Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bihar: Katju stirs a storm, media remains gagged

Local media houses nothing more than road-side 'kirana' shops? 

By Manoj Chaurasia

Justice Markandey Katju, a former
judge of the Supreme Court of
India, and the chairperson of Press
Council of India is otherwise known
for courting controversies. But when
he reached Patna for a two-day visit to
Bihar in February to attend a function
organized by the Patna University, he
just dropped a bombshell.

His blunt remarks at the packed Patna
University auditorium that the press in
Bihar is not independent under chief
minister Nitish Kumar’s rule created
a furore in political circles. The wily
judge did not stop at that. He mocked
Bihar’s “turnaround” saga being widely
publicized in the media, and also
constituted a three-member committee
to investigate the “gagging of Press”
charges in the state. He took the
government head-on, and warned that
he would not allow the Nitish Kumar
government to run if does if it does not
allow the constitution to function.

Everything at the PU auditorium
being attended by dignitaries such as
Governor of Bihar Debanand Konwar
was going on in the customary cool
and calm manner until Katju spoke
his mind: “During Lalu Prasad’s
government, law and order of the
state had deteriorated but the press
was free to criticize the government’s
wrong moves. The present regime
has improved the law and order but,
from what I have come to know, it
does not allow the media to function
independently…anyone who has
dared to write against the government
has been either sacked or victimized
by the media houses under pressures
from the government”.

He began his visit to Patna with these
words sparking off protests from some
certain quarters. But the government
remained calm. It perhaps had a
hope that the judge would perhaps
retract his words. Although Katju’s
statement had indirectly questioned
the role of the government in public,
chief minister Kumar maintained a
mysterious silence and refused to be
drawn into the controversies.

Just when the people in the government
were awaiting a “correction” to PCI
chief’s statement, Katju lobbed another
bomb. Without being browbeaten
by the open criticism from the ruling
party that sought his ouster as the
PCI chief for his “gagging the Press”
remarks, Katju fired another salvo
on the Nitish Kumar government,
the very next day. Virtually tearing
apart the “good governance” claim
of the ruling NDA regime, he asked
it to mend its ways or he would not
allow it to function. “The constitution
provides for freedom of expression and
freedom of the Press. No government
is above the constitution and any
government or institution trying to
violate the Constitution cannot be
tolerated”. “Agar sarkar samvidhan ko
nahin chalane degi to main sarkar ko
nahin chalane dunga”, he thundered.
The issue rocked the ongoing budget
session of the state assembly with the
opposition members cutting across
party lines raising ruckus in the House.

The agitated opposition members
shouted slogans like “Press ki aazadi
par ankush lagana band karo” (stop
curbing the freedom of the Press),
“Vigyapan ka dahshat dikhana band
karo” (stop using advertisement as
a tool to pressure the media houses)
and “Aghoshit censorship band karo”
(withdraw undeclared censorship of
Press), eliciting stinging reactions from
the government. Stung by protests,
the ruling party leaders accused the
PCI chief of being under the influence
of the Opposition. Bihar’s deputy chief
minister Sushil Kumar Modi of the
BJP even alleged that Katju was in the
habit of making baseless allegations
to hog headlines and even suggested
that he should join active politics,
instead of behaving like an activist of
a political party.

The moot question now is that is
the media in Bihar really facing an
undeclared government censorship? Is
there any truth in Katju’s statements
or are they just the result of, what the
ruling NDA leaders describe as, his
penchant for being in media limelight?
It’s hard to say anything until the
three-member PCI team comprising
Rajeeiv Ranjan Nag, Arun Kumar and
Kalyan Baruah formed to look into
the complaints of violation of freedom
of Press in Bihar submits its report.
Yet going by the contents in the local
media and its over willingness to
routinely highlight the positive side
of the government, it becomes clear
that Katju’s remarks have a solid
basis. His words appeared closer to
truth when most of the local media
censored the story of the brutal killing
of four persons from the minority
community in an incident of police
firing at Forbesganj in eastern Bihar’s
Araria district in June last year. The
deceased were protesting against the
blocking of their decades-old rights of
passage by an upcoming maize starch
and liquid glucose factory owned by
a ruling party lawmaker when the
police resorted to indiscriminate firing
on the protesting mob. TV footage
telecast on local TV news channels
repeatedly showed a police jawan
jumping over the face of a seriouslyinjured
firing victim lying senseless
on the ground in sheer madness and
ruthlessly trampling him with his
boots until he died. The heart-rending
scene shook the heart of every sensible
citizen but the local media which
has the responsibility to report the
truth without bias remained totally
unmoved as the very picture did not
appear in any of the local newspapers.
Even the news stories appeared in a
partial manner.

The tale did not end here. The local
media did not even care to report
the stories of the fact-finding teams
of various political parties, rights
groups and also the visit of National
Commission of Minorities (NCM)
chairman with regard to this firing
incident. The sensational disclosures
came to light when the Bihar Media
Watch (BMW), an NGO which keeps
a watch on the activities of the local
media, conveyed the whole matter to
the Press Council of India chairman
through its formal two-page complaint
petition. “It’s painful to submit that
no newspaper published from Patna
carried the heart-rending picture of the
incident showing a policemen jumping
over the body of a seriously injured
victim who immediately died”, the
BMW said in its complaint to the PCI.
Accusing the media of violating the
“basic moral ethics” and “minimum
code of conduct of journalism”,
it alleged the local media also
shamelessly censored the stories about
the visit of the NCM chairman who
had come to meet the families of the
victims and ascertain the truth of the
matter. “This news (the visit by the
NCM chairman) was not published in
the largest-selling Hindi newspaper,
Hindustan, while Prabhat Khabar
made a mockery of it by publishing
the news on Page 16 in the classified
column consisting of 20 words. In so
far (as) Dainik Jagran is concerned, it
did not even consider this news worth
publishing”, said the BMW complaint
petition signed by Pushpraj, convener
and Dr Meera Dutta, member.Almost 
similar things happened when
another minority class member was
dragged on the uneven city roads
after being tied to a police jeep on the
suspicion of being a chain snatcher.
This incident took place in eastern
Bihar’s Bhagalpur district in 2007.

The local media is also full of stories
about how a Patna-based journalist from
a prominent vernacular daily claiming
itself to be the largest-circulated daily in
the world transferred one of its reporters
to the jungles of Maoist-dominated east
Singhbhum district in Jharkhand. He
was allegedly punished for his exclusive
front-page piece on the liquor scam in
the Nitish Kumar government that cost
the media houses crores of rupees in
advertisement revenue an an infuriated
government immediately stopped its
advertisements to teach the journalist
a lesson for its “over smartness”. After
living in the Jharkhand territory for some
months, the said journalist somehow
managed his transfer to Delhi but not
before he had regretted filing such copies
and the government restored the ads.

The same treatment was meted out to
another leading Hindi newspaper when
it dared to write against the government.
The ads were restored a month later but
not before its editor-in-chief had met
the government officials and reportedly
assured that such a mistake would not
be committed in future. It appears that
the same assurance is being honoured
till now.

Stories doing the rounds in the
local media are that the journalists
have been asked to highlight only
the positive side or write mainly
the promotional stories about the
government, and totally dilute
the negative stories. “We have
standing instructions from our boss
to highlight only the positive side
of the government and polish more
the already promotional stories. The
situation is worse than the emergency
period but what can we do? We have
no option other than succumbing
to the pressures of the government
and our media establishment or else
we will be on the streets”, confided a
senior journalist working with a local
English daily published from Patna.
For obvious reasons, he prefers to
remain unidentified.

Yet not everyone agrees with Katju’s
“gagging the Press” statement. There
is also a section of people which has
solely blamed the greed of the local
media to mint money at the cost of
credibility and journalistic ethics. “It
was the same media which constantly
criticized the previous RJD government
for its failures and highlighted the
scams during the Lalu Prasad regime
without ever looking succumbing to
the government’s pressures. But the
same media is signing paeans to the
chief minister and his government
although there are many issues, such
as sky-rocketing corruption, utter
lawlessness and poor delivery system,
which need to be exposed. This means
that the local media houses have
now compromised with journalistic
ethics and reduced themselves to
nothing more than road-side “kirana”
shops in a bid to earn more profits”,
explained a media person. Credibility
of the media persons, if not the media
houses, is indeed the loser in Bihar!

(The writer is the State Bureau Chief of The
Statesman based in Patna)

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