People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
After Tehelka, What?
IS the government of India, stung by the Tehelka exposures regarding shady defence deals, suddenly moving in a hyper pro-active fashion to first kill Tehelka, pack the Prasar Bharati hurriedly with its own chums, hunting for pliable nominees in the Prasar Bharati Board, and not so quietly browbeating the press in states where it rules?
Certain facts are incontrovertible. First, it is a matter of record that the "autonomous" Prasar Bharati is being run by select bureaucrats fully backed by the government. The 25th report of the standing committee of parliament on information and technology has come out heavily against the way Prasar Bharati was being run by a handful of people, and key posts like director generals of Door Darshan and Akash Vani were being held up.
THIS IS WHAT IT SAID
"As a result of unexplained inaction on the part of the government, there are now only two part-time members on the Prasar Bharati Board who, along with two nominees of the ministry, are running its affairs. The way two non-official members were retired in 1999 in spite of many vacancies on the board, appears to be intriguing and has not been explained to the satisfaction of the committee. The standing committee takes a serious view of the fact that the posts of chairman, four part-time members, DG (AIR) and DG (DD) have been lying vacant since June 1998, May 1998, November 1999, August 1998 and June 1999, respectively, and that the government had not yet appointed even member finance and member personnel."
The report further points out that the functions of the chief executive officer are being looked after by an officer on an ad hoc basis. It reflects the casual approach of the government.
Secondly, it is also a fact that, behind the scene, silent lobbying has begun to have a pliable Prasar Bharati Board. From January to June 2001, a high-powered selection committee held just two meetings, as the government pressure to get some of its nominees in could not work. One of the names floated for the post of Prasar Bharati chief was that of B G Verghese, at present defence (media) advisor to the government, and today defence is very much in the news. It is reliably learnt that the government was of the view that Verghese should be there. The name of M S Swaminathan was given short shrift. Similarly, it is reliably learnt that the name of the former chief executive officer of Discovery India Net Works, Kiran Karnik, was not found acceptable for a key position, despite the fact that he had been associated with not only Indias first Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), but was also associated with attempts to use space technology even in rural development research programme. His efforts were applauded in India and abroad.
The idea of the government seems to be to keep the bureaucracy, and from behind the scene the information and broadcasting ministry, in control of Prasar Bharati. Till now it was understood that the thorn in their flesh was Justice P B Sawant who was in the Prasar Bharati Board Selection Committee as long as he was chairman of the Press Council. It is understood that first a piecemeal package for Prasar Bharati was tried out and then, when things did not work, meetings were not held. So from January to June 2001, there has been a virtual deadlock. However, it is understood that a partial government list of nominees for the Prasar Bharati Board is ready. With the new Press Council chief Mr Reddy having taken over, the governments pro-active attempts may again be tried. At least some piecemeal filling may begin, an official in the information and broadcasting ministry said on the condition of anonymity.
Thirdly, it is just a coincidence that the income tax raids on the Outlook magazine, including its editorial section, came only after it had carried details on the Tehelka exposures and a special story on the prime ministers office (PMO), besides other things. In fact, there are reports of increasing pressure on the Outlook.
It is also quite well known that some gentle and not so gentle pressures have been on for quite some time to kill Tehelka economically. The unethical use of women (now admitted) can in no way be justified, and is condemnable. But, surely, that does not in any way exonerate those caught red-handed in graft, in matters pertaining to defence security. And was the fact of the use of sex workers not known to the government till now? How was it that it suddenly surfaced in a section of the press? What was the source of the leak?
The recent Press Council report titled Future of Print Media has this to say:
"As a technique for stifling press freedom, putting a journalist in prison can be highly effective. It silences a critical voice, and it warns other journalists not to reveal disturbing truths. But some wily leaders understand that regimes can pay an international price for routinely jailing journalists. They may choose instead to drive them out of business by means of crippling fines or confiscation of their offices and equipment."
The question today is not Tehelka, but who and what after Tehelka. Since the Tehelka exposures, many papers have been targeted and cautioned. The Prasar Bharati is in a state of stupor, and the Tehelka big guns have been threatened with arrest. Even the Gujarat government, ironically, is reported to be flexing its muscles with regard to the press. On August 23, one heard of a plan to gag the press in Gujarat by bringing it under the Consumer Protection Act. A journalist in UP --- editor of Mazdoor Morcha --- was jailed in Ghaziabad for some exposure. Speaking again of UP police high-handedness, a recent judgement of the Press Council in August said of the Kumbh Mela happenings at Allahabad: "Video cameras were broken, cameras and film rolls of photographers snatched." It said the police resorted to lathicharge on journalists who were performing their duties.
Amidst all this, it is not yet open sesame for foreign print media into India. But new moves have begun. The new name is portfolio entry. Five editors, among them those from The Indian Express and Dainik Jagran, have started lobbying. Here too, the government is clearly keeping its options open. It is perhaps the carrot and the stick for the press in the coming days.