Media Watch: Is It Time For Concern – Conversation with Pamela Philipose

In case you missed the ongoing controversy with fairly disturbing ramifications for journalists working in India, a reporter Neha Dixit (who was featured on SheThePeople.TV earlier here) now faces an FIR and legal charges, over a long-form hard-hitting investigative piece she did, on children being taken out of Assam by Sangh Parivar run outfits… with orders to return them being ignored.  

I. The Story so Far

Quoting from the introductory paragraphs of her article:

“In a three-month-long investigation, Outlook accessed government documents to expose how different Sangh outfits trafficked 31 tribal girls as young as three years from tribal areas of Assam to Punjab and Gujarat. Orders to return the children to Assam—including those from the Assam State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, the Child Welfare Committee, Kokrajhar, the State Child Protection Society, and Childline, Delhi and Patiala—were violated by Sangh-run institutions with the help of the Gujarat and Punjab governments.

On September 1, 2010, the Supreme Court of India, dealing with the ‘Exploitation of Children in Orphanages, State of Tamil Nadu vs UoI and Others’ case, concerning large-scale transportation of children from one state to another, said: “The State of  Manipur and Assam are directed to ensure that no child below the age of 12 years or those at primary school level are sent outside for pursuing education to other states unt­il further orders.

This came after a probe into the trafficking of 76 children from Assam and Manipur, most of them minor girls, to “homes” run by Christian missionaries in Tamil Nadu. In spite of this apex court order, according to a CID report from Assam, over 5,000 children have gone missing in  2012-15, and activists are convinced this roughly corresponds to the number of children trafficked on the pretext of education and emp­loyment. At least 800 of these children went missing in 2015. “

You can read that entire story on ‘Operation Beti Uthao’ in Outlook Magazine here.

Media Watch In India

II. The Ramifications

The story has gone viral. And perhaps you can imagine the amount of trolling and vitriol online. There’s an interesting piece in the LA Times on what the reaction has been in terms of action against the journalist instead of follow-up investigation on the issue… 

I asked veteran journalist Pamela Philipose — Senior Fellow with the Indian Council of Social Science Research, recently-appointed Public Editor for The Wire, and former Director and Editor-in-chief at the Women’s Feature Service (WFS) — to share her perspective. 

The Outlook story at the centre of a storm Photo courtesy: outlookindia.com
The Outlook story at the centre of a storm
Photo courtesy: outlookindia.com

1. Can you share some of your perspective on where the media stands today: We are looking at the case of Neha Dixit’s story in Outlook, with serious legal charges being slapped, and no investigation of the human rights violations that she has reported.  Do you consider this plain intimidation tactics, or justified legal recourse?

Let us look at the Neha Dixit story.

It ticks all the boxes of what a good investigative story should be: first, there is its focus on an issue of great public concern in India in the context of the widespread trafficking of children in the country; two, it reflects comprehensive reporting from the ground including eye-witness accounts and conversations with the parents of the missing children, along with their images three, it mounts a courageous critique of the RSS, an entity that exercises enormous power with the governments, both at the Centre and the state (Assam); and, four, it reveals the hypocrisy of those in power, who speak of “beti padhao”, on the one hand, and turn a blind eye to serious violations of the rights of minor girls, on the other.

It is revealing that instead of engaging with the story, and coming up with a reasoned defence in the media –  the logical step for any injured party that has been unfairly targeted through a media report – the first recourse sought here is police action through the filing of an FIR. If this is not intimidation then I don’t know what is.

2. There are concerns about freedom of the press — which become automatically a polarised debate on “sickular” vs liberal vs bhakts.

The public discourse in the country at this juncture has become severely polarized in the current environment. The Indian mainstream media, which was seen as having played a partisan role in helping the present prime minister to come to power, was perhaps expected to continue that uncritical support thereafter, so whenever media platforms have sought to assert their independent role and speak truth to power, they have invited an immediate backlash. The attempt that is being made is to undermine the credibility of the profession and individual journalists by labeling them “presstitutes”, “sickular”, and the like. The turbo charge of a committed army of trolls, many of them enlisted during the Modi election campaign, has provided a added dimension to this deliberate and dangerous targeting.

3. What should the media fraternity be worried about/ be doing right now?

The worry is that this trend of intimidation and attack is only going to deepen as major elections – the Uttar Pradesh assembly election of 2017 and the General Election of 2019 to name two – draw closer. We have already seen the manner in which journalists were physically attacked at the Patiala Court in Delhi by lawyers, under the gaze of the Central government, and the lack of any meaningful action against those who perpetrated the attack.

This climate of impunity and fear will lead to greater self-censorship on the part of individual journalists and enormous pressure being brought to bear on managements to clamp down on independent reportage. For instance, while it was claimed that the change of the editor-in-chief at Outlook was a decision that had already been taken, the timing of the announcement clearly indicates an anxiety on the part of the management to appease the powers-that-be.

 The point, however, is that journalism would become stenography (archaic term but conveys the general idea) if its professionals submit to this intimidation and give up their mandated job of independent reportage. We need to convey to ordinary people who constitute the public that everybody loses, if the media does not do their job; that freedom of the media to report without fear or favour is the foundation on which everybody’s constitutional freedom of expression rests.

We need to convey to ordinary people who constitute the public that everybody loses, if the media does not do their job; that freedom of the media to report without fear or favour is the foundation on which everybody’s constitutional freedom of expression rests.

Photo Courtesy: @pamelaphilipose

Photo Courtesy: @pamelaphilipose

A statement of condemnation is on Kafila here.
Pamela Philipose tweets @pamelaphilipose