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There are still some bravehearts left in Indian media

While mainstream media (MSM) in India struggled with how to keep up with rivals’ TRPs and circulations, facts, investigation, balance and objectivity took a back seat. They competed with each other to become the government’s press release and apologists barring a few. The space left vacant by them is being taken over by small but more dedicated digital publications. The Wire  is leading the race at the moment. It published an investigative report by journalist Rohini Singh called Golden Touch of Jay Amit Shah on 8 October. It generated so much interest among readers that the servers went down.

The report, based on filings with the Registrar of Companies (RoC), claims that the ‘turnover of a company owned by Jay Amit Shah increased 16,000 times over in the year following the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister and the elevation of his father to the post of party president’. Based on the RoC filings there are further details about the company, its funding and more.

The report is fact based and does not say anything directly incriminating. In fact similar reportage had been made by the same journalist against people connected to the previous regime. However, this time around even before the publication of the report, moves were afoot within the ruling establishment to organise a legal challenge against the publication, its editor and the journalist in question. After the news broke a senior government minister came on television to defend Jay A Shah and the government machinery started working overtime to prove his innocence. Even the Additional Solicitor General was given permission by the Law Ministry to represent the businessman, who happens to be the son of the ruling BJP’s President, two days before the report’s publication.

So what could have been yet another story of possible crony capitalism became bigger and bigger. Along with it came a lawsuit of 100 crores Indian rupees (over 1500 million US dollars) – a staggering amount for a relatively small digital publication and the reporter.

The reporter, Rohini Singh, and The Wire also came in for online abuse and threat meant to intimidate and stop both from continuing with such investigative reportage. Despite the threats Rohini remained brave and stuck to her story. She published a Facebook post explaining that she was doing what a journalist ought to do – journalism.

Although Twitterati and Facebookers were discussing and sharing The Wire report, mainstream media remained quiet but for the usual exceptions. MSM preferred to discuss the spat between the two Bollywood stars and other less significant stories. The press conference by the Opposition about the report and its challenge to the government to investigate Jay Amit Shah were blacked out by the mainstream channels though they did not hesitate to go to town about the minister’s press statement and the threat of a defamation case.

The fact that journalists like Rohini Singh continue to do investigative journalism to bring out the truth in an adverse, unfavourable environment despite abuse and threats shows there are still some true journalists left in India.

Meanwhile the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has expressed concern over the criminal defamation case against The Wire and its editors and journalists. They have called for making defamation only a civil offence. Criminal defamation for an investigative report is considered to be an intimidatory step to muzzle independent media and goes against democratic norms.

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Where have all the bravehearts gone?

The primary role of news media is to give information. The role of good investigative journalists is to investigate and present the truth however unpleasant to governments and powerful institutions. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia’s main public service broadcaster did a marvellous job towards this last week by presenting ‘Digging into Adani’ on their weekly Four Corners investigative documentary programme.

Gautam Adani, a billionaire industrialist, is a controversial name in India. His rise to wealth and power is alleged to have coincided with the rise in power of the then Chief Minister of Gujarat state and now the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi. The environmental track record of his Adani Group and his financial arrangements have been questioned. His bid to build Australia’s biggest coalmining site – the Carmichael project – in Queensland has led to huge protests in the country for environmental reasons. The mine would be built on land of the country’s indigenous people and, according to environmentalists, threaten the wellbeing of the Great Barrier Reef.

When the Four Corners team went to investigate Adani in India they were questioned for hours by the crime branch of police, their cameras shut down and footage deleted. The promo of the programme says, ‘This investigation examines whether, in the rush to secure jobs and shore up the mining industry, Australian politicians have failed to properly scrutinise the company that’s now hoping to receive a taxpayer funded loan of up to $1 billion for its project.’

This itself would be news in normal circumstances. ABC went ahead and broadcast the programme – exactly what a public broadcaster ought to do. It was reported in Australian media, people watched it and continued their protest.

http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/digging-into-adani/9008500

Big story? Isn’t this the stuff the Indian media would love to show and talk about? Social media in India was active with discussions about the programme, sharing it and commenting. Mainstream media (MSM), particularly the television news channels, looked the other way. ‘Digging into Adani’ was not a news item, nor was it discussed in any way by the majority of channels. Instead they discussed, interviewed, shouted and screamed about a spat between two Bollywood movie stars. Killing a story by ignoring it would have worked but for social media. Most mainstream newspapers also chose to ignore the story.

Why? Are they in favour of crony capitalism? Afraid of backlash from Adani and the Indian government? The industrialist accompanies the Prime Minister on his foreign tours. Maybe their news sense has gone awry? Yes, there appears to be a journalistic death wish among the MSMs in India. Big stories, if investigative and critical of government, the ruling party and its allies, are not touched upon or pushed down to insignificance. Trivia and manufactured debate reign supreme while most channels appear to have become propaganda tools. Not a good sign for a vibrant democracy or media. Where have the bravehearts of Indian media gone?

Blog: There are still some bravehearts left

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