It is well known in media circles that the Narendra Modi government has zero tolerance towards criticism unless it is only mildly disapproving. In fact, over the last four years, several news organisations have quietly accepted this reality and have been exercising the necessary self-censorship to ensure that the Lakshman Rekha is not violated. Those who have failed to fall in line have either been informally asked to tone down their editorial stance or sack/sideline over enthusiastic journalists. The Hindi news channel, ABP News, is allegedly the latest target of this unwritten policy of the government to rein in “errant” media.
Chandramani’s testimony to the ABP News reporter, aired on the July 6 and July 10 episodes of primetime show Master Stroke, was contrary to her claim, made during an interaction with the PM in June, of doubled income on the back of the Centre’s farm policies
Fact checking, many journalists in Delhi will confirm, is a red flag for the BJP-led government especially if it happens to bust the tall claims made by the ruling dispensation. ABP News was apparently guilty of this transgression, which resulted in the sudden exit, on August 1, of editor-in-chief Milind Khandekar and anchor of the popular, primetime current affairs show, Master Stroke, Punya Prasoon Bajpai. Senior news presenter Abhisar Sharma has reportedly been asked to go off the air for a fortnight.
What prompted the management of the Anandabazar Patrika Group, which owns ABP News, to act against its senior editorial staff? Insiders in the news channel told SouthWord that fear of invoking the displeasure of the government was the main reason. “What we have learnt is that the government was unhappy with the anti-BJP line taken by the channel, particularly its criticism of the PM, and it was communicated to the management that some heads would have to roll. The owners simply complied after several weeks of pressure,” says a staffer.
Ripe pickings from custard apples
What triggered Khandekar’s and Bajpai’s exits were two episodes of Master Stroke telecast on July 6 and July 10. Both fact-checked a claim made on June 20 by Chandramani Kaushik of Kanharpuri village in Kanker district, Chhattisgarh, during an interaction that the Prime Minister had with farmers from across the country. In the video conference, Chadramani had told the PM of how she and a group of women had doubled their income after they switched from paddy cultivation to growing custard apples with the help of the agriculture department. This was officially projected as an example of how farming had now become profitable, thanks to the farmer-friendly rural schemes of the central government.
ABP News sent one of its reporters to meet Chandramani at her village to verify the veracity of her claims. She revealed on camera that her income had not actually doubled from farming on her two-acre plot. Even more shocking was the statement by Parshuram Bhoyar, sarpanch of Kanharpuri, that officials from Delhi had asked Chandramani to make the false claim and that none of the women in the group she had referred to had doubled their earnings.
The revelation that Chandramani’s statement had been doctored sparked a huge controversy. The Chhattisgarh government issued a press release claiming that the ABP story was “fake news”. Reason: the reporter had asked the woman if her income had doubled from cultivating “grain” and she had correctly replied in the negative, whereas she had in her interaction with the PM specifically said that her income had doubled from growing custard apples and not paddy.
It was conveniently forgotten that when the reporter referred to dhan (which literally translates into grain) he was referring to farming in a broad sense. Nevertheless, the story being dubious and motivated gained currency with Central ministers — Nirmala Sitharaman and Rajyavardhan Rathore — rubbishing ABP News. Publications like the Times of India, DNA and several BJP-friendly websites also carried reports discrediting the news channel.
Under fire, ABP News sent its reporter back to Kanharpuri village. His report (telecast on July 10) confirmed the following facts: (a) Chandramani’s income had not doubled from growing custard apples (b) when she said in her video conference that earnings from cultivating the fruit had touched Rs 700 per day, she was referring to the collective income of the 12 women in her group and (c) this works out to approximately Rs 58 per day for each of them which was no more that the Rs 50-60 the women earned daily from paddy.
Shah and the last straw
The July 10 report was the proverbial last straw. According to sources in the channel, there were rumours that BJP President Amit Shah was most upset and wanted to teach ABP News a lesson. In fact, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala went a step further when he alleged in a tweet on August 2 that both Shah and the Prime Minister were behind the crackdown on the news channel.
According to insiders in ABP News, what further rubbed salt into the wounds was a report on July 30 of two brutal murders in Uttar Pradesh. Anchor Abhisar Sharma, while commenting on the incident, referred to the PM’s speech on the previous day in which he had declared that the law and order situation had improved in UP under chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s stewardship. Sharma was pulled up by the management for “mischievously” dragging the PM into “a routine crime story”. He was subsequently asked to stay off-the-air for 15 days.
But that was not all. A member of the ABP News team told SouthWord that the management has informally communicated to the staff to exercise extreme caution when reporting on the Prime Minister. “The word is out that we can’t be over-critical and that the editorial line has to be very neutral. Being neutral these days is a euphemism for being soft on the government, and will take the sting out of our stories,” he says.
So far, ABP News has been widely regarded as one of the few Hindi channels that has refused to fall for government propaganda. It also carved a name for itself through some of its hard-hitting stories often critical of the ruling dispensation. Unfortunately, that reputation and perception is at risk of being tarnished.
Are the Press Council, the Editors’ Guild and other watchdogs of democracy listening?