The media betrayal over Aadhaar

BY VIDYUT| IN Media Practice | 22/01/2018
Patchy, inconsistent, unfocused coverage is what we got. Consistent investigative reporting would have told us long ago what we know now
VIDYUT explains


So far 2018 has been a storm of news on the failures of the Aadhaar system. It began with the Tribune expose and that seems to have unleashed a tsunami of exposes on Aadhaar. To those who have been following the Aadhaar story for a while, none of the shocking exposes came as news.

From the start, Aadhaar has been riddled with problems. There are countless Twitter handles relentlessly trying to educate the people on the dangers of Aadhaar. The problems have been visible for years that the Aadhaar project was shoddily designed, poorly secured, and recklessly implemented and it was routinely failing to address the task that it had claimed to address - improve the efficiency of welfare delivery. There is no news here.

So what has changed here? How is it that the media and the public appears to be informed only now?

There is no doubt that the catastrophic rampage of Aadhaar is slowing. There are rumours that at least one bank seems to be reconsidering trusting Aadhaar for KYC. Inept as the UIDAI response is (and why would it be very efficient? It never has had to account for itself like this before), after the Tribune report stormed the news, it took action to limit access to the facility that was misused in the story, even as it  trotted out random non-expert person after person to belt out platitudes and pretend there was no damage done.

"If the media had been consistent in highlighting security or deprivation issues, it is not too hard to see how many of today's problems would have been addressed by now."


After Elliot Alderson reported the serious vulnerabilities in the mAadhaar app, the UIDAI appeared to have tried to do something, though not a fix yet. But the force of public attention is forcing it to act and act fast. So, on the things it can do, the action is prompt.

PARI Network did a single story about five children being denied scholarships because of mistakes in their Aadhaar and a day after being published, Aadhaar officials contacted the school to fix the errors in the Aadhaar cards - this will allow those children to receive their scholarships.

If the media had been consistent in highlighting security or deprivation issues, it is not too hard to see how many of today's problems would have been addressed by now.


Smaller channels set the lead 

The mainstream media were content to report complacently on the Kanpur Fake Aadhaar scam and move on. It took a smaller news channel like GoNews 24 x 7 to follow up that story and report the magnitude of it, namely that there was no telling how many such fake Aadhaars were issued, that the mastermind was still at large, and that the equipment used and method of bypassing biometrics is still available.

The police as well as the UIDAI have no way of distinguishing a real Aadhaar from a fake one. In other words, the few people caught may have been arrested, but there is no reason to believe that the fake Aadhaar racket has been stopped.

Neither Rachna Khaira  nor Namita Singh  who did the GoNews story are very familiar with the problems of Aadhaar. Rachna Khaira's dramatic expose in The Tribune actually is less impactful because it fails to grasp the technical and security implications of what she uncovered. All Namita Singh did was follow up on an important case and report what she found. It was really basic reporting. It was dramatic because it was done.

When India Today followed up on The Tribune story with a sting operation showing that enrolment centers were selling application data, it wasn’t something we don't know or expect. It was a matter of doing it and putting it on record as an important part of the larger picture that Aadhaar is.

It is easy to imagine that the Indian media has now experienced some grand awakening, but sadly, this is not so. If there is one common thread in these stories, it is the impact of alternative media breaking big stories that shocked the mainstream media into covering them too.

There still does not appear to be any sign of larger media houses taking on Aadhaar reporting as a serious project requiring a beat of its own and reported in a section of its own,  on the grounds that it is something that impacts every single person in India.


No one had the big picture

There is no shortage of news. When I started the Aadhaar FAIL website, I did it because of the lack of a larger picture on Aadhaar where one could see the various news reports and realize how they linked in with each other into a larger picture on the inefficiency of Aadhaar. Many of the stories on the website are, in fact, sourced from larger newspapers. So it isn't that the news media haven’t done reporting on Aadhaar failures as well. What they haven't done is consistent, responsible, investigative reporting.

The biggest story on tech and governance in India, ever, has been parked under their noses for over half a decade and all they have done is note the occasional event.

There is no shortage of standalone news in the bigger publications and channels. All the news of arrests, banking fraud done via Aadhaar, and so on comes through the regular media. What is missing is a section that collects these news stories and provides a comprehensive picture so that the common man may grasp the implications. The failure has been in seeing this as a pattern.

