Today I am writing in anger. Today I am writing not as somebody who is an official spokesperson of a party. Today I am writing as somebody who was a professional journalist for two decades. Today I am writing as somebody who contributed majorly in forming the Broadcast Editors Association (BEA), created to intervene on behalf of editors to uplift the content, preserve the institution of editors and fight any external attack on news channels and its freedom.
An untrue story run on a Hindi news channel on Sunday without any verification of facts; serious accusations were made against the Delhi government led by AAP of which I am a member. The story is based on an RTI whose veracity is doubtful; based on that RTI, the BJP is accusing AAP of buying onions from Nashik at Rs. 18 and selling them to the people of Delhi at Rs. 40. The BJP describes this as a scam with accusations of money being siphoned. The BJP is in the opposition, and it is well within its right to accuse the ruling party of wrongdoing, but what is not acceptable is the conduct of a news channel which ran that argument and accusation without any verification. It just required two phone calls and some leg work to uncover the facts.
But this is not about another news channel. The truth is that the basic premise of the story was wrong. The story said that the AAP Government bought onions from Nashik at Rs. 18. In the first place, AAP never bought onions from Nashik. A month ago, the onions were purchased from a central government agency called SFAC (Small Farmers Agro Business Consortium), at a price of Rs. 32.86. It was the SFAC, that means the central government, which had bought onions at Rs. 18 from Nashik and sold them to the AAP government at the higher price of Rs. 32.86. Adding local transportation cost of Rs. 3 and another Rs. 4 as commission to local vendors, the cost comes to Rs. 40. It was at this price that AAP government provided onions to people of Delhi and later, it revised the price to Rs. 30, offering a subsidy of Rs. 10. All the papers were available with the concerned department, but no attempt was made to cross check the facts – even when I asked the channel over and over again to recheck, the story kept running.
Sometimes when a story is wrong or it was incorrectly or incompletely treated, an apology or corrigendum (a correction) is duly published or aired, and the matter is laid to rest. After talking to the channel, I was expecting that the story would be dropped and an apology would be gracefully rendered as is the practice in media. But unfortunately that did not happen. Then other channels also picked up the story with the sound bites and allegations of BJP/Congress. The Delhi government was forced to hold a press conference and put forth the real picture before the media. But the damage was done and the picture that was painted was that the AAP Government has committed a scam.
Now as an aggrieved party what option does the government have? One can argue that AAP can seek the intervention of The Press Council of India, or sue the channel for defamation. I don’t need to remind readers that the former is a toothless body and its verdicts are not listened to by even its own members. It would take five to ten years for Courts to adjudicate the matter. Till then, the AAP government would have to live with a taint of a nonexistent scam. A fight against corruption is AAP’s main political and social plank. This story was an attempt to paint AAP as being corrupt like other parties, kill its USP as a political party, finish its raison d’etre and its attraction amongst the people of India. What was needed was an extra ordinary measure, which AAP took with full-page advertisements in newspapers the next day detailing facts. I know senior journalists like Shekhar Gupta through tweets advised differently. But in my opinion, the AAP govt had no other option. I will go a step further. In the absence of an apology or corrigendum, why should it not be presumed that the story on the channel concerned was part of a bigger malicious campaign as some channels have been doing since the days of the Delhi assembly elections?
AAP’s fight with the central government is well-documented; also consider that since the Modi government has come into existence, the media is under tremendous pressure, especially TV channels, to not criticise the Modi government and target the ruling party’s adversaries. In private, they all confide that it has become difficult to function independently. Sometimes veiled and sometimes direct threats are communicated. Media freedom is gone. Since TV has a wider reach and a bigger impact than print, it’s more vulnerable. I have seen promoters running to ministers, politicians, government functionaries for advertisements, and editors asking for selfies with ministers.
Today I am reminded of LK Advani’s words: “During Emergency, the media was asked to bend and it crawled.” And he was right too. Kuldip Nayar writes in his book Beyond the Lines, “When Mrs Indira Gandhi issued emergency some editors had gone to congratulate her for imposing emergency. Mrs Gandhi asked them what had happened to the big names in journalism because not a dog had barked.” I don’t want to be as harsh, but would certainly say that a compromised media and dwarfed editors are the first signs of fascism creeping into our body politics. It is time to wake up and to do something.
(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)
This story was first published on NDTV.com and sourced from there.
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