Citizens must understand that eventually, they are the losers when false information is deliberately allowed to proliferate, says the senior journalist. 17 Apr 2020
Instead of promoting a scientific temper among people, much of the media in India is today supporting superstition and injecting communal poison in the hearts and minds of viewers and readers, NDTV India Managing Editor and Magsaysay Award winner Ravish Kumar told Paranjoy Guha Thakurta in an interview published on Sunday April 12, 2020. Here is an edited version of the video interview translated into English.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: We are going through an unprecedented international crisis. The Director General of the World Health Organisation has said this is not just a pandemic but also an “infodemic” because of the way in which fake news has spread all over the world on a scale never witnessed before. In several countries, governments are making citizens give up their privacy. The argument proffered is that unless there are checks on information flows the dissemination of fake news cannot be curtailed or prevented. Is this a cure worse than the disease?
Ravish Kumar: There are many instances that indicate that supporters of governments are themselves in the forefront of spreading fake news. There are two types of news. One is the sort of fake news that supporters of the government (including the Indian government) spread. No attempts are made to curb the dissemination of such “news.” There is another kind of news the government does not talk about and that may be described as “dead news” or buried news. We do not know much about such kinds of information. For a viewer or a reader, the threat of being misinformed by what is put out on Facebook (or WhatsApp) is very real. But there is a much bigger threat and this is the threat that comes from dead news or buried news. I argue that those in power want certain truths to be buried and not reach people.
Governments continue to win this fight. Not just here but in different countries, governments are controlling the narrative through a pliant media. The problem is that the public at large is losing this battle. Readers and viewers must repeatedly question the credibility of what is passed of as “news” but this is not happening. Many have become used to living in a make-believe world. This is part of a longer conversation. However, what we are witnessing at present is a classic case of how, while living through a pandemic, we are on an “information diet.” Even as people are hungry for credible information, this “diet” gives you news in short bursts, for ten minutes at most.
I will give you an example from our country. Look at the short duration of government press conferences. I was watching scientists from the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) speak on the pandemic at a media conference. If they sit with journalists and answer their questions, it would help ordinary citizens. But are they allowed to speak freely and at length? I don’t think so. For example, ICMR scientists said that orders for test kits (to detect COVID-19) had been placed, that these were expected in a few days but that the supplies had not yet arrived. Why? They are scientists and perhaps they don’t know the answer, and might never know because the government is not disclosing the truth. That’s the news we are missing out on, the information we are not getting, the reports from the ground that are not reaching us.
In developed nations as well, information dissemination is in tatters. Still, if you take a look at the US, despite all that is going on, scientists are answering questions raised by journalists every day. Scientists often take public positions that are very different from the positions adopted and the claims being made by the US government and the American President. Can this happen in India? Can any ICMR scientist here say anything that is contrary to what is being claimed by the government? They can’t.
PGT: On April 2, the International Press Institute stated that governments, especially those with existing authoritarian tendencies, are using laws aimed at checking fake news to silence the independent media. They are taking advantage of emergency legislation to crack down on press freedom frequently on the pretext of combating the spread of fake news. They want to curb independent journalism. You spoke about US President Donald Trump. He is one person who has perhaps used the phrase “fake news” the most in the recent past. He addresses press conferences regularly unlike our Prime Minister. On March 20, a reporter from the National Broadcasting Corporation, Peter Alexander, asked Trump a question during a press conference. He said that many American citizens are today scared and asked the President what message he had for them. Trump tore into him and said: “You are a terrible reporter.”
He launched a personal attack on him. You ask a question and you become a terrible reporter?
RK: Paranjoy, please note that the reporter was in front of the US President. In India, not a single reporter can be seen in front of the Prime Minister of India. When we say this, we do not know if he (Narendra Modi) is planning to grant interviews (to selected journalists) like the ones he granted before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Remember the kind of questions the selected journalists asked the Prime Minister. How many nights have you not slept? Did you speak with chief ministers over the phone as late as 2:30 am in the morning? Wait and watch. Such interviews are again going to begin.
On the statement of the International Press Institute on fake news, see how it is being implemented in India. On the reporting on the Tablighi Jamaat episode, police personnel in districts in Uttar Pradesh have debunked the fake news shown on certain television channels.
PGT: You don’t have to take names. Let me take a few names. On the Tablighi Jamaat episode, Amish Devgan (also spelt Devgn, Managing Editor, News18 India Hindi) did a report. And later, Smita Prakash (the Editor-in-chief) of ANI (Asian News International), which, on most occasions, praises the government, tweeted the story. Even the police of the Yogi Adityanath government said such fake news should not have been aired.
