Journalism in Mamata land

June 13, 2011

[The proper functioning of a democracy requires the media to be constantly alert to the misdeeds of the government, ready to thoroughly scrutinize the state in every aspect of its functioning. The following article, published in the media watchdog website The Hoot, gives us a warning to the dangers that lie ahead as the newly elected West Bengal government allegedly attempts to build up its own breed of media sycophants, at the cost of throttling free and fair journalism. – Ed]

by Ajitha Menon (Source : The Hoot)

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee recently opened a new chapter in the media-government relationship when she publicly declared that she will “compensate” a news channel with a substitute story if they miss something. This was her official response to a question on why the State Higher Secondary Examination results were leaked by the concerned government department to a private news channel (Star Ananda), known for its close affiliation to the Trinamool Congress, ahead of the formal announcement.

The entire media fraternity gathered at Writers’ Building, the state secretariat, responded to the statement with scattered laughter, almost condoning the fact that the government will play favourites with the media on official matters – even at the cost of institutional breach of trust – and in case of objection from someone, there will be “compensation” in the form of another story. First your turn, then my turn – wait for the handouts.

The more serious issue of betrayal of trust by an institution reposed with the charge of conducting these examinations without bias and ensuring formal publication of results to the satisfaction of lakhs of students, their teachers and guardians, was ignored by the mainstream media almost as one.

As any professional journalist will vouch – an exclusive will be carried if the source is credible and the facts verifiable. So, the channel which carried the results ahead of schedule can hardly be blamed for “scooping” their rivals. However, the responsibility for the leak should have been fixed on the government department responsible for the examinations – in this case the Bengal Higher Secondary Education Council. Not because the results were handed out ahead of time – though one doubts that a similar media compliance would be witnessed if the UPSC results were given to one particular channel before the merit list is officially posted – but because of the breach in security of the entire process of conducting exams, correcting answer sheets, tallying the marks, preparing the merit list and publishing the results.

Interestingly, the Council President, Omkarsadhan Adhikary, when pushed to the wall on the issue admitted, “everything was done in accordance with the instructions of the state government”. He was mum on who in the state government ordered the disclosure.

If a breach can happen in this case, why then not for influencing results, adding or deducting marks of certain candidates, for even changing the merit list? Since the weak link in the department is already exposed – a link which is susceptible to media glamour or political interference, whatever it maybe in this case – why can’t the weak link be exploited for perpetration of more nefarious designs? Or for that matter, why should this remain restricted to one government department only? After all, the Chief Minister herself has sanctioned the weak link now, refusing to order an enquiry into the matter!

A pro-Left channel (Choubis Ghanta – Bengali) picked up the issue only to be categorically dismissed by the Chief Minister in the following words – “What can I do if a certain channel gets information. I can’t order an enquiry into what channels are doing. Choubis Ghanta is CPI(M)’ s channel. They are always saying bad things about me. Maybe they are sad that they missed the story. Don’t worry, I will give them another story to ‘compensate’.”

A case of missing the forest, as well as the trees and offering bribes to media to boot? The denizens of the fourth pillar of democracy in Bengal seemed extremely subdued on the matter. ‘The Bengal Post’ story with the headline “HS council ‘fails’ as channel leaks results”, had some teeth, while the Kolkata edition of ‘The Hindu’ had a small paragraph on the matter. The CPI(M) mouthpiece ‘Ganashakti’ of course went to town about it and the Bengali ‘Bartaman’ also had a story stating the Chief Minister had refused to order an enquiry into the leak.

It may be recalled that a similar leak of Secondary Board exam results ahead of the formal announcement had occurred in 2007 and the then government was forced to order an enquiry which led to the dismissal of the then President of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education, Ujjwal Basu.

The low key response from mainstream media this time is worrying in the context that a new era of total media obeisance to both the Chief Minister and her council of ministers has been ushered into the state post Assembly elections.

That Mamata Banerjee has a select coterie of favourite journalists is common knowledge and acceptable in India where most politicians cultivate media persons to suit their ends, where journalists are more often than not “cultivable” and where “paid news” is norm. However, it is dangerous territory for democracy when journalists outside this coterie are not even allowed to ask questions – not just to any politician but even to the democratically elected Chief Minister in office.

A young agency reporter, who had the “ temerity” to ask Bimal Gurung, the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM) leader “Have you dropped the demand for a separate Gorkhaland?”, after his first meeting with the new Chief Minister, was shot down by the Chief Minister who did not allow Gurung to reply and instead said “don’t insist, that may deteriorate the situation ”! However, the matter was tolerable till after the press conference, when a trio of senior reporters converged on the rookie and demanded to know “why did you ask such a question? ‘Didi’ was offended”.

