State government uses threats, ad revenues and strong-arm tactics to keep journalists under thumb

Is media muted in the northern Indian state of Bihar? Has the fourth state in Bihar been sold out? The Press Council of India (PCI) certainly thinks so. In its report the PCI has compared the current situation with 21-month emergency period– from 26 June 1975 to 21 March 1977 -when media was “gagged, muted and handicapped” in India.

The PCI report may have triggered a nationwide debate with its startling revelation, but for the journalists and supporters of press freedom it simply confirmed what they already knew. The present government of chief minister Nitish Kumar appears to be in full control of media, bar a few. And if he isn’t silencing the press, he is using it for his own publicity.

Nitish Kumar

Bihar state Chief Minister Nitish Kumar after state elections in 2010. The intervening years have not been good ones for press freedom in Bihar. Pic: AP.

The PCI chief, Justice [retd.] Markandey Katju visited Bihar a year ago and it was then he got real feedback on how the media is being officially gagged and muted. He immediately formed a three-member fact-finding team of journalists to unearth the details. It took them most of a year to come up with their final report and the contents were staggering.

Free and fair journalism in Bihar is facing a similar threat to which was seen during the Emergency in our country, said the report. The state government is using media for its own publicity and propaganda and the newspapers in the state have totally surrendered to the government for their only sources of revenue, “government advertisements”, said the PCI chief.

It is true that since Bihar is a poor, lawless and underdeveloped state there are no private companies or industries which can sustain the newspapers’ advertising revenue and its absence gets filled up by the government advertisements. The state government apparently tapped the situation for its own benefit and growth and its message regularly spills from the advertising into the news, such is its hold over the media.

Many journalists said newspapers have effectively become the state government’s Public Relation Department and those who do not comply face quick financial reprimand. The PCI in its report has even made reference to a letter written by the then director of the state PR department to the newspapers that ministers were not happy as their statements are not being published properly in their respective papers.

Journalistic integrity

It was just a tip of the iceberg. There are many instances of the state government reportedly using threats and strong arm tactics to muzzle the media in Bihar. Reporters and correspondents were either shown the door or forced to leave the state entirely whenever they tried to follow any kind of journalistic integrity. Editors and owners of the newspapers were summoned and told to either comply, or lose revenue. Some of the so-called socialist editors and senior journalists even started singing paeans of the government in their writings and papers in the hope of gaining some form of political office themselves.

This correspondent has been witness of several eminent journalists and newspaper owners from Delhi coming to Bihar with their only ambition to have a meeting with the Bihar chief minister. They even were kept in line for days before their meeting and what followed were all kinds of sugar-coated ‘news’ and opinion stories singing the praises of the state – how Bihar is making progress with over 13 % growth rate, just behind Gujarat and China; how Bihar chief minister Kumar has turned the fortunes of the state around; and how Bihar has become the most preferred destination for all the top industry honchos for investment.

What has been most surprising was that reputed journalists from Delhi who gained recognition and respect for exposing former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav for his alleged involvement in the multi-crore fodder scam now don’t find anything wrong in Nitish government. They still come to the state, do their best to see their face to the Bihar chief minister and fly back. The next day they appear again with their half-page byline story on page-1 or full-page Op-ed. Either, they have turned blind eye or have become myopic, for reasons only they can explain better.

Malaise

Its not that only the state government has gagged media in Bihar as the PCI report suggested but even some of the so-called big journalists, local and national both, too are equally responsible for all this malaise.

“If an editor or a owner of a national newspaper or a channel come and visit the state chief minister with folded hands singing paeans to him in their pieces and reports what one can expect from the reporters?” asked senior journalist Ajay Kumar who runs a premier news portal Bihartimes.com, a publication that has managed to stay relatively free from government influence.

“It is all a matter of advertisement revenue that state government is using in flexing its muscle to muzzle media in the state,” said noted economist of the state Professor N K Chaudhury.

The newspapers either avoid publication of news related with crime, ransom, land grabbing by the ruling establishment or their supporters, murders and the activists of the land mafia, or they are underplayed and published in brief as small news items, said the PCI report; news relating to public agitation, concern, opposition voice or the government’s failure do not find space in newspapers, the report added.

A senior journalist associated with local edition of a national newspaper said that everyday they get panicky in newsroom when they do not find a promotional news for the chief minister. “Sometime, they make it a point to carry his picture to compensate the absence,” he said.

The Bihar chief minister is the overall Resident Editor of the newspapers running in Bihar today and the state public relation department is the virtual editorial room, said a state bureau chief working for a national newspaper.

While newspapers have  to make a profit to survive, should it be done at the cost of common readers? “It’s a crime done by newspapers against those readers who keep their faith in their paper and its content,” said Ajay Kumar.

This is a dangerous trend. An Independent agency must be created to release advertisements to different media houses strictly on the basis of guidelines, suggests the PCI report.

The startling PCI news report was carried by one or two newspapers, though not with much prominence.

“It says everything about media’s status in Bihar,” said a ruling party MP known for speaking his mind.