RK: But, what happened? You instead send the police to the home of Siddharth Varadarajan (Co-Founding Editor, The Wire). During this lockdown, quite a few policemen came to Delhi in a vehicle. Did they follow social distancing norms? They came to serve a notice on him. So many police personnel from districts in Uttar Pradesh have sent notices to various media houses. The fake news that was spread by one big newspaper has been rubbished. Consider what happened recently in Katihar district in Bihar. A channel there ran a false story that a person who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat meeting (in New Delhi) had got admitted to a local hospital. The good thing is that the chief medical officer of the district hospital and the collector said the story was completely false.
There is a clear pattern we see. When such fake news is put out, many so-called “responsible” television channels or newspapers don’t contradict and condemn the dissemination of false information. Correct information is not reaching readers and viewers. Mainstream media organisations did not trash the fake news from Katihar but an individual YouTuber did. AltNews has compiled many collections of fake news but it is not mainstream media. There is Abhisar Sharma. He is also rubbishing fake news on YouTube.
The moot point is that there is no organised system in place to counter fake news. If wrong news has been spread, there should be a way to expose those who have spread it and associations representing journalists should highlight such fake news. If a district magistrate or a police officer is saying that a certain news item that has been run on a particular channel is fake, others should point this out. There is no system of audit for the media. A few individuals are fighting against the proliferation of fake news. Everything depends on these individuals. Citizens must understand that eventually, they are the losers when false information is deliberately allowed to proliferate.
What happens when bank officials harass members of the public? What happens when schoolteachers, who were receiving low salaries in any case, stop receiving their pay? Many jobs are going away. Does the public not deserve to know what is happening? If viewers and readers do not come together and oppose the media organisations that put out false information, they will themselves one day get suffocated by the spread of fake news. How much information can you and I disseminate? Can we reach out to every person in the country? Obviously not––neither do I have the ability nor the resources. The public has to think hard about the information diet they have been kept on. They have to realise that the diet isn’t good for their health.
People are being pushed into a tunnel from which they cannot return. Many members of the public aren’t able to comprehend what has been done––and what is being done––by most of the Indian media. For the last four or five years, the media has been single-mindedly spreading propaganda against Muslims, against minorities. You hear horrible debates on television. Many of the lies that have been propagated have not been refuted or challenged. Large sections of people have accepted as true all that that has been broadcast. Based on these lies, a new “bar code” has been created to identify people who subscribe to a certain religious faith. You don’t need to explain anything else: an entire community has been disenfranchised. Isn’t it the media’s job to strengthen democracy, to make it better, and not spread the virus of communalism?
I feel sad saying this. How many times will we discuss the state of the media in India? What do we do if many viewers do not understand? Are they all communally biased and want to believe what is being shown? This is the same media that does not want to talk about the viewer’s problems, his job and his salary. I don’t know what language to use any more. You are free to make your political choices, fall into whichever pit you wish to. But if you support the falsehood the media is propagating day-in and day-out, you will cause enormous damage to the country. This is an issue of ethics.
We say don’t make the reports Hindu versus Muslim. They, in turn, retort that we are doing exactly what they are being accused of, namely, ensuring that every story has a Hindu-Muslim narrative. All we are saying is that you should not spread rumours. They, on the other hand, believe that since they have the soldiers of the (Bharatiya Janata Party’s information technology) IT cell with them, they can do just about anything. And yes, unfortunately, they are actually doing everything they want to and getting away with it. I just hope that some day viewers and readers realise that it is not in their own interest that untruths be spread.
PGT: On March 31, the Home Secretary, Ajay Kumar Bhalla, filed a petition in the Supreme Court, supported by the Solicitor General of India, Tushar Mehta. The petition stated that any “deliberate or inaccurate” reporting by any electronic, print, social media outlet, particularly web portals, would cause “panic in large sections of the society” and that the court should direct the media to first verify what was “true” and “factual” from the central government and only thereafter disseminate the information. The Supreme Court, however, did not agree with the government and said that whereas fake news should not be disseminated, it did not intend interfering with “free discussion” about the pandemic while asking the media to refer to, and publish, the “official version” of developments. The question is, what does a journalist do if she or he does not get the official version, or does not get it on time.
