro- Pakistan slogans should be shot?”

Trivedi : “Yes”.

Jacob persisting: “Äre you saying that you believe that anyone who raises pro -Pakistan slogan should be killed?”.

Trivedi : “Yes”! So you had a senior BJP leader admitting on national television that he believed in violence. “This is their lynch mob mentality ..this is what Hiter had done in Germany..this is fascism” rebuked Congress leader, Mani Shankar Aiyar.

By Tuesday morning Srinivasan Jain was breaking the news that it was indeed the JNU Vice Chancellor, who had recently taken charge, who had asked the police to enter the campus.This revelation can have many ramifications. Meanwhile the High Court rejected the petition to turn the sedition probe over to the NIA.

After yesterday’s brutal attacks on them ,the reporters are all back at their job and their locations-- the JNU Campus, the courts, the police stations and behind the scenes to dig out the truth--while others of their tribe take to the streets to defend their right to report without bias. Democracy will survive as long as a fight back from the media and the judiciary happens.


(Nupur Basu is a journalist, documentary filmmaker and media educator)



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