THE other day President Donald Trump took away the White House press card of a CNN journalist. The journalist, Jim Acosta, had simply asked Trump why he described as an invasion the peaceful march of the poor and harassed Latin American men, women and children to the borders of a powerful and prosperous democracy.
I smiled at Acosta’s persistence as he posed the question to the world’s most stubbornly self-regarding politician. I smiled because the Modi government had withdrawn my decades-old press accreditation in January this year. A concerned bureaucrat confided the card was not renewed for a reason. Apparently, someone in the prime minister’s office is miffed with me as he evidently is with many other journalists.
Likewise with Trump, who doesn’t hide his contempt for journalists. Acosta filed a court case and won some kind of reprieve. I don’t have that kind of energy, though an activist friend did raise an RTI query, asking the government how many journalists were denied accreditation for 2018. I’m not aware of any response. However, other journalists, including an overwhelming number of intrepid and unrelenting women journalists have suffered much worse under the Modi government.
Getting derailed by censure from a right-wing government or by trolls supported by any prime minister or president is not an option for upright journalism. Moreover, taking the eye off the story in a huff could be counterproductive as indeed did happen with The Washington Post in the Nixon era. There, too, the president tried to put the media in the doghouse.
Getting derailed by censure from a right-wing government or by trolls supported by any prime minister or president is not an option for upright journalism.
The Post, however, got singularly obsessed with having its particular woman staffer who Nixon disliked to cover the wedding of his daughter. Its editors saw it as important to take the stand against the White House, arguing rightly that politicians had no business to pick and choose a reporter to cover their events. A similar tiff had transpired between Trump and the CNN correspondent the other day.
In the process, The Post did get the daughter’s wedding picture, but, in the course of its eventually trivial pursuit, it missed out on a really big story. The Pentagon Papers were leaked, leaving Nixon quaking in his boots. The New York Times scooped Daniel Ellsberg’s game-changing revelations about presidential perfidy in the costly Vietnam War from Kennedy to Nixon, and before. The Post, chastised by its folly, would then go on to win plaudits for its scoop on the Watergate scandal that would eventually lay Nixon low.
The often handy Indian press card is issued by the information ministry but, significantly, with the approval of media representatives handpicked by the government of the day. The card is not bereft of a purpose. One could meet ministers or bureaucrats with relative ease or attend a press conference with prior clearances in the security-conscious Indian capital.
However, under the Modi regime, as seldom before, the accreditation card has become more akin to a passport without an airport in sight. Which clearly was not the case with Acosta or even with Indian reporters until recently.
Trump, at least, still regularly meets the press and, in spite of his strong belief that American journalists critical of his right-wing lurch are evil and anti-national fake-news mongers, he still bothers to present himself for scrutiny before the people’s eyes and ears. Put it to a slice of American history where the founding fathers made provisions for an unfettered press. In fact, Thomas Jefferson even went on to say that if there were a choice between a government without a free press and a free press without a government, he would choose the latter.
This makes for a remarkable difference with India’s colonial demons as far as the media is concerned. We know how the media crawled when Indira Gandhi asked them to bend. On the other side, when Trump overreached his own capacity for racist innuendo one day, he was rapped on the knuckles by media platforms collectively, including his personally preferred Fox News. That’s difficult to imagine in the current political climate in Delhi.
Unlike his ideological doppelganger in the White House, Modi hasn’t held a single press conference where one could ask a question or two of him, with or without a press card. His notoriously short-lived interview with popular anchor Karan Thapar could be a factor in his avoiding public scrutiny. Thapar was warming to his interview with a straight question to Modi, who was then chief minister of Gujarat, about the anti-Muslim violence under his watch when the guest removed his microphone and took leave. Modi obviously prefers his radio monologues and tweets than engaging with reporters he hasn’t handpicked.
By contrast, the incorrigibly taciturn Manmohan Singh held a news conference albeit towards the end of his two terms. I remember the apprehensive look on Singh’s face as he kicked off the first and only press meet with the opening comment that he was ready to throw the dove (himself) to the wolves (the media).
That it was the only memorable comment that came out of the interaction can be put to the fact that only ‘safe’ journalists are given the microphone to ask questions. That’s why one couldn’t help smiling when Acosta refused to surrender the microphone even after being told by the president to sit down. The names he was called by the world’s most powerful man don’t merit printing.
For this reason and more, I was searching for the origin of the phrase ‘publish and be damned’. And the crisp lines from Faiz came to solve (and salve) the problem. ... “Ik tarz-i-taghaful hai so vo un ko mubarak/ Ik arz-i-tamanna hai so hum karte rahenge.” ... “Hum parvarish-i-lauho qalam kartey rahenge/ Jo dil pe guzarti hai raqam karte rahenge” (We’ll speak with our heart, never mind your indifference. We have the quill and the will to chronicle your crimes.)
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2018