For me, what was most surprising was that the Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justice L Nageshwar Rao said that the migration of large numbers of workers from cities was triggered by the panic created by fake news to the effect that the lockdown would continue for more than three months and not three weeks (as the government had stated at that juncture). The SC bench said that such panic-driven migration had caused untold suffering to those who believed and acted on the basis of such news. The bench then read out the provisions of the law––the Disaster Management Act––that stated how an individual could be jailed for a year and also fined for spreading rumours and false news. The Supreme Court agreed with the government on this point. Does this mean that fake news circulated on WhatsApp caused the migration? There are an estimated 400 million users of WhatsApp in India at present. Ravish, you have yourself talked about how many Indians who have not had the opportunity to receive quality education are today getting “educated” in WhatsApp University…
RK: We have to look at a few things. What were the facts that were placed upfront? Did the media actually spread news about the lockdown continuing for two or three months thereby creating panic? I am not aware that this was done. What about the errors made by the government in communicating facts about what was actually happening? Rumours about the lockdown spread like wildfire amongst migrant labourers because the government completely mismanaged its communications strategy.
When certain areas were declared hotspots by the Uttar Pradesh government in Noida and Ghaziabad, there was a lot of important information that was not communicated as a consequence of which large crowds gathered on the streets to buy food and other essential items. The state government wants to fix journalists using threats of jail or bail. But it fails miserably in communicating important facts to the people.
The Supreme Court should direct the IT cells of political parties, who are media entities in their own right, not to spread fake news. It is such cells that circulate fake news. Consider what happened after the PM-CARES (Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) Fund was launched about which many questions were raised. Those who are part of so-called WhatsApp universities spread rumours that moved from village to village. They claimed that this new fund had been set up by Modi because (India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal) Nehru had taken a decision that only the president of the Indian National Congress could head the existing Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund. Now this information was clearly false. It has been clearly specified in Hindi and English in the government’s official website that the Prime Minister is the head of the fund in an ex-officio capacity. Should government agencies not have countered the fake news that was circulated in this regard? They did absolutely nothing.
During this ongoing crisis, every news channel should highlight the briefings made by government officials right through the day. I’ll tell you why. You switch on your TV during the evening and that is when those useless debates start. During the day, when press conferences happen, a lot of the important information that is disclosed does not reach viewers. For example, the central government took a decision that standing crops could be harvested in the fields and that vehicles carrying farm equipment could cross state borders despite the lockdown. The media did not highlight this decision. This is important news for many people. Wheat is ready to be harvested. If this information does not reach people on time, it has adverse consequences––grain would go waste.
On April 8, the government issued a notice stating there should be no discrimination against doctors. There is a line in the Dos and Don’ts section of the notice that no one belonging to a particular community or any one locality should be identified or stigmatised. This should have been the first sentence of the notice. But the “godi” (literally lap) media or the pliant media continued to harp on the Talbighi Jamaat story because it reinforced their communal bias. Even government officials dished out statistics to ensure that this half-baked story remains on top of the minds of viewers.
How many media outlets have told us about the travel itinerary of the son of the top official of the Madhya Pradesh government, an officer belonging to the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) who is under quarantine? From which country did he come and why did he and his mother not inform anyone about his travels? Why was this not a big story?
The media in India is almost finished. There are still a few who are still trying to do their bit and supporters of the government are targeting them. We are told that the country is united in its fight against COVID-19. If indeed that is the case, why are so many private hospitals closed? Why have doctors closed their clinics and run away? The government has granted them permission to remain open. We gave our taalis (clapped) and banged thaalis (metal utensils) for our doctors. But there are many patients who are currently in deep trouble, including pregnant women and people on dialysis. How will the government get feedback about the condition of its citizens, if the stories of such patients are not told by journalists? Remember that many such people voted for the political party that formed the government in New Delhi.
PGT: Let me rewind a little. I am 64. I started journalism 42 years ago just after the Emergency. After Indira Gandhi returned to power in January 1980 following her party’s electoral defeat in March 1977, she was asked: What was your biggest mistake during the Emergency?
Her reply was: “Press censorship.”
Indira Gandhi had put many journalists behind bars. Not just opposition leaders but journalists as well, Kuldip Nayyar and many others. In the Morarji Desai government, Lal Krishna Advani was the Minister for Information and Broadcasting. He is today 92 years old. He was asked why so many journalists and editors didn’t have the courage to oppose Indira Gandhi. He said something very interesting in response: “When they (the editors) were asked to bend, they crawled.”
Today, are we seeing a new type of Emergency? The government is not even asking them (media barons) to lower their heads but they are flat on the floor. On March 23, the Prime Minister spoke to owners and editors of media houses and urged them to help the government. He even told journalists to be careful while reporting, to use boom microphones while reporting and staying a metre away from the person being interviewed. So have we gone back 40-45 years?
RK: This is an old question. We have been living through the new Emergency for more than five years now. People should understand that this section of the media, which I describe as the “godi” media, is working against the interests of those who voted Modi to power. These voters are today facing many difficulties, are they not? They are facing problems getting jobs, repaying loans, paying their children’s school fees and so on. They are his voters, but their voices aren’t being heard. We are told that we are going through hardships and that it is important that the country remains united at this juncture. But does this also mean we should not be asking questions.
