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Retrofit: Media muzzled – crippling of free speech earns blogosphere’s ire

Guest Column
Retrofit: Media muzzled – crippling of free speech earns blogosphere’s ire

Author | Sandeep Bamzai | Wednesday, Feb 04,2009 7:15 AM

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Guest Column  <br>Retrofit: Media muzzled – crippling of free speech earns blogosphere’s ire

Media censorship is back. And no, we are not being beamed back in time in Scottie’s spaceship to 1975. Two incidents bordering on the bizarre have confounded industrywallahs over the last couple of weeks. First, Vir Sanghvi’s column ‘Pursuits’ was yanked out by Mint editor R Sukumar because there was, he believed, unwarranted criticism of his paper. Vir struck back by posting the same pulled out column on his own website, virsanghvi.com, and posted his own musings on the matter to set the record straight. He followed this up with another post articulating his angst against Sukumar’s arbitrary decision, but this time on the newly launched HT Blogs as part of the rejigged Hindustan Times website.

Both times, Vir’s anger came through at what he believed was a distasteful reaction to credible and informed criticism. The fact that Vir Sanghvi chose to act in this manner may have stunned many, but it only reinforced the notion that a columnist cannot be expunged in this ad hoc manner. Vir’s ‘Counterpoint’ has for long been the only thing worth reading in an otherwise curious Sunday HT, where pages just seem to be strung together without any thought going into them.

So, if Vir, an HT insider, is treated like this by a sister publication, don’t be surprised with what is happening at NDTV. First, a look at the company’s financials, it has posted a net loss of Rs 120.8 crore for the third quarter, which means that for the financial year (nine months) till date, its net losses are in excess of Rs 360 crore. Which means that it is in a jam, bleeding profusely. But instead of managing its finances more efficiently, what does it do? It attacks bloggers in the blogosphere. How? By muzzling free speech! I must compliment my young friend Kushan Mitra for pointing this out to me. ckunte.com recently tendered an unconditional apology – unconditional withdrawal of my post ‘shoddy journalism’ dated November 27, 2008 for the defamatory statements made against a noted NDTV journo.

Chyetanya Kunte has had to eat crow for his post on his own blog. There is ferment and tumult in the blogosphere, if this isn’t censorship, then what is?

Blogs are about free expression of views, ideas and opinions. On January 29, Amit Agarwal wrote – Indian blogger apologises to NDTV for quoting Wikipedia. According to Agarwal, Kunte, a Holland-based Indian blogger, decided to blog his thoughts on the way Indian mainstream media handled the 26/11 attacks coverage. But this has cost him dearly. The journo and her legal team at NDTV decided to make Kunte withdraw the post and issue an unconditional apology. He goes on to say that the said journo who has done programmes in the past on the ‘brave new world of blogs and their regulation’ should consider doing another episode on her own current shenanigans.

DesiPundit goes one step further. He says – Blogger silenced by NDTV. And there are a few thousand more reactions. In fact, a section on Facebook is up in arms, all going hammer and tongs against this offensive intimidation of NDTV. To think that Dr Prannoy Roy owns NDTV makes it even more unpalatable. For, Dr Roy is one of the most well respected figures in Indian media. Prem Panicker, who worked with me many moons ago and is a brilliant writer, says that there is a ‘lack of grace, this intolerance of criticism, this tendency to the notion that you are immune to the searching examination that you subject others to doesn’t bode well for their brand’. I think it sums up the state of mind. Attack is the best form of defence, seems to be the mantra. Shoot your way out of trouble even if it means using ham-handed legal stunts to keep people in check. Talk about free speech. Chetan wrote from his heart, but got it in the neck instead.

desipundit.com has a litany of such protests and invectives for both the journo and NDTV. It is time media decided to look inwards and conduct a searching examination of itself. Can it take it on the chin even as it is dishing it out to others? The answer, my friend, is not blowing in the wind, it is simply a big ‘NO’. It cannot take criticism. Smokesignals is equally angry when it says – when free speech bears a price tag. It is astonishing that newscasters and editors instead of tempering their behaviour are simply losing it in the face of trenchant criticism that the 26/11 coverage has precipitated. As another blogger rightly responds – we, the people, are pissed.

The Vir Sanghvi and NDTV incidents are at two different ends of the vector. But the commonality that they share is that both have censorship in common. While Vir has been censored, NDTV has decided to use harsh legalese to shut up a blogger.

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.)

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