Mevani, Republic TV and the solidarity in Chennai

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Media Practice | 21/01/2018
Both refusals: the journalists’ and Mevani’s, can be seen as justified. Who then was right?
JYOTI PUNWANI recalls instances when the media showed no solidarity

 

HERE’S LOOKING AT  US
Jyoti  Punwani

 

Should a section of Chennai’s media have refused to comply with newly elected Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani’s demand that the Republic TV reporter remove his mike before Mevani spoke to the rest of the media?

The intense discussions among journalists since the incident took place on January 16 have seen two opposing views. One view supports the Chennai journalists for sending out a message that showed ``solidarity with fellow mediapersons’’, ``standing up for the freedom of the press’’ and ``not letting politicians set the terms for us’’.   

The other view supports Mevani’s right to refuse to talk to a channel that has continuously slandered him since the January 1 Bhima Koregaon rally in Maharashtra.

Both refusals: the journalists’ and Mevani’s, can be seen as justified. Who then was right?

Nityanand Jayaraman in The Wire has clarified the misconception we were all under: this was not a press conference. Mevani had been invited by a study circle. Journalists attended the meet and later wanted an interaction with him.

This small difference is essential. A press conference is open to the media; nobody ought to be kept out. A post-event interaction with a celebrity is different. The media wants to get the celebrity’s reactions, but the latter need not oblige. Most do, because they want to. But they would be within their rights to say `No’.

In fact, Mevani did later address a press conference jointly with Thol. Thirumavalavan, head of the VCK party, which was widely covered by the Tamil media.

So the ``Chennai media’’ didn’t boycott Mevani. Chennai’s English media did. From the video in circulation, it seems that it was mainly the English electronic media which refused to give in to his demand.

"So the ``Chennai media’’ didn’t boycott Mevani. Chennai’s English media did"

 

Did they have an alternative? When Mevani said he would not answer any questions as long as the Republic TV mike was there, could the other journalists have asked the Republic reporter to remove his mike? That would have been quite against the collective spirit in which reporters cover such briefings. This was after all, not a one-to-one interview. Seeing one of their own singled out, the reporters stood by him.

But was Mevani wrong in his demand?

Not if one sees how Republic TV has treated him.

On January 2, a day after violence broke out following the Bhima Koregaon rally, Arnab Goswami referred to it repeatedly as ``organized political violence’’. He held Mevani responsible for ``leading the call for a political street war.’’ Mevani, he said, had been ``commissioned by the Congress to create a street war’’, and was backed by the ``Bharat ki barbadi brigade of Umar Khalid’’.

Arnab was referring to one sentence in Mevani’s speech at the rally: ``the war against the New Peshwai will have to be fought on the streets.’’

"But was Mevani wrong in his demand? Not if one sees how Republic TV has treated him"

 

By then, two Hindutva ideologues had been booked for the violence. On January 3, Mevani and Khalid were also booked.

On January 4, Mewani was described by Arnab as part of the ``tukde tukde gang’’, who were ``freeloaders, these Umar Khalids, these Kanhaiya Kumars, these SIMI and Pakistan-supporters’’ who want to break India’’.

He mentioned the slogans: ``Bharat ki barbadi tak jung rahegi jung rahegi’’ and ``Bharat tere tukde honge Inshaallah Inshaallah’’ raised on the JNU campus in February 2016. As he spoke, the camera zoomed in on JNU student Umar Khalid speaking at the Bhima Koregaon rally, with the caption: ``Led tukdetukde brigade in JNU’’.

Arnab repeated his allegation that this ``Rahul Gandhi-backed, Jignesh-Umar tukde tukde gang’’ were responsible for the violence that erupted after the Bhima Koregaon rally. ``Republic TV exposes tukde tukde gang’’ ran the tagline below the screen.

On January 5, Republic TV filed two reports from Bhima Koregaon,  interviews with owners whose properties had been burnt by miscreants. Both the anchor and the reporter blamed Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid for having instigated the violence by their speeches. Do you hold these two responsible, the reporter asked the owners of the burnt properties. One owner agreed wholeheartedly; the second, despite urging by the reporter, only said he was not into politics, he wanted compensation.

