The Age of Alarmists

BY ANAND VARDHAN| IN Media Practice | 19/12/2014
Rajdeep Sardesai talks darkly of media persecution under Modi.
Reports of the death of press freedom are greatly exaggerated, argues ANAND VARDHAN.

You could be forgiven for imagining that he was speaking from a hideout in the US (or even safer Ecuador) or had sought political asylum in Britain. And far from what he would like to believe (or make us believe), he has been free to do what he likes doing -- anchoring primetime news show on a television channel, saying what he wants to say on social media  and of course, speaking at events to promote his new book. 

During one of such event last month at Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi to promote his book 2014: The Election That Changed India (a transcript of the discussion was published by this website), Rajdeep Sardesai wore the smug smile which mysteriously appears when journalists manage to come up with a book. The line he chose to take was fashionably alarmist. Replying to a question, he advised his fraternity to brace for persecution as he warned “Modi wants to make India Singapore, but don't forget, in Singapore, journalists who question authorities can be jailed.”

Rajdeep Sardesai is still awaiting arrest. 
Interestingly, a key figure in what Mr Sardesai sees as a potentially gagging regime, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was present when Mr Sardesai’s book was released at Teen Murti Bhawan in Delhi on November 7.
Mr Sardesai seems to be part of the chorus which has been keen on announcing the arrival of an Orwellian state in India, something which The New York Times was in tearing hurry to do with an editorial carrying the suggestive headline “India’s Press Under Siege’’(NYT, July 27). It’s a type of imagined scenario which suits the script of free speech enthusiasts - a mythical demon (almost the Leviathan) versus the spirited fighters for democratic rights. 
The crucial elements missing in the script are the facts, something important neither for fiction nor for polemics. It’s amusing to know that there are still people who believe that the hardware of a siege can work in times of multiple media platforms offered by technology and rapidly increasing connectivity. The NYT believes in a type of fiction which has little to do with the times we are living in.
If technology makes such alarmist claims anachronistic, statistics make them look lazy in waking up to some selective and convenient sense of alarm. There is nothing sudden about the ‘siege’. In her well argued blog post, Rupa Subramanya, a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal and co-author of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India, cites figures from  Freedom House Index of Press Freedom for India spanning 1993 to 2003 and Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index for India (2002-2014) to show that the perceived threat to media freedom has been constantly building up over a number of years, and there is no sudden jump in it. 
She questions the timing of raising the bogey, remarking: “What exactly were those folks doing when India kept getting lousy scores from Freedom House and Reporters without Borders? Why the sudden interest in media freedom? India has a lot of work to do to improve the state of press freedom, starting with getting rid of colonial era laws which stifle free speech. But it’s disingenuous at best and downright dishonest at worst to suggest that these problems suddenly materialised. That’s a falsehood, and a usefully self-serving one, by those who keep chanting it.”
It would also be interesting to ask what Rajdeep Sardesai, as editorial head of CNN-IBN in 2010, did with the Niira Radia tapes? Could viewers of his channel depend on it to know that something making the news with that name was not a new chartbusting album or titillating video but some conversations (the authenticity of which could never be disputed) which had serious repercussions for what is now one of Rajdeep’s cherished causes -- editorial independence? No, they couldn’t. Rajdeep Sardesai, along with a large section of the Indian media, acted as if the tapes didn’t exist.
Apart from invoking exaggerated fears of state authority muzzling press freedom, one of the bugbears quite popular with free speech polemicists in India is that of corporate censorship. The strapline for Salil Tripathi’s story on corporate censorship in the September issue of The Caravan unwittingly reveals how the shadow duels are scripted to create, and eventually benefit, the ‘victims’. 
It says “Authors of three recent exposés take on the country’s corporate goliaths”. It’s precisely this romantic juxtaposition of the ‘David vs Goliath’ binary that the books discussed in the story seek to attain post-publication, viz. Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri, Sahara: The Untold Story by Tamal Bandyopadhyay and The Descent of Air India by Jitendra Bhargava. 
The legal recourse taken by some corporate entities, objecting to certain parts of these books, and the lukewarm response of mainstream media to these books have been conveniently overplayed by the authors. There is a type of victimhood which doesn’t go unrewarded in this country. Such ‘persecution’ often brings impish glee to the victims. If your voice isn’t considered important enough, the muzzling of it would certainly find its audience. Such profitable victimhood has worked well for these authors, some of whom are senior journalists (a term patented for the Indian media only), in more ways than one. Enhanced sales and visibility are not the least of them.
As the arrival of silly season has been announced with media coverage given to the loose talk coming from ‘illiberal’ quarters of the regime, there are more chances of free speech enthusiasts finding some mythical Big Brother watching, and of course, threatening them from random corners of the country. 
This is always a convenient time to score easy intellectual victories against the regime, though it says very little about the quality of the criticism or, for that matter, the nature of the perceived threat.  As political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta perceptively wrote in one of his recent Indian Express pieces: “As critics, we often define our identities by picking out the worst arguments and the worst characters to go after. This is not because of the magnitude of the objective threats they pose. It is because our intellectual victories are easy”.
Without being jailed, Rajdeep will be getting chances to score such easy points. He can rue the fact that going to jail for speaking his mind isn’t going to get easier in India. 
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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

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