I want to tell you what the great poet Tulsidas wrote in the Ramcharitmanas a long time ago. He said that if the minister, the doctor and the teacher start saying nice things to the ruler, that is the end of his rule, his life and his body. This “godi” media does not even know this country’s traditions. It is perpetuating a rule by the mob and condoning the most irreligious acts in the name of religion. Our tradition is to stand by the truth. But much of the media is today standing alongside falsehood. What hope can we have from this media?
I am merely urging citizens to understand that nobody wants to interfere with their political preferences. The role of the media is different. When the government announced that Rs 1,000 would be given to construction labourers, did any media organisation conduct a social audit? What did the media play instead? Songs that were meant to make you feel good.
When doctors and nurses are given accommodation in five-star hotels, the cameras are ready beforehand. People applaud. But when the same doctor is bashed up, the cameras are not there. The doctor does not have adequate personal protection equipment. Complaints are coming in. This was an occasion when the media should have promoted a scientific temper among the people of the country. This was an opportunity to explain what is going on in rational and scientific terms. A large section of the Indian media is instead promoting superstition in the name of religion. People are being asked to believe lies.
I was informed that 70-odd engineers who had been working on contract with a government body had been removed from their positions. I asked some of them a few questions. I asked them how much they had been earning and for how long they had been working. I also asked them if they had banged thaalis on March 22 on the suggestion of the Prime Minister. One man who spoke to me candidly said that he was among those who had banged thaalis that evening. Will my journalist sisters and brothers write about this person’s predicament? Will they deliver his message to the Prime Minister? And if he listens to his problems, he may do something. He may direct that there be a reduction in school tuition fees and ensure the timely payment of salaries to teachers and even, the gardeners who work in schools. But is the media taking such messages to those who are in positions of power and authority? Regretfully, no. The chain of communication linking the ruled with the rulers is broken. This media is anti-public, anti-poor…
The biggest story for television reporters in the national capital was the unprecedented migration of the poor. But then came the Jamaat story to divert attention. This became a story that was bigger than the hardships suffered by hundreds of thousands of workers. Much of the media has stopped reporting on what is happening on the ground. The government’s decisions are not being questioned. The government may have taken certain decisions with good intentions but if the decisions are not being implemented, it is the job of the media to point out the shortcomings. This is not happening. The space for the independent media, that had already shrunk, has now shrunk further.
PGT: A last question. On April 8, (Acting President of the Congress) Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter to Prime Minister Modi making a number of suggestions, including stoppage of work on the renovation of the Central Vista in the capital. One suggestion she made got many in the media very angry, especially the owners of “godi” media organisations. She called on the government to completely stop spending on advertisements, barring ones related to COVID-19 and public heathcare, for two years. She said that the central government would save Rs 1,250 crore. Soon after this suggestion was made, owners of media organisations protested loudly. They asked: “Does she want to finish us?”
What do you have to say about Sonia Gandhi’s suggestion?
RK: The reaction of the owners of media organisations did not surprise me. In that letter, there is mention of the Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista renovation scheme. If your economic condition is so bad that you are cutting the salaries and pensions of Members of Parliament, then the scheme to renovate the Central Vista should be scrapped. But will it?
As for advertisements given by the government, we don’t know who gets how much of this amount of Rs 1,300 crore. Does 80% of this amount go to five big media houses? Small newspapers regularly complain that they don’t enough government advertisements. This is, after all, public money and people should know who is getting how much from the government. There should be full transparency in this regard. But that is an ideal situation.
Sonia Gandhi said that the government could issue advertisements on COVID-19. This implies that if the government wants to, it can issue hundreds of advertisements on the pandemic. But that is not the issue at stake. You need an enemy? You need to demonise an entire community. Those who shouted the loudest about the Tablighi Jamaat incident did not talk abut how Muslim clerics in many small towns and remote villages repeatedly told their followers not to congregate for namaaz (prayers), about mullahs (clerics) who said they were wholly supportive of the Prime Minister. Did the media praise them? No. Yes, the Jamaat, which is an international organisation, was irresponsible, but so was the government.
At that time, the government was busy conducting rallies for US President Trump. What was the message that was being sent? What moral authority is the government left with? It is with great sadness that I am saying what I am. Still I hope that some day people will realise that their children should not grow up hating Muslims. I reiterate that a communal person cannot be a good citizen because communalism is built on lies. You are insulting your own religion. You are disregarding what is written in the Gita that you should have the strength to tell the truth. What do I say to those who lie and simultaneously swear by what is written in the Gita?