AAP Government's Defamation Diktat is Not Excessive

Published: May 12, 2015 23:16 IST
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I spent 23 years in journalism - four years in print and 19 years in TV (I was among the first to move to Television in 1994). At the time, print used to look down upon us TV reporters; they called us "byte soldiers" or "headless chickens". We were the subject of ridicule and contempt over many a drink in the Press Club. In fact, a very senior and respected editor went to the extent of saying that those who had failed in print had joined TV. But as time passed, Aaj Tak and News Tonight of NDTV became popular, and people on the ground started recognizing TV reporters. The perception started changing from "ridicule" to "indifference" to "respect", and finally to "envy". We were better-paid, better-recognized and had better access in the powers of corridor. From cabinet ministers to top bureaucrats - they wanted to address a bigger all-India audience, wanted to make an impact, and they preferred TV over print. By the year 2000, 24-hour news channels had changed the rules of the game completely and TV was the new king of media.

This was, in my opinion, the golden period of TV journalism. There were, at the most, three 24 hours news channels. "TRPs" was not a buzz word. Content was clean, discussion was meaningful - and audible. Senior politicians used to visit TV studios. OB vans had not mushroomed. Crime and tabloidisation were not encouraged in the news rooms. One could feel proud at the end of the day of the journalism one had done and go home satisfied with a job done well. But from 2004, with the launch of a few more TV channels, the narrative changed and the downward slide could be seen. Sex, sleaze, stings, crime and sensation began rearing their heads as new content leaders. Crime shows became the new channels drivers. TRP was the new monster. Ghosts, snakes, aliens, astrology, religion, mysticism and concocted stories captured TV screens. A fellow editor, an expert in creating TRP-winning shows used to say - "Jitne neech girogey, utni ratings aayengi" (The lower the quality of content, the higher the TRPs).

Sensation was the winner. A new style of writing was invented. To garner more ratings, a below-the-belt attack on any subject became the order of the day. TV started discovering a villain a day. Discussion on TV was still a rarity, except on English news channels. But with the 26/11 Mumbai attack, a new type of journalism took birth. Extreme nationalism, calling for destruction of the enemy country and not allowing others to speak raised the decibels to unprecedented levels in the studios. Anchors turned into judge and jury. Within one hour, the verdict and the conviction was to be pronounced, and those who could not do that were called names. Anchors became the moral guardians of society. Senior and serious political players started disappearing from studio discussions, and only those were left who were willing to be insulted for a few minutes of TV appearances. But another twist in the tale was to come.

The 2014 national election threw up a new kind of journalism and new kind of journalists. "Paid news" was tossed about. TV journalists and media became a willing partner in the annihilation of rival political parties and leaders. A section of the press openly sided with Modi allegedly due to financial lure by some backers or out of fear.

I had left media by the time elections were announced, and as a political worker, it was a new experience. Some self-respecting editors and top journalists had to quit their jobs. From the point of view of journalism, the Delhi assembly election in February 2015 would go down in history as the darkest that I have witnessed. And I repeat it was "supari journalism" at its worst. Five channels openly boycotted AAP and Arvind Kejriwal from their channel. Those who don't believe me should institute an independent inquiry. Once elections were over, I had thought picture would get better but I was wrong.

I cite three examples. Farmer Gajendra Singh's suicide was painted in a section of the media as a conspiracy hatched by senior AAP leaders like Manish Sisodia and Kumar Vishwas to attract people's attention to our rally. All kinds of stories were concocted - how Manish was in touch with Gajendra Singh; how he came to meet him; how Kumar was seen to be conspiring behind the stage for the suicide. This ran for a good three days without any verification and confirmation of the same. Any self-respecting reporter and channel should not have carried these unsubstantiated allegations, at best, and fabrications, at worst.

Secondly, an "illicit" relationship of Kumar Vishwas was invented by few TV channels when the woman concerned had not suggested anything of the kind, but again, the facts didn't get in the way.  For four days, the story made sensational headlines; the issue was debated for hours. Nobody was bothered about its impact on Kumar's family, his grown-up daughters. His father could not bear the pain and was hospitalized. Remember Snoopgate? In that case, government machinery had been misused. Yet, TV channels were so circumspect about what they said and how it was framed because it was related to Modi and Amit Shah.

A minor Delhi government official was removed from his posting, it continued as a headline for two weeks. But when the union Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary were removed most unceremoniously, the news disappeared quickly. Why this double standard by media?

Today, those who are crying themselves hoarse about the defamation circular issued by the AAP government should also talk about this "cannibalistic" journalism. I want to ask the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and Broadcast Editors Associations (BEA) what have they done to extricate the media from this malaise. Have they ever spoken against the forces of fascism who want to end the media freedom through intimidation? The fact is that today the media, especially TV, is living in fear. Freedom of the press is not compromised due to a defamation circular - after all, that right is enshrined in our body of laws. But yes, media freedom will soon be exterminated if institutions like EGI and BEA decide to keep mum over the bigger dangers to democracy.

AAP does not fear criticism, rather it welcomes it, but it will fight cannibalistic journalism.

(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014. The former journalist took on former Union minister Kapil Sibal and Health Minister Harsh Vardhan in the national election from Chandni Chowk in Delhi.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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