On 21 July 2015, R Jagannathan, the editor-in-chief of Firstpost—an Indian news website that comes under the Reliance Industries-owned media conglomerate: the Network18 group—published an opinion piece on the digital platform. This article, titled GST, Land Bill on Hold: Modi May Have to Rethink Jaitley as Finance Minister, came at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was fighting fires on several fronts. Two of the party’s senior leaders, the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje, the chief minister of Rajasthan, were embroiled in a controversy over their alleged links with Lalit Modi, the architect of the Indian Premier League (IPL); the Vyapam scam relating to irregularities in the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board (MPPEB) was gathering steam; and the current dispensation was not making any inroads with its much-publicised land acquisition bill. In his article, Jagannathan took note of the BJP’s predicament and argued that the Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill that the party was attempting to push in the parliament would only add to its problems. Terming the GST bill an example of “the finance ministry's weak response to the emerging economic situation,” he went on to criticise, in no uncertain terms, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for being an “underperformer.” “Arun Jaitley may be an excellent lawyer and debater, but he has not shown the sharpness required to run the finance ministry,” Jagannathan wrote. He added, “It does not benefit Modi to have Jaitley as FM when he has just three more budgets to go and lots of daily hard work to do.” On 2 August 2015, the article was removed from Firstpost. It can still be accessed on in.com, another news portal that is a part of Network18. Jagannathan has also reproduced the piece on his personal blog, Newsthink, under the headline, The Modi Government’s Achilles’ Heel.
Three or four days after the article first went live, Jagannathan had a meeting with some of the board members of Network18. According to Lakshmi Chaudhry, the former executive editor and co-founder of Firstpost, “a diktat was issued in that meeting that from now on there will be no criticism of certain political leaders. The decision to pull the piece on Jaitley was a part of the same conversation.” A senior official, who has been employed with Network18 for several years and was aware of the recent developments at Firstpost, told me that this directive stated that the website could not carry any criticism of “the big three” in the BJP. No story published on Firstpost could upset the BJP’s troika. On 30 July, a little after this meeting took place, Chaudhry decided to resign from her position at Firstpost.
A couple of days later, Chaudhry announced her decision to leave the organisation during a staff meeting. According to a person who was present at the meeting and has been a part of the website’s editorial team for over three years, Chaudhry told her staff that she was leaving because of “editorial pushback.” This person told me that Jagannathan was also present at the meeting and assured the staff that he is working on finding a middle ground by indicating that he would be “having a discussion with the management.” However, when I reached out to Jagannathan for a response to this story, he declined to say anything.
While Chaudhry, who had been with the website since January 2011, did not reveal the identity of the BJP leaders that this directive concerns, she did tell me that she considered it impossible to run a news website if certain political figures were considered “off-bound.” She said, “I couldn’t have done my job. So I decided to quit. It was a terribly painful decision to make—after four-and-a-half years of hard work—but it had to be made.”
When Reliance Industries acquired Network18 group in May 2014, the takeover was surrounded by a prevailing sense of anxiety about the editorial independence that publications under the media group would be able to exercise. However, according to Chaudhry there were no instances of censorship before this one. “It had been a very hands-off relationship since the takeover; I was never asked to publish this or remove that,” she said, before adding, “but when it did come, it was not negotiable.”
Deepanjana Pal, a senior editor at Firstpost, told me that, “The image of Firstpost has been that of a very frank and blunt space—we took pot-shots at everyone—but when an article is taken down, all the writers start to second-guess themselves, and you have a situation that is something like self-censorship.” Chaudhry herself put things more bluntly, saying, “It basically kills Firstpost as a brand.”
“See, Lakshmi quit on grounds of principle,” a senior journalist who works with the website told me. He added that, although the directive prohibited only personal criticism of the leaders, the boundary is “very fuzzy.” “Even if you criticise the policies presented by these leaders, they can take it personally,” he said. The senior journalist believed that, “Once you know that articles can be taken down for certain reasons, you start to pre-emptively censor yourself. And self-censorship is the most insidious form of censorship.”
According to the writers and editors I spoke to at Firstpost—about half-a-dozen—the directive has not been conveyed in any written form to the staff. But then, these things are rarely noted in formal communiqués. As Shashi Kumar, the chairman of the Asian College of Journalism, explained, decisions to hold back pieces that may portray certain political figures in an unfavourable light are usually couched within terms such as “balance” and “the tenor of the editorial policy.” Kumar said that, “They [the editors or owners] say things like ‘we don’t want to create a credibility crisis’ or that ‘larger interests should not be forgotten.'” He also told me that, “rarely does it happen that the owner would explicitly state why they can’t run a story.”
Yesterday, the Hoot—a media news and criticism website—reported that Firstpost has hired two new editors following Chaudhry’s exit. BV Rao, who was the news and communications director at the Reliance group, will now be joining the website as the news editor. Ajay Singh, who was has previously worked with The Economic Times, is going to take on the role of an executive editor.
I attempted to confirm these appointments with four journalists from Firspost, but none of them had been given any information regarding these changes. A senior person in the editorial team told me that he became aware of this development only when it was covered in another publication,"I don't really know anything more. No one has said anything to me."
I tried to contact all the members of the Network18 board; none of them responded to any of my queries regarding the editorial stifling of Firstpost. Raghav Bahl, the founder of the Network18 group, who is still a non-executive member of the board, told me that he did not know anything as he has “not been able to attend the last three or four board meetings.”
Meanwhile, signs of this change are already visible on the website. On 5 August, a few days after the board meeting during which the decision to remove Jagannathan’s criticism of Jaitley was taken, a new story mentioning the finance minister went live on the website. The tone of the article was starkly different and its headline read, Mr FM, why pass a flawed Cong-drafted GST law when you can do better? The piece, which is written as a open letter, began with, “Dear Mr Arun Jaitley," before the writer, Shalini Singh, went on to say, “You have my deepest sympathies.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly noted that Lakshmi Chaudhury had begun working with Firstpost in March 2014. The Caravan regrets the error.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.