Punya Prasun Bajpai: ‘India is witnessing social collapse’

In early August, Ananda Bazaar Patrika, one of India’s leading media conglomerates, made headlines for the wrong reasons. Punya Prasun Bajpai, a veteran journalist and primetime anchor on ABP News, the network’s flagship Hindi news channel, resigned. Milind Khandekar, the channel’s managing editor, did the same. Soon after, Bajpai published a blow-by-blow account of how “invisible forces” in the government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, had put intense pressure on Master Stroke, the hour-long show he anchored at 9pm every weeknight.

Modi has been in power since 2014 and faces re-election in mid-2019. During his term, concerns about press freedom in India have deepened. Journalists have been targeted, even killed, and there is shrinking space for critical reportage in legacy media, particularly around the Modi government; Amit Shah, the BJP president; and corporations close to the the administration. India’s media owners, editors, and journalists are often restrained by self-censorship.

More than 800 million Indians have access to TV. Hindi-language television news is especially influential in densely populated and electorally significant states of the north, such as Uttar Pradesh. Like most newsrooms in India, TV channels remain dependent on ad revenue. Primetime news has largely come to mean hectoring anchors, talking heads, and cacophonic panels—“daily cockfights,” as one observer put it. But when Bajpai joined ABP News, he adopted a somewhat different approach: Master Stroke featured field reports from around the country and the voices of citizens, in particular the rural poor, were foregrounded. Most controversially, in the eyes of the government, Modi’s claims, and those of his colleagues, were fact-checked. The show’s ratings were strong, and rising.

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In July, Master Stroke aired a report upending a claim by Modi that his government’s policies had doubled a farmer’s income. The episode received extreme pushback. BJP politicians, including central ministers and state chief ministers, launched an attack on the story in near-similar tweets. In response, Bajpai’s team returned to the farmer and interviewed others in her village. The war escalated.

According to Bajpai’s telling, in a meeting later that month, Atideb Sarkar, the CEO of ABP, praised the episode but directed him to not mention Modi’s name in any further reportage. Then came a demand to not show images of him—a near-impossible task, Bajpai wrote, especially given how much power has been concentrated under Modi’s authority.

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Master Stroke continued its critical reportage, yet advertisers were compelled to drop out. And then came a final blow—the channel’s satellite transmission was disrupted every night during the Master Stroke timeslot. When the show aired on August 2, Bajpai was no longer part of it.

Bajpai spoke with CJR about the censorship he experienced and why he believes the crisis in India runs well beyond press freedom. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

When you joined APB News, what was the brief for Masterstroke?

I was anchoring at Aaj Tak (another leading Hindi news channel) and ABP’s owners were very keen that I join. They knew my history and my work. On my part, I had seen their adversarial reporting on Mamata Banerjee (the Chief Minister of West Bengal, the state where ABP was first set up, in 1922) even when she blacked them out and did not give them advertisements. I was encouraged by that.

Regarding Master Stroke, I have always tried to stay away from talking heads and politicians, even though that has become the format of primetime news. Journalism is not about talking heads or journalists making statements, but the public making statements. And this is hard work. There might even be a contradiction between what the people want, and what we must show as professional journalists. But that is what we tried to do on the show. The attempt, you might even say, was to educate the public, to encourage a political thinking.

When I joined, the channel was in the sixth position (among Hindi news channel ratings). It slowly rose to second position. The ratings of my shows rose. The owner (and editor-in-chief of ABP) Atideb Sarkar was very happy with the graphics, presentation, and content of the show, and its in-depth research. He mentioned this openly in staff meetings. He was not just happy but he wanted us to continue in this vein.

I remember some BJP spokespersons began boycotting the channel and not coming to our programs. This was in June. We were told, “It’s fine. These things come and go. We are fighting Mamata there, we will fight Modi here.” Also, there was nothing to challenge the facts we put on air. So we continued doing our job.

 

 

It can bulldoze our institutions. But outside an institution, I can still exercise my freedom to write and report.

 

 

What changed?

Now that I analyze the events of the past months, I feel that ABP became a trigger point because of two reasons.

Broadly, we were adopting a different track on our show. Rewind back to the morning of August 15, 2013. Just as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finished delivering his Independence Day speech, Modi (then Gujarat Chief Minister) gave an Independence Day speech (projecting himself as India’s next Prime Minister). It got very high ratings. Viewers switched from entertainment to news channels to watch this speech. I still remember the excitement in the newsroom. In this period, ad revenues began shifting from entertainment channels to news channels. Covering Modi was the best business proposition. Plus, there were few newsgathering costs to covering what Modi says. So this suited media houses, too, and owners and editors started going in that direction—of ratings over universally diminishing credibility. An unhealthy dependence developed. After 2014, through various information ministers, the government began to grasp how to exploit the media. Modi has given journalists the task of taking his name, of covering him day in and day out, but without placing what he says against facts, figures, or any on-the-ground reporting.

Our show took a different approach. We went after stories and we showed the news visually, from the ground. I will give you two examples. We did a story on how farmers’ land was being acquired for a refinery in Konkan. That show got excellent ratings. Another was a story on land for a power plant by Adani Power in Godda. Here, farmers were being threatened that they would be killed if they did not give up their land to Adani (a Gujarat-based industrial baron close to Modi). That show got even higher ratings. This meant that the public wants to see such stories. The government assessed this success as a danger: This show is doing well—what if other channels begin to shift to showing such news too? A mild shift was underway on some other channels, where the government’s policies were being questioned. And so our show had to be targeted.  

