The historian Mukul Kesavan’s column in The Telegraph on 12 February was titled “A Delicate Balance: The state of the fourth estate.” In it, Kesavan begins by saying that “Midway through Narendra Modi’s term in office … [a]s someone who writes opinion pieces, I can report that the papers I write for haven’t suddenly begun to censor me. No edit desk has returned a copy with sentences underlined in red because it has felt uneasy with the political implications of something I had written.” Then, he moves on to less rosy thoughts: “the intimidation of reporters and correspondents is more commonplace and easier to cite,” and “the NDA government and the prime minister and the BJP’s online army exert real and concerted pressure on liberal journalists.” Kesavan observes at one point, rightly, that it is “increasingly the case that journalists who don’t enjoy the institutional shelter that big newspapers supply, are constrained and unfree.”
Less than a fortnight earlier, the ABP Group, which owns The Telegraph and the Bengali-language Anandabazar Patrika, notified hundreds of staff at its papers that they were being laid off. This was preceded by a similar exercise at the Hindustan Times a month earlier, with four editions and three bureaus being shut down. Kesavan, in over 1,200 words of writing, does not find space for the slightest mention of any of this. If The Telegraph’s edit desk did not encourage such wilful and convenient blindness, Kesavan must have taken the initiative himself.
On the face of it, the downsizing has all been voluntary—no journalist has been sacked, each affected individual has accepted a severance package and decided to move on. In reality, however, people have only tried to make the best of a bad bargain. No editorial logic has been advanced for the layoffs, and both media houses have presented them as necessary for reducing costs.
The ABP Group and HT Media have acted in precisely the fashion that precludes journalists from following the best principles of their profession and expressing the truth as they see it. India’s reporters and editors work under the constant threat of unjustified termination, which can leave them jobless with little to no notice, and as little as three months’ worth of salary in hand. This reduces journalists from individual and conscientious observers to ciphers of their companies’ managements, left to largely do as they are told—or, very often, as they understand they are expected to.
Most Indian newspapers are owned by big business houses with interests in sectors other than just the media. In the country’s semi-liberalised economy, the government can choose to inflict enormous damage on such organisations—say, by denying them permissions for new projects. So media owners, through carefully appointed managers and editors, impose on their publications a political outlook acceptable to the ruling dispensation. Effectively, the fact that journalists do not have protection against arbitrary layoffs allows the government immense power over what gets printed. The few media organisations in India that critically examine the government do so not because their journalists feel unconditionally secure in the exercise of their duties, but because their owners are so far willing to allow it. If a media organisation’s owners have a change of heart, its journalists can no longer express themselves freely. In this balance of power, what journalists consider important is not considered important by the majority of news organisations. That almost nothing has been written in most major newspapers about the recent layoffs even when every journalist recognises their larger implications is proof of this.
On paper, the law guards against such a state of relations. Under the Working Journalists Act, enacted in 1955, journalists cannot be laid off without notice, and employers, even in cases of retrenchment due to downsizing, must specify their rationale for such action to the journalists concerned or to the government. In practice, since the 1990s, media organisations have tried to get around the act by hiring journalists on three-year hire-and-fire contracts, rather than as permanent employees. The act, anticipating this possibility, specifies that such contracts can only improve upon the safeguards guaranteed under it, and cannot supplant them. But with an overwhelmed judicial system delaying attempts at legal recourse, most journalists have shied away from challenging the illegal contracts that tie them to their employers. (Disclosure: I am currently challenging, through the law, my dismissal from Open Media, where I was earlier employed on a short-term contract.)
The failure to openly connect the situation of the media to these structural problems reduces much of the discourse on journalistic independence to cliche. For instance, Kesavan, in his column, writes that “it’s hard to explain the absence of concerted reportage on the Vyapam scandal for a year and more,” and that “the lack of sustained investigative reporting on the scandal is genuinely worrying.” He might have noted that the Hindustan Times shut down its edition in Bhopal, curtailing its coverage of Madhya Pradesh, the epicentre of what, as he points out, “must be one of the most sinister scams in republican history.”
The sorts of compromises that result from the current state of affairs are not particular to the media. When it comes to academia, too, private institutions stifle independent expression by their employees. In a recent example, Ashoka University, a new institution just outside Delhi that boasts of its liberal credentials, took pains to distance itself from a petition on Kashmir signed by some students, alumni and staff. The document condemned the violence perpetrated by security forces in Kashmir during the unrest last year, and called for a plebiscite on Kashmir’s political status. Three of the four members of staff that signed it have since left the university. They included Rajendran Narayanan, an assistant professor of mathematics, who, after his resignation, wrote in a letter to the university’s students,
the Governing Body (GB) had proposed to dismiss me for two reasons—(a) for my involvement with a (now disbanded) worker welfare committee that was being constituted for the welfare of every citizen of the university, and (b) for signing a petition on Kashmir that was later misrepresented by some sections of the media. I was quite astonished that these could be grounds for dismissal because I had not violated any university policy with respect to these matters.
Ever since the fracas over the petition, the university’s faculty members have rarely ventured to express political views in public. That tendency is also all too noticeable among the faculties of the few private universities of repute that have opened recently in the country.
The contrast between these institutions and Jawaharlal Nehru University is stark. Despite a vicious slander campaign against the university by Hindutva groups, with backing from the ruling dispensation, JNU’s faculty members have continued to speak out. The difference between them and their fellows at Ashoka is not down to the mettle of the individuals hired by either university, but to the different structural conditions they work under. Far from the hire-and-fire norm in most private institutions, JNU, as a public university, has rules for the appointment, promotion and dismissal of faculty members that shield them from punitive action over their political views. Had Narayanan been employed at JNU, the situation he faced would have been very different.
If, as is the desire of the current government, every journalist is to endorse all government initiatives and every academic is to toe the government line on all developments, then we might as well do away with the public sphere. Dissent, debate and the considered airing of differences are what allow for a functional democracy and a vibrant intellectual life, and they all rely on an independent media and an academy built upon free enquiry. Yet we have largely abandoned attempts to nurture either of these. Journalism and academia are public goods, and cannot be sustained simply through the operation of private capital. Both fields are devalued without the exercise of independent thought, and so both need protections beyond what we consider sufficient in other realms.
These protections have to come in the form of professional regulations, which must then be firmly enforced. As the private sector moves to take a leading role in academia, as it has in the media, we must understand that these regulations will not come into existence without legal stipulations—and ones that private organisations are not allowed to evade, as they have those of the Working Journalists Act. Since a free media and academy are an annoyance for any ruling establishment, it is clear that protections will not be legislated overnight, or even over several years, but we must start appreciating the great need for them. It is not enough to be relieved by the fact that “no edit desk has returned a copy with sentences underlined in red because it has felt uneasy with the political implications of something I had written.” If Mukul Kesavan can write whatever he chooses to, it is only because the government has not felt the need to stop him from doing so. We need to ensure that no edit desk will ever even think of marking any copy in red simply because of its political implications.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.