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Is the Churning in the Indian Media for Real?

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the finest writers and journalists, passed away recently. The Nobel laureate, considered one of the finest littérateurs ever, gave the world of journalism some of his finest thoughts.

Journalism is an insatiable passion that can only be digested and humanized by its brutal confrontation with reality. No one who hasn't suffered it can imagine that servitude that feeds on the unexpected occurrences in life.

Marquez died at a significant time in world history, at a time when press freedom is being increasingly questioned across the world, in a more telling way in Asia. Back in India compelling obituaries were written for Gabo -- as he was fondly referred to by his admirers -- and stories of his contribution to journalism in Spain, as well his effort to keep the power of the pen alive, were being told and retold in editorials. The contradiction of this story being written by the Indian media was never more acutely felt than today.

In 2014, with one of the most talked about general elections in the history of independent India, press freedom has been dying a silent death. The last time India went through a similar churning was during the emergency declared by the then-Prime Minister, Indra Gandhi, in 1975. Editors and journalists clamored for her attention; they crawled when asked to bend as opponents of the emergency would write later.

Circa 2014 -- The man at whose behest, allegedly the media, is cowering under pressure and is yet to come to power but it seems the media has already put its singularly most powerful weapon -- the pen -- at his disposal. They have prostrated even before he could ask them to bend. The churning in the Indian media has been spoken of only in whispers or by the leaders of one of India's emerging mainstream party, the Aam Admi Party, till recently, but if conversations with newsroom insiders, resignations, sackings, replacements are to be considered evidence, the change is here.

The telltale signs began to emerge last winter with the resignation of Sidharth Vardarajan, the editor of The Hindu, a publication that is known for its leftist leanings. However, it came as a shock when Sidharth, politically neutral and vocal in his criticism of Narendra Modi, made his resignation public on Twitter. Varadarajan said the management of The Hindu was unhappy over his undue criticism or aversion to publish the public rallies of Narendra Modi or senior leaders in the Congress. In an interview given to a weekly news magazine, Vardarajan said:

On the day I quit, I was editing a blockbuster of a story involving RIL, Mukesh Ambani and a private media company. I am not sure that story -- and other hard-hitting investigative pieces, especially on corporate issues -- will ever make it to print now.

The Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance India Limited Varadarajan speaks of has stakes in many media houses, including one of the leading national television networks, the Network18 group, which runs four news channels and a news portal amongst other media platforms. Coincidentally, Network 18 has been in the eye of the storm for months with alleged diktats imposed on its journalists to go soft on Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister whose lieutenants allegedly carried out cold-blooded murders and unspeakable crimes in the 2002 riots.

The Network 18 group came in the line of the storm after Caravan Magazine published a scathing cover story late last year titled, "The Network Effect: Reliance and right-wing politics gain a foothold in Raghav Bahl's media empire."

It was alleged that the promoters of the group at behest of their new bosses, the Ambanis, had decided to take a soft approach on the leader of the conservative opposition party, Narendra Modi. Arvind Kejriwal, the man who played a crucial part in the India Against Corruption campaign and who is now putting up a tough fight to the BJP as well as the Congress, alleged in a press conference a month ago that the business house was taking orders from the aspiring Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kejriwal lashed out at the media suggesting should they come to power, journalists who played a partisan role would not be spared. He further alleged that the RIL group run by Mukesh Ambani, which had stakes in major media organizations and was in the process of buying out some of the most important platforms in the country, had silenced all voices of criticism. It was not surprising then that early this year, a senior news anchor and journalist from the Network 18 stable known for her stand against the Indian Right wing and communal divisive politics tweeted, "There is an evil out there, an evil which is stamping out all free speech and silencing independent journalists: journalists unite!"

It was within weeks of this tweet that rumors started doing the rounds that senior editors from the channel had been asked to leave for their stated positions. Speculation is rife that the top names from the channel could make an exit post the mandate on May 16, which will change the tide of the Indian polity and the media.

It was not very encouraging that in a scenario like this Narendra Modi, who has been critiqued for his dealings with the press in Gujarat and whose government slapped charges of sedition against local journalists, gave his maiden interview to a news agency almost berating journalists. Answering a question on his reluctance to speak to the media over the criticism of his mishandling of the riots, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate said he had given enough interviews, but it was a bogey of newstraders who he was wary of and had avoided them. In a vicious atmosphere, this statement almost encouraged the prejudice against those journalists who had been relentless in their campaign for justice for the thousands who were killed during the Gujarat riots, the journalists whose articles were now being turned down by mainstream media organizations for being too critical of the PM candidate, many being handed over pink slips or forced to write independently.

Another glaring example of the churning has been the change in the editorial line of another newsmagazine, Open, which sacked its political editor recently over his alleged political motivations. Soon after its masthead saw some major changes, the magazine turned to writing an ode to Amit Shah, the former Home Minister of Gujarat and Modi's right hand man -- who has been indicted for his role in extra judicial killings and is now facing an enquiry in a case of using state machinery to stalk and snoop on the movements of a civilian.

In its cover story, the magazine, it seems, has had a change of heart as it waxed lyrical about the leadership qualities of Amit Shah and attributed the charges leveled against him as a mere conspiracy theory, negating the fact that the minister had been behind bars on charges as serious as murder, conspiracy and abettment of rape. The ethical degradation in media was also evident when a senior editor and one of the most trusted voices on politics in the country, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta released Gas Wars, a highly controversial book that claimed to have facts to prove the murky dealings of the RIL group, the same industrial house that has influence across major media houses in the country. With a few exceptions, the book, which ideally should have created a media furor similar to the one written by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's media adviser Sanjaya Baru, had no takers. Worse, the media refused to bat an eyelid when Reliance threatened the writer and its publisher with a lawsuit of Rs 100 crore.

The phenomenon of censuring has not restricted itself to the mainstream media -- local and regional newspapers across the country are rife with changes at the highest level to accommodate a "softer" approach towards the man who could come to power in 2014. Journalists, some of whom who were once considered politically neutral, are bending over backwards to catch the so-called 'Modi wave' through over-the-top coverage of various rallies and speeches of the aspiring prime minister.

Gabo did not seek this journalism of his admirers. This for him was stenography, this was not an insatiable passion for justice. This was not the journalism that well-known communist writers Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmed Faraz Pakistan strove for when they wrote in the face of tyranny against General Zia in Pakistan.

Perhaps it was for this very moment that Faiz penned those unforgettable words: Bol ki lab aazad hain tere, Bol zabaan ab tak teri hai (Speak for your lips are free, speak for your tongue is still yours).