The specific story we did (on July 6, asking whether the woman farmer Chandramani Kaushik’s income had really doubled) was seen as a direct challenge to the government’s claim. I haven’t seen this before—three cabinet ministers coming out on Twitter and targeting a story. If the Information and Broadcasting Minister himself targets you in a tweet, most journalists are likely to think, Let’s back off. But Milind and I discussed it in the newsroom, and thought this tweet had compelled us to respond. We decided to do this through more facts, by sending our reporter to revisit the story, and dig deeper. So our response was a fresh story, which went on air, and also was included in a tweet to the ministers.

That led to a further crisis, a trigger point, which was the height of censorship. No one can imagine that government will disrupt the satellite transmission, and that it will do it at this precise time, from 8:55pm to 10pm, so that Master Stroke gets blanked out.

Advertisers in that slot were also threatened. This has happened before; the Modi government is nothing special (on this count). It has happened through the years at the center of India and in the states, behind the scenes. But disrupting the  transmission is an act that makes no attempt to hide itself. And these disruptions happened not for one day, or two days, or three days, but for 12 days straight. What a mockery! Our whole team of researchers, reporters, script writers, graphic people were working on the show (in that period), wondering, Who will be able to watch it tonight? We would eventually put the show online, thinking that this is how some people might watch it.

 

Did your team find out how this disruption was done?

The first day nobody realized what was happening. The second day the management became aware the show was being disturbed. On the third day, managers tried to trace the source of the disturbance but the firing of rogue signals happened for only a few seconds, making it hard to trace. And then it would start again. Satellite disturbance clearly cannot be done by any ordinary person. You need infrastructure, in the minimum with an outside broadcasting van with a certain range to disturb a channel’s teleport. How, exactly, this was done is not for me to answer. This is the management’s concern.

I could see in the newsroom during those days that the owner was also very disturbed. By the second or the third day, we put out a message for viewers letting them know the telecast was being disrupted. But within three hours that announcement was also taken off air, the pressure on the owners was so great. What options were left, for us? The government can see (the election in) 2019 coming.

 

Since you were pushed off air, have viewers reached out to you?

Several of them. People I have never spoken to in my life have called me up. Messages are along the lines of, Come back soon. Truth will win, we will win. Are you facing any trouble? We will help you. Much of this is television’s aura. It is a powerful medium and makes people emotional. But there is an acute feeling among people, whose intensity I am sensing for the first time, that something wrong has happened. Maybe this is because Master Stroke put the public centerstage. By making an example of us, the government was sending a message that the rest should be afraid.

 

Parallels are being drawn between what India is currently witnessing and the Emergency (the period from 1975 to 1977, when Indira Gandhi, the prime minister, suspended the constitution, jailed opposition leaders, and placed several restrictions on the press). Do you see this as another de facto Emergency?

In the times we are in, we have to redefine “emergency.” It is not about freedom of expression. It is about institutions collapsing and political power capturing everything. I actually had an opportunity to observe the state’s media monitoring intimately from a young age, because my father worked in the Indian Information Service (a cadre of government officers). In fact, during the Emergency, Gandhi gave him the task of keeping an eye on how much space the media gave to opposition figures, in particular JP (Jayaprakash Narayan, a popular opposition leader). And there was pressure (on the media) in subsequent administrations, too. In the concluding years of the Manmohan Singh government (2012 to 2014), his ministers would hand out advisories. Now there is pressure, plus threats to channel management, and action on those threats. When the government stoops to such levels, what do you do?

 

And yet you say that the challenge is not one of freedom of expression?

Yes, as journalists, I maintain we have the freedom to write and report.

 

Who will carry it?

Yes, you might ask, who will carry it? Until the last day on my job, I was using my freedom as a journalist to do my job, and those stories were getting carried on air. The government wanted to give a message and they did that successfully by blacking out the show. But it still does not have the power to silence my voice. It can bulldoze our institutions. But outside an institution, I can still exercise my freedom to write and report.

 

Nevertheless, you were pushed out of an influential primetime Hindi television slot.

Yes, TV news is the most enduring and inexpensive mass medium for Indians. In a way that digital simply cannot be—just 25 percent of Indians use it. I could do my work as a journalist in TV—and have done it since 1996—but what happened now was a direct confrontation. Cutting off your show is like denying the press newsprint.

But this is my argument with most journalists: If the country’s prime minister, the prime minister’s office, and the head of a party that has been elected to power in a democracy openly threaten you, then this is not a thermometer of freedom of expression and journalism. It is a thermometer of society being crushed.

In Modi’s time, the majority of our journalism has been derailed. Yes, he changed the discourse of journalism. But if we concentrate only on Modi, and only on the media, we lose sight of all the factors that have given birth to the situation we are in today. The bigger problem is that he is breaking our society and crushing the institutions that make a democracy. . . I hear from people inside how these institutions are being hollowed out.

This is the dangerous situation we are now in: You are unable to manage the economy, you are breaking institutions, and you are dividing society. So whichever new government comes, whoever is the leader, this dangerous situation will remain.

When we understand what is happening as this—our—society is collapsing, then we will understand what kind of journalism needs to be done.

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Chitrangada Choudhury is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter @ChitrangadaC.