Why Prasar Bharati is wrong to rebuke PTI, writes Karan Thapar
The broadcaster failed to understand, or overlooked, that Press Trust of India’s interviews with China’s ambassador to India and India’s envoy to China were clearly newsUpdated: Jul 05, 2020 06:04 IST
There’s a lot about Indian democracy we can be justifiably proud of. We hold regular elections, encourage the largest possible number to vote and governments are frequently overturned. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot we should be embarrassed by. Today, I want to pick on one instance that suggests we’re a damaged or, at least, a diminished democracy.
I’m talking of the assault on the media’s commitment to defend and promote freedom of speech. A wide spectrum of people is guilty of this. It stretches from proprietors and editors, at the paradoxical end, to governments and social media trolls, at the expected. The example I’ve chosen illustrates all of this. It’s particularly distressing because it reveals both the role of the government and the complicity of the media.
The story is simple. Prasar Bharati (PB), supposedly an independent broadcaster we once gullibly believed could be the equal of the British Broadcasting Corporation, has threatened “to review its subscription to the Press Trust of India (PTI)”. The reason, according to multiple reports, is PTI’s allegedly “anti-national reporting”. Although PB hasn’t explicitly said so, two recent PTI interviews are the cause of concern.
Let’s turn to these interviews because you’ll soon realise PB is not just completely wrong but also that it’s probably been put up to this by the government. The first was an interview of the Chinese ambassador. I accept most people view him as the representative of the enemy but in a democracy, particularly during a crisis that could threaten war, the media has a duty to present the other side’s viewpoint. That’s all PTI did. Indeed, it did it so well that the ambassador became the first Chinese official to admit there were casualties on his side. Far from applauding PTI for what was a scoop — I imagine every newspaper and television channel wanted that interview — PB was riled. Perhaps it believes giving the ambassador an opportunity to be heard is the same as agreeing with him or promoting his viewpoint. It’s not. If this logic were true, the media could never report different viewpoints but only those it agrees with.
However, I suspect it was the second interview that brought on PB’s wrath. This time it was with India’s ambassador to China, Vikram Misri. An official PTI tweet of the interview said: “India hopes China will realise its responsibility in de-escalation and disengaging by moving back to its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC): Indian envoy to China.” This clearly contradicted what Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi had said when he claimed that no one “intruded across our border nor is anyone intruding” (a statement later clarified by his office). The PTI tweet made clear the ambassador holds that the Chinese are still on our side of LAC and haven’t moved back to theirs. Now, the content of this tweet did not feature in the interview put out by PTI and it’s pretty obvious why. But, equally, PTI did not retract the tweet and, more important, Misri did not refute it. Even the foreign ministry had nothing to say although at least one paper picked it up and did a story.
PB, however, saw red. In its eyes, PTI has no business allowing an ambassador to contradict the PM. But what PB overlooked — or doesn’t realise because it’s a government-controlled organisation — is that this was clearly news. If the ambassador was revealing the truth, it’s a huge scoop. If he made an error, on such an important issue at such a critical time, it reveals the quality of the diplomatic representation. Once again, it’s news.
I won’t labour the point any further. What I want to say is obvious. Our respect for freedom of speech is at best equivocal. We’ve forgotten — or never realised — it’s most needed when that speech is critical of or damaging to the government. We rush to protect those in power and shoot the messenger. So, tell me, seen in this light, doesn’t the world’s largest democracy look damaged or diminished?