The message was, don’t ask unpleasant questions, only ask what ‘didi’ wants to be asked, please her and her ministers at any cost. The media should in no way anger ‘didi’. Its not clear whether ‘didi’, who had portrayed herself as a champion of democracy, approves of such behavior but its obvious to the field reporters in Kolkata that the media is on its knees.

Notably, when Mamata Banerjee finally announced a tentative agreement with the GJMM on Tuesday (June 7), she repeatedly said the “Darjeeling” problem has been settled. The media obliged, and the word “Gorkhaland” was not even whispered, and the GJMM representatives were not asked anything about their long pending demand for a separate state – it was as though it never existed!

While giving an interview, Partha Chatterjee, the new industry minister, took it upon himself to order the ETV cameraman in the Assembly, “Keep us in two-frame” (meaning the newly elected Speaker Biman Banerjee and himself). When he realised that the cameraman had not kept a “two-frame”, zooming in to his own face alone, Chatterjee actually threatened “you think just because you hold the camera in your hand, you also hold your job? You think Hyderabad is far away? Don’t think that its that far”.

In another instance, a young reporter with NE Bangla channel angered the Mayor Shovan Chattopadhyay, who was criticizing the condition of Subhas Sarovar Lake a few days after the new government took charge, by asking “but this lake comes under Kolkata Corporation, which has been with TMC for over two years now, so why hasn’t something been done yet?” . The Mayor walked off in a huff without replying, while other journalists from R Plus Channel and Mahua TV charged her with, “why do you ask such things. You angered him and we lost our chance. Because of you we could not ask our questions”.

As the angry young reporter said, “their questions were, of course, of paramount importance as usual – how many bulbs will be put up to light the lake area and which other lake will you visit? This is what journalism has come to in Kolkata”!

Television viewers across the country saw the lead anchor of a 24-hour Bengali news channel sitting behind Mamata Banerjee on the day the election results were announced, while she was giving an interview to Barkha Dutt of NDTV. Even, Dutt, a journalist of some stature, had not dared to ask the “in-coterie celebrity anchor” to move out of her frame!

For young reporters working for the pro-Trinamool Channel 10, a nightmare is unfolding. One of them asked a question to the Mayor, which the later did not like. He picked up the phone and called the channel editor and complained. It was made clear to the hapless scribe, by his boss, that asking difficult questions to Trinamool leaders or ministers was a strict no-no. “Keep them happy. Anyway such stories will not be carried on our channel and you will surely lose your job”, the young reporter quoted his boss as saying. Most reporters of this channel admit that they are afraid of losing their jobs if Trinamool leaders complain to the editor.

Mamata’s coterie journalists belonging to Star Ananda, The Telegraph, etc., also interface between her and other media persons. A reporter from Indiavision Channel, Kerala details his experience outside Mamata Banerjee’s house – “I waited for six hours for a sound bite from her. She came out and called one journalist inside. He came out after sometime and showed us all an sms on his mobile from her which said “I will not talk to any reporters today, please ask them all to leave!”.

A Sahara TV reporter, who was desperately trying for a one-to-one interview with Mamata Banerjee on the day of the election results but categorically refused was told by a Star Ananda reporter, “You should have come to me. I would have fixed it up with her for you”. A broker?

The Indiavision reporter’s final comment on the matter – “I had also tried for an interview when she visited West Midnapore. I waited outside for almost four hours and sent in messages through the security personal and other Trinamool leaders. She refused to talk to us but journalists from Star Ananda and some Bengali papers were with her throughout. How can a politician be selectively accessible? Aren’t we part of a democracy? If it is like this now, I wonder what will be situation when she becomes Chief Minister” – is currently echoing down the powers of corridor in Bengal!

Besides interference in free and fair discharge of journalistic duties, stories of political leaders filling petrol/diesel for the cars owned by reporters, throwing parties for them and even paying EMI for their flats are doing the rounds now. A whole lot of journalists are also flexing their muscle now – showing off their closeness to ministers and the ability to save one from traffic fines, get a railway reservation at the nth hour, arrange school and college admissions, sanction the plan for a new house or extension, a government/railway job, a transfer to the preferred place of posting, a place on a committee etc – all with a mere telephone call.

This culture is new to Bengal. Is it more power to journalists at the cost of democracy?