Supping with the enemy

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Opinion | 09/11/2016
Why does the media, for functions, awards or summits, always invite politicians as chief guests, even when they have violated many freedoms?
JYOTI PUNWANI tracks the recent history of such events.

Another prime minister gave the Ramnath Goenka award in another year.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi presiding over the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism awards function shocked many.  The Indian Express can be called the most hard-hitting investigative English newspaper today.  On the other hand, the PM and the ruling party at the Centre have been intolerant of criticism. So why was the PM called to honour investigative journalists?

Ever since this columnist started off as a journalist, back in 1974, it was assumed that a journalist’s primary job was to expose those in power. That’s exactly what Indian Express editor, Raj Kamal Jha, said at the function: ``Criticism from the government is a badge of honour.’’

Yet, year after year, across the board, newspapers invite ruling party politicians as chief guests for their functions. So the Express wasn’t doing anything new by inviting Modi. In fact, for its very first Ramnath Goenka award function, it had invited the then PM, Manmohan Singh. The function was held in 2006. Within months of Manmohan Singh taking over in 2004, Rakesh Sharma’s documentary on Gujarat 2002, Final Solution,  had been banned by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The ban was lifted two months later after a high-profile sustained campaign.

Singh wasn’t responsible for the ban. It was actor Anupam Kher, CBFC chairman appointed by the previous NDA government, who banned the film. But as PM, Singh could have intervened. He didn’t.

"Yet, year after year, across the board, newspapers invite ruling party politicians as chief guests for their functions. So the Express wasn’t doing anything new by inviting Modi."

Similarly, historian James Laine’s book: `Shivaji, Hindu King in Islamic India’, had been banned before Singh became PM. But the ban was lifted only by the courts three years later. Singh did nothing to get the ban withdrawn, though it was his party in Maharashtra that had banned it.

By the time NDTV invited PM Manmohan Singh as chief guest in 2013 for its Indian of the Year awards, two girls had been arrested for a Facebook post on Bal Thackeray; an entire village in Tamil Nadu had been booked under sedition charges for opposing the nuclear plant at Kudankulam; human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen had been arrested for sedition and an appeal by 40 Nobel Laureates to the PM to withdraw the charge against him had left him unmoved; and the same charge of sedition had been applied to cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for his anti-corruption cartoons.

The irony was that the NDTV Indian of the Year in 2013 went to the ``Daughter of India-Nirbhaya'', the Delhi girl who had been raped in December 2012. It was Singh’s government that had let loose the police with their lathis, tear gas and water cannons on the hundreds of demonstrators demanding justice for the rape. But NDTV gave Singh a chance to wax eloquent on the dead girl’s bravery.

Last year, India Today invited Home Minister Rajnath Singh as chief guest for its annual conclave. By then, across the country, writers and artists had returned their government awards in protest against the inaction of the government on the murders of writers  M. M. Kalburgi and Govind Pansare and earlier, of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar. As Home Minister, Rajnath Singh was the man ultimately responsible for catching their killers, widely believed to be religious fanatics.

The Mumbai Press Club also calls ministers to give its Red Ink  awards to  journalists. In 2013, Information & Broadcasting Minister (I&B), Manish Tiwari, was the chief guest. According to The Hoot’s Free Speech Hub, five journalists had been killed on duty in 2012, a year which had seen 74 instances of censorship.

In 2014, the honours were done by Prakash Javdekar, who looked after both the I&B Ministry and the Environment Ministry. As Environment Minister, Javdekar had done his utmost to relax environmental guidelines in the interest of `development’ - one of the categories of the Red Ink awards is environment.

This year, Minister of State for Power, Coal, and New and Renewable Energy, Piyush Goyal, was the chief guest. He spoke about the importance of `accuracy’ and `correctly sanitized data’ for reporters. But his government had relied on doctored videos to put JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya in jail. 

Even the investigative magazine Tehelka invited powerful politicians to speak at its Thinkfests in Goa.

Then there’s Hindustan Times and its Leadership Summit. Manmohan Singh was one of two chief guests at its 2013 summit. The second was former US secretary of state and President George Bush’s National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, who pushed for the invasion of Iraq despite knowing it had no weapons of mass destruction and who approved of waterboarding torture techniques at Guantanamo Bay. Last year, Modi was chief guest at the  summit.

And consider this: No one knows better than the Urdu press the treatment this government has given to Muslims. Yet, last week, Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu, inaugurated an orientation programme for Urdu journalists, organised by the Telangana State Union of Working Journalists. Naidu said that the Centre has high regard for free speech and the media and advised them to never let their credibility go down at any cost. 

Need one go on? The Indian media has had no qualms about cosying up to those in power at glittering functions hosted by it. NDTV celebrated its 25th anniversary at Rashtrapati Bhavan!  NDTV star, Barkha Dutt, looking at a room full of ruling party and opposition politicians at one NDTV function, declared that the audience made up ``brand India’.

``This columnist always thought a country was known by its most creative minds. India has no lack of these: historians, judges, scientists, artists, writers, doctors, lawyers, singers, composers, environmentalists and human rights defenders who can compare with the world’s best. Who knows, journalists might just prefer to  be honoured by such achievers, rather than by corrupt politicians elected by appealing  to voters’ basest instincts.

A Hoot poll just conducted on whether politicians should be invited to give journalism awards showed that of  the 215 who have taken it so far, 83.26 % did not want politicians to give them awards. Assuming most of them are journalists, will their voice count with their bosses who fraternize with politicians for their own ends? 

Senior Times of India journalist Akshaya Mukul, who won the Ramnath Goenka award in the non-fiction book category for his `Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India', had the conscience to refuse to accept his award from Narendra Modi.

Let’s hope that becomes a trend.


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