5:18 pm - Tuesday June 14, 5003

Tackling private censorship in media

As media ownership passes into many kinds of hands, the sensitivities of corporate and political owners are posing a growing threat to unencumbered reporting


State censorship of mainstream media is now passè. No government, at least in our country, has much stomach for it. There is just too much media around, always looking for something to shriek or tweet about. But there is a new beast that the squeamish among us will need to confront even as we are still being coy about its existence. As media ownership passes into many kinds of hands, the sensitivities of corporate and political owners are posing a growing threat to unencumbered reporting. It is a recognized phenomenon in other parts of the world, and goes by the nomenclature of private censorship.

mediaA working definition: when media owners, publishers and advertisers, among others, exert pressure to shut out critical discussion or the publication of news or manuscripts, these amount to acts of private censorship. Consider these incidents which have occurred around the country in the last three or four weeks. The elevation of Amit Shah as Bharatiya Janata Party president saw DNA first publish a piece on his past record titled “A new low in Indian politics”, and then take it down from its web edition. One learns from within the publication that the headline in particular riled the proprietor.

Shah’s elevation also saw a few publications judiciously decide that references to the criminal cases still pending against him were not relevant while editorializing on his appointment. But inside Network18, acquired by Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) at the end of May, there was specific remedial action. Reports Quartz (qz.com) on 16 July:

“According to two newsroom staffers with knowledge of developments, CNN IBN’s bulletin at night as well as the graphics on air were edited to remove references to the criminal charges faced by Shah.”

This report is titled, Reliance is telling CNN IBN journalists how to cover the Aam Aadmi Party. That is the second instance of private censorship described within this group’s newsroom. It reports an RIL official Rohit Bansal, now a non-executive director on the Network18 board, offering the following charming rationale when asked at a townhall meeting attended by editorial staff how the Aam Aadmi Party should be covered: “96% of AAP’s candidates had lost their deposit in the general elections. Why should CNN IBN give any importance to a party that has been rejected by the people of India?” Quartz’s report has not been refuted so far by RIL.

The media has been quick to recognize the existence of private censorship in the book publishing domain, whether in the case of Penguin Books and Wendy Doniger, or in the case of Navyana cancelling its agreement to publish an English translation of Joe D’Cruz’s Tamil novel, after the author declared his support for Narendra Modi before the elections. Where its own fraternity is concerned the media has been far more circumspect. It is left to digital platforms and social media to spill the beans on in-house censorship. When the state attempts to censor, journalists come out on the streets in solidarity. When a media owner does the same, everybody pretends that nothing has happened. Incidents of censorship consume the Twitterati but get scant exposure on mainstream platforms.

Legal intimidation and self censorship are worrying variants of private censorship. Such censorship is enforced through legal threats. Often a mere legal notice, which never gets converted into an actual lawsuit, is more than enough.

Other recent incidents suggest that not just corporate ownership but also family-owned media, be it The Hindu, or India TV, can be turbulent places to work for a professional. The Hindu saw two high-profile exits this month, of Praveen Swami and P. Sainath, but these have been preceded by a steady stream of staff departures since family management changed last October. Not publishing all parts of a series Sainath wrote was among his grievances. Even under the earlier family dispensation at this newspaper, censorship without explanation was hardly unknown. I can vouch for that!

As for India TV, an anchor there announced her intention to commit suicide on Facebook, then allegedly swallowed something outside its premises, was rushed to a hospital and survived. She alleged a variety of professional pressures during her brief tenure there. Just the sort of story TV news loves, except when it happens to a fellow news channel. Arnab Goswami of Times Now, so tirelessly vocal in the Tarun Tejpal case, looked the other way when this happened in June. Private self-censorship?

Newslaundry carried a detailed report and was rewarded for its pains with a legal notice from India TV alleging defamation.

Semantics has clouded the issue thus far. When a newspaper or TV channel drops a news report or a column, or a TV report, particularly in times of conflict or media scandals, it is described as editorial discretion. But is editorial discretion passing into the hands of the proprietor? Corporate owner or family owner, censorship is increasingly becoming the owner’s prerogative.

News suppressed in one medium will eventually come out in another. But where do these whimsical diktats leave professional journalists?

To begin with, we need to recognize that Indian journalism increasingly has a problem.

By – Sevanti Ninan, She is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.