On January 9, Republic TV covered the Yuva Hunkar rally in Delhi, which was addressed by Mevani, Khalid, ex-JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar and  ex-vice-president Shehla Rashid, with the headline: ``Mevani’s super flop show’’, and visuals showing empty seats. Within the first few  minutes, the anchor made two allegations against Mevani. The first had nothing to do with the Delhi rally. Mevani, she said, was responsible for the death that took place in the violence after his ``December 25 speech’’. (She probably meant January 1, when Mevani spoke at the Bhima Koregaon rally.) The second allegation described the rally organisers as the ``tukde tukde gang’’.

Here it is necessary to mention that the entire media knows that ``bharat ki barbadi brigade’’ and  ``tukde tukde gang’’ are false allegations. No JNU student was proven to have uttered any anti-national slogan in February 2016. The video of these slogans being shouted that went viral, had been aired on Zee News, which also supplied it to the police.

Within a few days, the video was proven by forensic tests to have been doctored. Rahul Kanwal even demonstrated on India Today how the video which went viral had been doctored.

Despite that, Zee News, News X and India News kept airing the video. Arnab Goswami, then chief of Times Now, continued alleging that Kanhaiya Kumar and  Umar Khalid had raised these slogans. He’s doing so till today.

Goswami knows well the effects of this relentless campaign against the JNU students.  Based on this doctored video, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and a third student, Anirban Bhattacharya, were charged with sedition and had to spend more than three weeks in jail. Kanhaiya was beaten up by lawyers in court. JNU fined him Rs 10,000 and rusticated Khalid for one semester and Bhattacharya for two semesters. The students challenged these punishments in court. 

The campaign transformed JNU’s image into a den of anti-nationals. Students going to the campus were abused on the Delhi Metro and in buses. Kanhaiya, Shehla Rashid, Umar Khalid and Anirban were seen by a section of the public as traitors, and have since been continuously abused on social media, with Shehla getting regular rape threats.

Last September, Shehla Rashid had asked Republic TV’s reporter to leave as she began to speak on journalist Gauri Lankesh’s death at a protest outside the Press Club of India, Delhi. Now, Mevani, who has chosen to ally with these students in his campaign against Narendra Modi and the BJP, has followed suit.

"The campaign transformed JNU’s image into a den of anti-nationals. Students going to the campus were abused on the Delhi Metro and in buses"

 

Given Arnab Goswami’s continuous vilification of them, can Shehla and Mevani be blamed for refusing to talk to the channel he runs?  (Incidentally, NDTV India anchor Ravish Kumar revealed on January 19 on Prime Time that BJP spokespersons had stopped participating in his programme.) 

What would have happened had Mevani not insisted that Republic TV’s mike be removed? He would have answered questions while the mike was on, and Republic TV  would have had access to his answers. Given their record of projecting him as an instigator of violence who hobnobs with traitors, based on selective excerpts of his speeches and fake videos, why would he allow them this access?

Can  ``freedom of the press’’ be invoked here?  Can campaigns based on evidence known to be fake, and which endanger lives, fall under the umbrella of freedom of the press? 

Even if we ignore the fact that Republic TV and Zee News are owned by BJP or BJP-supported Rajya Sabha members, can the principles of journalism - objective and fair reportage - be ignored?  

All through the 70s till the 90s, the term `yellow journalism’ and `gutter press’ was used for publications that thrived on blackmail. They were all registered, their owners flaunted `Press’ stickers on their vehicles, they even got government housing. But we all knew they could not be treated as part of professional journalism. Indeed, we were ashamed of them for giving the rest of us a bad name.

During the 92-93 Mumbai communal riots, the Shiv Sena-owned, Bal Thackeray-edited Saamna churned out a series of editorials against Muslims, describing the violence in Mumbai as a religious war, celebrating the burning of mosques and instigating violence against Muslim police officers. Later, Thackeray described Saamna as ``the spark that lit the fire of patriotism which kept the country, god and religion alive.’’ The Justice B N Srikrishna Commission Report indicted Saamna for the January 1993 violence. Saamna was charged u/sec 153 A (promoting communal enmity) for its riot writings.

Was Thackeray exercising the freedom of the press? Even today, Saamna remains the mouthpiece of the Shiv Sena. Did we consider the  Saamna of the riots a part of professional journalism? Do we do so today?