Reporting one burglary in one place and another in another as unrelated makes sense, but reporting crimes done using Aadhaar as a part of regular crimes, but failing to recognize the number of stories piling up where Aadhaar is a factor and failing to investigate its intersection with people is a lack of journalistic instinct. There is an abject failure to see how many fronts Aadhaar is failing on and informing the people on that.

And there is no shortage of news. The Right to Food campaign alone is the source of a lot of verification and debunking of the government's claims of "savings" due to Aadhaar, which are in reality exclusions caused by Aadhaar when the lack of Aadhaar linking is the result of perfectly legal entitlements being denied.

Not only have the media sorely failed to be sceptical or to verify the numbers in any manner, their lack of coverage of verifications done continues to allow various people promoting Aadhaar to make exaggerated claims - beyond the actual "savings" from deprivation on record even, and it gets reported as "news".

"It isn't that the news media haven’t done reporting on Aadhaar failures as well. What they haven't done is consistent, responsible, investigative reporting."


Inaction in the face of violence is a form of violence. Inaction in the face of widespread exclusions resulting even in starvation deaths is a kind of complicity that puts one’s own comfort over the lives of others.

Those of us following the project are cataloguing data on it and very often the resources we treasure and use as references are from big media houses and newspapers who seem to have no awareness or further use for their own goldmine of information. It is almost as if the media know that the larger picture on Aadhaar is so toxic that looking at it would be an act of dissent in itself.


The Supreme Court provided guidance that was ignored

But perhaps most unforgivable is the utter inaction in the face of government propaganda. The media failed when they didn't give wide coverage to the Supreme Court order dated August 11, 2015 where the Court said "The Union of India shall give wide publicity in the electronic and print media including radio and television networks that it is not mandatory for a citizen to obtain an Aadhaar card" and "The production of an Aadhaar card will not be a condition for any benefits otherwise due to a citizen."

Again, on the 15th of October 2015, the Supreme Court said: "We will also make it clear that the Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this court one way or the other." The media did not publish this far and wide so that people being deprived of their rights because of imposed linking with Aadhaar would know that the Supreme Court had given an order protecting them.

They have failed ever since when they have unquestioningly reported on the imposition of Aadhaar without adding the fact that it was in violation of repeated orders of the Supreme Court.

Today, if the masses are shocked by what they are discovering about the Aadhaar scheme to which they have unquestioningly given their information, the media are at least as responsible as those who forced them into the "compulsory barter". Just like the person who watches, is able to prevent, but does nothing while a blind man walks into a manhole is as responsible as the person who left it open fully knowing that people would fall into it.

Matters are not helped by the toxic nature of discourse on TV media where serious researchers have no place to present their findings and can only be heard if they are willing to get into nonsensical debates with representatives of various interests who have neither interest nor capacity to take the presentation of the research work seriously. Yes, I'm referring to the silent presence of Professor  Reetika Khera on a recent talk show by CNBC Awaaz.

"It is almost as if the media know that the larger picture on Aadhaar is so toxic that looking at it would be an act of dissent in itself."


There is good money in being in the media today. And a lot of trouble if you say inconvenient things. It is easy to put self interest first and go for the glitter, bloated with own self importance. It is easy to do token reporting but stay safe from the risk of actually putting words to the implications of the grand sum total of reports in your archives.

Aadhaar will go,  one way or the other, perhaps sooner with the efforts of those trying to prevent harm to people and their information but it will go, because it simply wasn't a mature enough scheme when it was deployed with very sensitive data, so exploitation is inevitable and growing exploitation will turn it into a liability. It is a matter of time.

Or perhaps no matter how bad it gets, Aadhaar will continue.

One thing will not change. The legends of journalism will continue to be those who speak truth to power against the odds. Not those who serve a power that seems to be winning, no matter what.

What will it take before major news publishers have a dedicated section informing their consumers about the number that is being linked to every aspect of their existence - willingly or not?


Vidyut comments on socio-political issues at Aam Janata and recently created a website “Aadhaar FAIL!” to provide the  larger picture on the Aadhaar scheme.


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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