Free press in India is a Myth [The counter counter article mainstream media did not publish]

[Edit Note: This article has been republished from Mahesh Murthy’s Facebook with his permission. We agree that press in India is not completely free and that’s why social media and the Internet needs to be defended.]

I wrote a piece in Hindustan Times on how 66A is just a muzzling of free press to protect the corrupt. Prasanto  Roy countered my article with his piece in HT basically saying I was wrong and that there was a free press in India.

Here’s my counter to his counter. HT won’t publish it, and you’ll find out why soon enough. It’ll take you a couple of minutes, but please do read it.

I do wish the Hindustan Times can print my counter-reply to Prasanto. But it won’t.

So I’m putting it up here on Facebook.

I know the Hindustan Times won’t carry this counter-counter – because, in a stupendous feat of irony, they asked me to censor my original article in the first place when I first submitted it – and would only run the airbrushed version.

So much for the central thrust of Prasanto’s piece that there’s a free press. Nope, there isn’t. That act alone is proof enough.

I agreed to “tone down” my original piece and re-submitted it, in the hope of reaching a few more people than just this online medium would allow.

And I am not unhappy with my compromise. It did reach a few more people. And many guessed the names that were hinted at in innuendo.

But why do we need to speak in code if we truly have a free press?

If you’re interested to know what all was censored – lots. To start with, I launched into the article with the statement that this article itself was a toned-down and censored version of an original piece I had submitted. But in an even deeper irony, that itself was censored.

Further, I named names in the original piece. In case you wondered about the sports administrator I referred to. Yes, Pawar. The lady with the billions? Sonia. The journalist who disclosed our troop locations and was outed as a fixer for the Congress? Barkha. Her channel NDTV is owned by Anil Ambani. Anil’s brother Mukesh owns CNBC TV18. So it’s unlikely Reliance’s oil issues will be discussed there.

Tehelka was the once frank and fearless magazine that was reportedly de-testicled by the Congress after repeated raids and now seems to specialize in frank and fearless coverage of the opposition.

I also mentioned Zee’s recent pay-for-no-unpleasant coverage deal with Jindal and The Times Of India’s sacred cow status for Bal Thackeray. By the way, The Times also owns MediaNet which sells editorial stories for cash and Brand Capital that does the same for equity in your company. Yes, all of this was censored.

That my story went through as is was a miracle. And I thank courageous Abhijit Majumdar of HT for letting that happen. But let’s not mistake anything here for a free press.

Prasanto goes on to mention that the Palghar girls were let off because mainstream media stepped in. I agree with him. This is probably correct, because I don’t think Maharashtra cops follow conversation threads on Facebook. But where did mainstream media get this story from?

Ten years ago, the papers were full of a breed of cynical senior journalists, who knew every piece they did served to push or push back an agenda. Today, those guys are still there in seats of power.

But there’s a new generation out there, a large number of journalists, Prasanto included, who are younger, younger-thinking and active on social media.

This gang picks up stories from what’s being buzzed about on Twitter and Facebook, investigates it further and then amplifies it through their newspapers and TV channels – doing everybody a world of good in the process. This is a good ecosystem. My thanks goes out to this lot. Good on you guys – you’re getting word out where it matters even more than it does in here.

But this doesn’t happen in every circumstance. The outing of Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi as Congress fixers was ignored not just by NDTV and HT for a long time – but by the the rest of the print and TV fraternity too for many weeks. Either in quiet support for their brethren, or maybe they were afraid they would be outed too.

Open was the only magazine that came out with the story, though the material had been seen by every print and TV editor by then – all were afraid to put it out. Not quite a free press, hmm?

The story then blazed online for months – you might remember the #BarkhaGate hashtag which seemed to be permanently on Twitter trends.

I don’t know what Prasanto means when he says the IT Act has been used fairly. Is it fair for a common citizen or a policeman-on-duty to be the judge of what is offensive and then send another to jail, or hit them with a criminal offence? Like the cops did in Palghar?

I wonder if you know that SavitaBhabhi.com is banned from India not because some judge decided so – but because one private citizen – a guy called N. Vijayashankar from Bangalore who calls himself a cyber-law expert decided he didn’t like the site and wrote to the cops to order a block – and they meekly complied?

Could this insanity happen in the offline world? Some guy decides he doesn’t like the semi-nudes on Economic Times inside page, and orders the presses shut? No.

Because the law that covers the offline world won’t allow such arbitrariness. We do have pre-existing laws that cover offensiveness, obscenity, libel and slander already. But that requires a court of law, a judge, a process and assumes the case is civil, not criminal. Not things the government wants to deal with when it wants to stem the flow of unpleasant information online quickly, like it does through social media.

The government already knows it has most of the press and TV in its pocket. Or maybe it’s the other way around – because Mukesh Ambani apparently said “Sarkaar hamaari jeb main hai”.

But the stuff the government really doesn’t want to have appear, just doesn’t. Did anybody other than The Hindu and The Express cover Bofors? Nope. Do you think that with all their reporting breadth and access, a paper or channel could do a story on Sharad Pawar’s wealth? Or Sonia’s? Or the Thackeray’s? Or Mulayam’s? Or the source of Sahara’s funds? Or deeper into Reliance’s books? Do you wonder why any of this hasn’t happened yet? Because these are the sacred cows. The guys at the top don’t quite have the cojones to anger them. Not what would happen if this was a free press world.

Exactly a year ago, Kapil Sibal called the heads of Facebook, Google, Yahoo and IndiaTimes to his office and berated them for not self-censoring what was unpleasant to the government. He specifically referred to some random anti-Sonia group on Facebook. IndiaTimes and Yahoo said yes to self-censorship. Facebook and Google said it wasn’t possible. Sibal then stupidly floated some notion of having every comment on Facebook pre-approved by a human before it was posted. He was ridiculed for it. I was one among many who did that.

So why did the government pass 66A? You know now.

It was to make sure that online media in India – which is the closest we’ve ever come to a free press – is neutered – and is made as un-free as the rest of the media in India.

The weird thing about all this is that mainstream journalists like Rajdeep, his wife Sagarika, Tavleen and Barkha make noises saying online must be controlled. Maybe it’s sour grapes. Maybe it’s to stifle competition. But don’t let any of them – or even Prasanto for that matter – tell you that 66A is a good thing.

It’s not.

Everything it deigns to cover is already covered by our pre-existing laws. Except they’ve added more teeth here, in online media, because the government doesn’t have its claws into Google and Facebook and Twitter and the rest of the online world like it does into traditional media houses. And it needs the teeth to bite into anybody with the backbone to speak an unpleasant truth.

Because that unpleasant truth will make it harder for them to continue their loot of our money.

That’s what it’s about.

I don’t know if this piece here will ever have the reach of a Hindustan Times. But I can ask for your help to spread it around a bit.

Please do share it, tag it, pass it around, whatever.

Let it get out there.

Let it matter.

Let it make some tiny bit of a difference.