What Zee News and the Arnab Goswami-headed Times Now did during the JNU controversy, falls under the category of spreading hatred based on fake news.

This month, the Centre’s envoy to Kashmir, Dineshwar Sharma, asked Home Minister Rajnath Singh to meet certain TV channels after Kashmiris complained to him that they were circulating ``vicious propaganda’’ against Kashmir. This columnist has watched Arnab Goswami’s frequent discussions on Kashmir from the time he was heading Times Now. The manner in which they were conducted was designed to make viewers oppose any peaceful, dialogue-based resolution on Kashmir.

It is not just Kashmir. Arnab Goswami has mastered the art of bullying and silencing those opposed to his ultra-nationalist viewpoint. Anyone who fundamentally challenges the Establishment, be it students, Dalit leaders, Left leaning academics and writers, anti-nuclear activists, is projected as anti-national. In fact, given its reach, Republic TV constitutes a threat to any expression of dissent.

"Reporters carry the reputations of their publications with them. They may join a publication/TV channel only to earn a living, but they do so knowing what it represents"

 

The channel also regularly scoffs at known secularists. It glorified terror-accused Lt Col Purohit when he was released on bail in August last, as did Times Now. The serving army man stands charged with planning the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast targeted at Muslims, in which eight Muslims were killed.

Yet, these channels continue to be seen as very much part of the media, as entitled to freedom of expression as anyone else. Indeed, the Chennai journalists’ action is being touted as standing up for the rights of even those one disagrees with. Can one merely disagree with a channel that uses fake evidence to make serious allegations against dissenters, that glorifies those accused of terror? Can such an outlet be called a ``news’’ outlet?  

Another argument being put forward is that the solidarity shown in Chennai was for the reporter, not for Republic TV.

But reporters carry the reputations of their publications with them. They may join a publication/TV channel only to earn a living, but they do so knowing what it represents. A journalist is not seen as distinct from the editorial stance of his/her publication.

Yet another argument is that politicians cannot be allowed to dictate terms to the media.

In 2008, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray called a press conference days after his  goons had gone around bashing unarmed North Indians in Mumbai. He forbade reporters of Hindi channels from attending it, because according to him, they telecast distorted news.  

No journalist protested. Thackeray’s press conference was widely covered, though this was a clear attempt to stigmatise a section of the media by a rabble rouser whose utterances had actually caused physical harm to innocents. Raj Thackeray remains a darling of the media, though he has not stopped making  inflammatory speeches and his goons have not stopped their violence against innocents.

In 1988, Sena chief Bal Thackeray humiliated Mumbai’s Sikh leaders at a press conference called by them which he was invited to address. He threatened to impose an economic boycott on their businesses if they didn’t take on Khalistani militants in Punjab. No journalist walked out. Till he died, the Sena ``supremo’’ was fondly called ``Tiger’’ by an adoring media.

Sure, the Chennai media cannot be held responsible for the deeds of the Mumbai media. But journalists with Sun TV recall how they would remove the channel’s logo from their mikes when attending an AIADMK event, to avoid the rough treatment they would invariably get from party members. (Sun TV  is seen as a DMK channel.)  When AIADMK leader Jayalalitha was CM, recall these journalists, she would sometimes choose to talk only to her own channel, Jaya TV, and the rest of the electronic media  had to pick up her quotes from there. Sometimes, Sun TV reporters were even barred from entering government offices.

``Nobody protested,’’ said these journalists, not wanting to be named. ``But our colleagues filled us in on whatever we missed.’’ One journalist remembers how anyone who dared to pose a tough question to Jayalalitha at a press conference would be shouted down by seniors.

Today’s is a different generation perhaps. A generation where a reporter can tell a young Dalit activist-turned-MLA as he is leaving: ``Leave it, we don’t want the press conference. You can go.’’ Would they have said this to an established politician?

The choice made by the Chennai journalists of standing with their colleague was understandable. But at the end of the day, they denied a voice to the man who has been relentlessly targeted by that colleague’s boss, only for standing up to the ruling party at the Centre, and speaking out for its victims.

So whom did the Chennai journalists actually ally with?

 

Jyoti Punwani is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

 

 

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