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30 January, 2009

Barkha Dutt must walk the talk


Writing her Independence Day-eve Khaleej Times column in 2007, on the government plans to muzzle electronic media through creation of a content code, journalist Barkha Dutt rued that the irony is entirely befitting. She was talking about the move to strangle her fraternity into silence, just as India marked 60 years as an independent, secular democracy.

Arguing the case for a responsible media that will adopt standards of self-regulation as against the to-be-imposed ‘content code’, an ill conceived, insidious and dangerous piece of legislation, she said: We need to raise our standards to that level of accountability before we can get completely self-righteous. We need to tell the government to get out of our space. But we also need to be open to the same scrutiny we subject everyone else to.

Public memory is short and pardonable. But when activist-crusaders who profess ethical standards for others and prides themselves to be at the vanguard of media freedom suffer from selective amnesia, uncomfortable questions need to be asked. Especially at a time when the media in India is engaged in a tooth and nail battle against the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry's move to enforce censorship through the backdoor.

Not more than two weeks ago the editors of India's top television channels got together to tell the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the draconian provisions in the proposed Cable Television Network Regulations (CNR) Act is a throwback to the era of emergency. Something that is purely unacceptable because it is aimed solely at subjugating the media to total government control. Madam Barkha Dutt as the Managing Editor of the fearless NDTV was one of the signatories of the letter.

And now we hear the news that this widely respected and equally ridiculed member of the journalistic community, who is supposed to protect the freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in the constitution has abused her position as the group editor of a media conglomerate to legally intimidate a hapless blogger and make him withdraw a post critical of her coverage of the 26/11 Mumbai attack.

What a shame!

And as Barkha wrote in her Independence Day-eve column, the irony couldn't be any less befitting.

The Netherlands based Indian blogger Chyetanya Kunte had to retract comments made on his blog in the post titled 'Shoddy journalism' against the NDTV Ltd and Barkha Dutt and tender an unconditional apology, presumably because of a threatening legal memo.

While Kunte himself has not made any mention that he was threatened with legal action by NDTV, the tone and legalese in the retraction statement posted in his website clearly point to the fact that it was done to save his skin and money.

Reading the google cache record of the now deleted post which touched Barkha's celebrity nerve, one is at pains to understand how a journalist schooled in Columbia and has won accolades for taking on rabid right-wingers, can display such arrogance, when faced with criticism. Kunte's opinion was not in any sense more vitriolic than that made by thousands of viewers who were hurt by the insensitive and lopsided coverage of the Mumbai carnage by various TV channels. Only two words - the use of 'idiot' as an adjective before the word journalist and 'shut-the-f***-up', a vulgar idiom for shut up - seems to be off the mark. Angry words that he wrote as he watched the ghastly events of Mumbai unfold in the television screen on November 27.

The criticism he levelled against Barkha – on the possible risk of loss of life of hotel guests and allegations of soldier deaths in 1999 Kargil operation - was backed by links to a Wikipedia entry and other media reports. It is perplexing why NDTV chose to go against a blogger who only acted well within the rights. The only possible explanation is that they wanted to make an example of him. You are not supposed to touch a 24/7 holy cow .

It's also a sad day for the media fraternity because Kunte was being threatened of libel for making legitimate criticism about an issue of public concern. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and the law of libel shouldn't be used to stifle expression of an opinion that could have taken the debate forward. Of all pillars of democracy the media should be the first to recognises this right. The one to raise the pitch to the shrillest level when someone’s right to free speech feels threatened.

The criticism and scrutiny that NDTV and Barkha is now being subjected to in the blogosphere for its alleged highhandedness is also a pointer to the fact that the mainstream media is clueless about the power and opportunity of social media. They need to understand that journalism as defined by large media houses has entered a period of declining sovereignty. While it's true that mainstream media has attempted to interact with and adopt certain features of the social media they seem to be generally wary of bloggers and their growing influence in the media ecology.

I would like to quote more of Barkha to prove the point that NDTV’s action is a misadventure that need to be corrected. Or else the entire media in India stands the risk of playing into the hands of those who aspire to stifle it.

Responding to the criticism levelled against the NDTV coverage of the Mumbai attacks Barkha wrote: I believe that criticism is what helps us evolve and reinvent ourselves.
Let us believe in Barkha. Let us hope she walks the talk.

Binu Karunakaran is a Kochi-based blogger

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