I rarely watch TV as I don’t have one on my floor of our house! However, when there is some breaking news, my father calls me down to the ground floor (where he stays) to watch the same with him. So I really had no idea about the Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid, a man I like, holding a press conference last Sunday where he lost his temper at some journalists. Of course, I was aware of the allegations made against the Zakir Hussain Trust about some hanky panky with government funds meant for physically challenged people. I also knew there was something about forged signatures of top officials of the Uttar Pradesh government. My first reaction was: this must be mere politics. But I was forced to take notice when dad told me that Arvind Kejriwal, the activist turned politician, is taking this issue seriously and raising serious questions about the integrity of the Union Law Minister on TV. If nothing else, the activist turned politician at least deserves our respect for his amazing display of guts and gumption.
A colleague then sent me a clip of the press conference where the Law Minister is clearly telling a journalist that he will see him in court. My fault, but once again I thought that this was more entertainment than news. But I did sit with my father and switch some channels that night, and I did read the newspapers more carefully the next day. And I was horrified. Louise Fernandes Khurshid, the wife of the Union Law Minister and the person who actually runs the Zakir Hussain Trust, has filed a Rs 100 crore civil defamation case against the two channels Aaj Tak and Headlines Today. Nothing surprising about that, for every Indian has the right to file a defamation case if he or she feels aggrieved. But what was horrifying for me was the manner in which the promotor of the group who also publishes India Today, Aroon Purie, was personally targeted. It was genuinely shocking. We had journalists asking Salman Khurshid whether he will resign from his post till an independent enquiry clears his name. He blithely replied that he would resign if Aroon Purie, the promotor of the India Today group, also resigned and if there was an enquiry against Purie and his group. Most horrifying: I found hardly any support in the media fraternity for Aroon Purie and his India Today group. Just imagine the rotten and extremely dangerous precedent this is setting: if, for example, The Hindu were to publish some exposé against any minister, the minister could demand an enquiry against N. Ram. If NDTV were to show an investigative piece against Nitin Gadkari, he would demand an enquiry against Pranoy Roy. If The Times of India were to reveal something embarrassing about any powerful person, then he or she will surely demand an enquiry against Samir and Vineet Jain... I could just go on and on...
Really, my concern is not about Aroon Purie, N. Ram, Prannoy Roy, Subhash Chandra and other media owners. I am sure they have the resources and the manpower to look after themselves. My concern is: if our democracy has descended to such a level where those in power can now openly and brazenly threaten media owners, what will happen to the journalists? And what will happen to the profession of journalism that we still proudly call the fourth estate? Politicians used to always get behind media houses, and our media house has been a victim of that too, but it was never so blatant and open. Already, journalism in India seems to be under a kind of siege, and the abovementioned threats can completely destroy whatever independence and guts the Indian media still seems to posses.
And really strange: why aren’t all journalists and media management groups coming out openly in support of Aroon Purie and his group? Have we become that accustomed to playing it safe? I have nothing against Salman Khurshid (though as I write this, I am shocked to hear allegations of his latest and open threats to Arvind Kejriwal warning him against coming to his constituency). But surely, my conscience tells me that he cannot be the Union Law Minister and bully a media house like that. Why can’t each and every media house and all the organizations that represent journalists and media houses say they are solidly behind Aroon Purie? I am not asking them to fight legal cases on behalf of Aroon Purie and his group. But surely, at least some expression of solidarity is badly required. No journalist or media house disagrees with the statement that – whatever the causes and reasons – this is one of the most corrupt governments that India has seen. All journalists and media houses also agree that this government tries hard to use fair and foul means to muzzle the media whenever a new scam is exposed. So why not take a stand in support of a person who is one of the best representatives of media in this country? People are talking about the distinguished career of the Union Law Minister. What about the distinguished career of Aroon Purie? Here is a man who started with just one magazine called India Today and has by now built one of the most successful media enterprises in the country. His group is successfully running magazines, newspapers, television channels, radio stations and Internet platforms. His group has an outstanding track record of success and more importantly ethical success. If fellow journalists are hesitant to defend even this kind of track record, surely there is something really rotten in journalism.
I was astonished to watch a news program where the editor of Headlines Today, Rahul Kanwal, was defending his reporters for being too aggressive at the Salman Khurshid press conference, yet actually was sort of apologizing for their behaviour. What depths of nonsense have we sunk to? Surely the real and true job of a journalist is to be aggressive, combative and even offensive. Surely his or her job is not to be nice and polite and respectful. In that same news program, I saw the Chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice M.Katju, actually looking smug and selfsatisfied even as he repeated his demand that news channels must come under some or the other regulatory authority. Just imagine, here was a guy openly telling a bunch of journalists that he wanted to take away their freedom of speech; and here were the journalists arguing with each other, instead of telling the honourable justice to go take a walk! Truly amazing times we are living in. The funny thing is: the same media professionals who are focussing more on the distinguished career of Mr Khurshid than the alleged, blatant forgeries related to his trust, become very aggressive and offensive when it comes to leaders who are not members of the Congress. Just look at the glee with which they pounce upon anything remotely negative about Narendra Modi and savage him as some kind of beast. Surely, he too has a distinguished career, doesn’t he?
I am feeling sorry but I am inclined to believe what some of my colleagues have been telling me. It is actually not the “media” that is playing the role of a watchdog. It is actually activists and an active judiciary who are exposing scams; and the media is being forced to highlight them when there is no other choice. Of course, the same media quickly forgets about these exposes and stories. As I write this, who is talking about Coal-gate, and worse, even about Robert Vadra anymore?
This is a truly sad state of affairs. But I must do my small bit. I have always liked and admired Aroon Purie for his kind of journalism and entrepreneurship. His group has not broken a story on the secret sex life of a politician. His group is not being targeted because of a steamy story on Bollywood heroines and starlets. His group is not being hounded for creating “communal disharmony” – whatever that means. His group is not in the dock for writing or airing anything that is “anti-national” – whatever that too means. Aroon Purie is now being hounded for what any media house promotor and owner should do. And that is, to nurture and encourage genuine journalism where facts are more important than reputations, where commitment to sincerity is more important than fear of power and where people in powerful positions must accept that journalists and media houses are not allies but potential adversaries. For all these things, and much more, I openly stand behind Aroon Purie and support him. I hope and pray others too will do the same, at least for the sake of their profession and livelihood if nothing else.
- 18 October 2012 |
- Arindam on Indian Politics