“I will not agree that journalists are under threat”: Prasar Bharati Chairman
Manipal: A sudden outburst contorted the face of Dr A Surya Prakash earlier on the day of this interview when a media and communications student had asked him if the conditions prevalent in India today were in any way similar to those that had been prevalent during the Emergency of the mid-70’s.
Here at School of Communication to deliver an Endowment Lecture in memory of another distinguished former Chairman of Prasar Bharati, M V Kamath, the veteran journalist and former Chief of the Delhi Bureau of The Indian Express faced the inexperienced student at the end of a two-hour-long talk.
Dismissing the idea completely, Dr Prakash shared many of his experiences from the dark times, asserting how the disappearances and deaths of journalists under Indira Gandhi weakened the democratic structure into almost total decay.
A few hours from then, though, when enquired about how much responsibility the central government should take up for journalist deaths over the last few years, he turned a blind eye. “Feudal lords”, he asserted, “are at the root of the issue. The local Dadas, they are behind all this and to them, nothing matters, not even the government.”
The Prasar Bharati (PB) chairman is, of course, not disposed to answer any of these queries; he is, after all, at the helm of an organisation removed from the government under an act of the parliament. Still, despite official clarification, Dr Prakash is intimate when discussing the autonomy of the behemoth.
“I would say we are on our way to autonomy for we have the weight of the legacy of being a government body. We may not be as lean and efficient as the private players, but we have come a long way. Earlier, you would just hear the government’s side of things on Doordarshan or Akashvani, today you hear all sides getting equal coverage.”
I point out that PB is in regular contact with the Prime Minister for the Mann Ki Baat series on All India Radio, to which he quickly responds, “That is because we have the best reach in the country. I am also sometimes astounded by the kind of reach and connect the PM has with the people, it is unprecedented.”
I emphasize that there have been no critical interviews of the PM though, and a hard line of questioning doesn’t exist. “I don’t understand the problem. All the other Prime Ministers had the power of the radio at their disposal, but only Modi decided to use it. Instead of blaming him, shouldn’t we be lauding him?” All that is fine, I say, but if relay of information from the Prime minister is the only requirement then isn’t the role of the journalist eliminated? Why train journalists for critical analysis in media schools?
“The government does stay in touch. The number of interviews Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley or Rajnath Singh has given is proof of that.” But the Prime Minister himself? “The Prime Minister’s interview will be taken by the PB if he wishes to choose this medium, which he will, given the unmatched reach we have” And doesn’t the unmatched reach necessitate the need for a critical interview to be conducted at the earliest? “You first go home and properly assess the credibility of PB’s work, and then come question me.”
I was sceptical of the going-home-and-checking part. Fearing that the chairman would think it a waste of time and leave before I could return from home, I stuck to whatever little I knew.
The Prasar Bharati has recently started sourcing news from Hindustan Samachar (HS) outside of its traditional sourcing from the Press Trust of India (PTI) and United News of India (UNI). There are rumours that both these sources will soon be dropped and HS be made the only agency. Are these allegations true?
“What are the political leanings of PTI and UNI?” he asks in response. I don’t know sir, but do you conduct background checks of news agencies before hiring them? “We conduct professional checks at the time of hiring, but the political leaning of a professional agency doesn’t matter. Hindustan Samachar provides us with news in more languages than any other agency, and I am not concerned with their political leanings as long as they are professionally equipped. See, you and me, we may like different cricketers, but that should not come in the way of our work.”
The allegations have surfaced alongside rumours that the PTI had fallen into the not-too-good-books of the government after it elected Vijay Joshi for the post of Editor-in-Chief, overlooking the government’s suggestions. Dr Prakash replied that he was not disposed to comment for he represented neither the PTI nor the government.
I went on to the next question. Multiple organisations concerned with the safety of journalists world over have been criticizing the dismal states of affairs in India. Amnesty International, in its latest condemnation of the death of a journalist in the state of Tripura, called the murder a ‘sickening assault on the freedom of expression’. Dr Prakash agrees that there have been deaths, though he has a few issues with the source of our concern. “Most of these murders are committed by local overlords of the ‘Ram Rahim Insaan’ kind. And we have to ruthlessly fight all such instances; we have to take them seriously. But despite all this, I would tell you that Amnesty isn’t an organisation that enjoys any credibility.”
Alright, not Amnesty then. Would reports and criticism from the United Nations suffice? “No, and one thing here. We are a thousand million people, we are the world’s largest democracy, but why are we not in the Security Council yet? Once we get there, all these reports, all of them, sab theek ho jayega, (everything will be alright) as far as India is concerned. I am sorry to say this, but there is a certain attitude towards India in these world bodies that I find totally revolting.”
China is regularly ranked lower than India in such reports (India is placed 136th in the latest Reporters Without Borders rankings of countries that are safe for journalistic practices, while China is placed 176th). “Why do you bring China into this?” You were talking about being in the Security Council, I say. “No, forget that. We are the most diverse country in the world, and we have to get our due for that. I don’t want any other organisation or country in the world pulling us down. Any other country with our conditions would have been divided into 40-50 countries by now, so we should be proud of what we have achieved.”
There have been multiple murders in the last one month. “These are all murders by local chieftains, and no pan-Indian bodies are involved. These are feudal lords in the picture right now, and if you are going to say that political parties are involved, then you need to have credible sources.” The police have verified the involvement of political parties in certain cases, though.
Four members of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) were arrested for the death of a journalist just this month, and even if only feudal lords were involved, would you still say the situation is safe?
“Of course not, if there have been these many murders they are not safe, but it’s mostly these chieftains, and journalists in India are not easily going to be cowed by such forces.” Do you know of Ravish Kumar? “Yes”. He has come out talking about how threatened he and fellow journalists have felt. “If he feels threatened, it is worrying. But if he is making a statement, it’s his view. In my view, I don’t think they feel threatened.”
“I will not agree that journalists are under threat or that democracy is under threat. I would say that with the kind of filth that is being thrown against the government on social media, the people in power are threatened. Would you put up with that?”
So the journalist feels safe under the present Central government. “That is a biased question. The state governments should be asked that. Is a journalist safe in West Bengal or Delhi or…” Assam? “Even Assam. Are they safe in Kerala? The moment you introduce the central government into this question, the question becomes biased.”
The chairman obviously was not obliged to answer most of the questions raised by the interviewer, simply because he was not in charge. Perhaps his training as a journalist kept him from having opinions; we are supposed to remain balanced under all circumstances, after all. Yet, it felt like we had covered quite a bit of distance over the 45 minutes that we had spent together for the interview.
“Zero displacement, though,” I imagined my physics teacher remark.
Edited by Shivani Singh
Featured Image Courtesy: Baisil Kunjumon