At a time when the declining Freedom of Press is high on discussion and the entire nation is scared of the aftertaste, Press Freedom got punched in the face again after the two eminent journalists from ABP News Network — Managing Editor Milind Khandekar and anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai — resigned reportedly due to pressure that moved up after airing a story on the show named Master Stroke — a story that criticised the central government and exposed its lies.
“14 years & 8 days later it’s time to move on. Today was my last day as Managing Editor @abpnewstv. Thank you for being part of my journey so far,” Milind Khandekar tweeted on Wednesday announcing his egress.
Narendra Wable, President of Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh said, “Both the resignation can’t be a coincidence and there must be a pressure from the government after the interview of lady farmer Chandramani Kaushik in ‘Master Stroke’. It is dangerous for our federal democracy and unfortunate for journalism. It happened in the previous government’s reign too but never came into light. It is sad to see most of the media houses being pro-government. News Media should be unbiased and fearless.”
‘Master Stroke’, the flagship show which is currently taken off by the channel management, used to be anchored by Punya Prasun Bajpai where the burning issues of countrymen are presented. One of its episodes came up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s video conversation with beneficiaries of various government programmes held on June 20.
During the Mann Ki Baat interaction, lady farmer Chandramani from Chhattisgarh, one of the participants, told the PM that her income has doubled after she switched from paddy cultivation to growing custard apples. However, the show reported that the woman was ‘tortured’ and ‘tutored by Delhi officials to make false statements about her agricultural income and the news was viral in no time — this attracted the wrath of BJP leaders including a few Union ministers — Rajyavardhan Rathore, the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman — who slammed the show with #UnfortunateJournalism for its ‘agenda of deriding PM’s efforts’.
Political journalist Nilesh Khare expressed, “I don’t want to comment on a speculation as we have no confirmation about the government pressure behind the resignation. I have worked with Milind Khandekar; he is a journalist who does full justice to his duties. He won’t absorb such pressure, I believe.”
The viewers across also complained of facing difficulty in watching the programme ‘Master Stroke’ because of “disturbance and blackouts” and as per the sources, the blocking of the telecast was decided by the channel to not affront the ruling party at the Centre. However, Bajpai was seen tweeting videos from his shows during that period. And, just two days back, Bajpai was informed that he would no longer be anchoring ‘Master Stroke’ followed by his stepping down.
“You can black out the screen during Master Stroke, but we will convert it into a ‘blackboard’ and write the truth on it,” Bajpai criticised the blackout on Twitter.
When India is just a year away from the next general elections, the freedom of expression in the world’s largest democracy is feeling traumatised. On one hand, corporate ownership and government’s constant effort to shut or limit government critics and on the other, prominent media organisations hunkering down to get endearments from the ruling party! India also remains one of the most dangerous places for journalists to function as the 2017 world press freedom rankings ranked India 136 among 180 countries and that’s a slip as the nation was ranked 133 in 2016. While some journalists were killed, others are under the flame with threats to their lives.
Political Editor of an eminent newspaper on the condition of anonymity spoke to AV and revealed, “I came to know that the channel is changing its ownership. So, it can be its new policy. Government pressure on the channel is just a speculation and the truth is yet to come out.”
The instance of the I&B Ministry amending guidelines for the accreditation of journalists to punish those accused of producing fake news is just fresh in the minds. The guidelines warned journalists of suspension of their government accreditation permanently in case of third-time violation (spreading fake news), though the ministry neither defined fake news nor clarified who can file complaints and on what grounds! Though, the massive criticism pushed our PM to scrap the decision.
Senior journalist Sudhakar Kashyap stated, “Government has a total control over today’s news media. Appointment of Editor is nowadays done by the government authority. Though I am not a Congress supporter, but in the previous government, there was never such pressure on media that exists today. We had the freedom to write whatever we want in those days.”
Though ABP News Network maintained silence, the resignation of Khandekar and Bajpai has brought politicians across the nation together blaming the BJP-led central government’s efforts ‘to kill independent media’.
“Evidence is surfacing that ABP News is seeing journalists resign and benched due to their involvement in stories criticising the Central Govt. Watch how in the age of free information, India under Modiji seems to be anything but free,” Congress’ Twitter handle posted.
Dr. Deepak Pawar, Assistant Professor of Mumbai University said, “I don’t feel this is a single example of such incident and we can’t say that Congress and NCP were saints in their reign. Congress ruled the nation for a long period and they mostly tolerated criticism, though BJP is vindictive by nature.”
He went on adding, “Any person with a different opinion than the government is asked to go to Pakistan! That’s the mindset of the BJP-led central government. The pressure on the Editors of news organisations is dangerous for the press freedom.”
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal too slammed the BJP government with #FreeMediaDiedInIndia and said, “Free media is life-line of democracy. But Modi government is hell-bent to kill independent media. The resignation of two eminent TV journalists from ABP News in two days is another proof. Media should rise now; otherwise, it will be too late.”