Sunday, May 25, 2008

Not an Abberation, But the Theme

Arun Shourie

"The Congress is like Ravana," The Hindustan Times of 2nd September, 1999, reported Dr Murli Manohar Joshi saying, "and they have unleashed Sonia, the Surpnakha (Ravana's sister who was humiliated by Lakshman) on the country." That in a box-item at the very top of page 1, under the heading, "Below the belt." The source? The Asian Age, reported The Hindustan Times.

Knowing what The Hindustan Times has been doing, I look up The Asian Age. It doesn't take long: the relevant story appears at the top of the front page of The Asian Age of the previous day, 1st September. The report says, "At Union Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi's rally in Mysore on Monday night, BJP MLC Ramchandre Gowda referred to Congress President Sonia Gandhi as Surpnakha -- sister of Ravana who was humiliated by Lakshman. 'The Congress is like Ravana and they have unleashed Sonia, the Surpnakha on the country,' much to the audience's delight."

So, from some MLC saying it at a rally at which Murli Manohar Joshi was present to Murli Manohar Joshi saying it in one short leap. But even that is not the end. The other secularist paper, The Hindu of 1st September reports an additional detail. Under the caption, "Heed PM advice: Joshi," the Mysore-datelined news story in the paper reported, "'Please don't debate that,' a visibly upset Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, Union Minister for Human Resources, said when his attention was drawn by presspersons to the uncharitable remarks by his ministerial colleagues against the Congress (I) president, Ms Sonia Gandhi. Mr Joshi also wanted to know whether his party colleagues were taking the rebuke of the Prime Minister seriously." "He was replying to a question on the BJP's state unit general secretary, Mr Ramchandre Gowda, having compared Ms. Gandhi to Surpanaki of the Ramayana in his (Dr Joshi's) presence at an election meeting here on Monday. Dr Joshi told presspersons on Tuesday that the feelings and advice of the Prime Minister should be respected by all the party members and others in the National Democratic Alliance. He had conveyed his views to Mr. Ramachandre Gowda...."

Thus, from Dr Joshi asking the man to abide by the Prime Minister's guideline in the matter, to the simile being delivered at a rally attended by Dr Joshi, to Dr Joshi himself delivering the simile -- all in two short leaps!

The Indian Express had done exactly the same thing in the case of Professor Vijay Kumar Malhotra: it had put in his mouth words -- that Dr Manmohan Singh take off his turban so that people may see whether he actually is a Sikh -- which he had not uttered at all. And it had failed to correct the mischief for three days, enough time for Congress to stage demonstrations etc.

The most notorious example of course involved The Hindustan Times. By supplying a perverse headline, and altering the reporter's copy, it fanned a concoction -- that Pramod Mahajan had compared Mrs Sonia Gandhi to Monica Lewinsky. When that fabrication was nailed by the reporter himself, the paper -- and the ones for whose benefit all this is being done, the Congress leaders -- attempted to divert attention from the fabrication by using the favourite device of politicians: "But how did Mahajan get the letter?," it demanded in mock-horror.

What if Mahajan had got it from me? And I had received it from the reporter, or from some colleague of his in the paper's Bombay office, or from some colleague in the paper's Delhi office? How would that dilute one bit the reporter's searing indictment of what had been done to his copy by the editorial office in Delhi?

The press has been pontificating about politicians. In fact, as the campaign has proceeded such perversions and fabrications have become the staple -- of the press, much, much more than of politicians. "IB study says Cong is inching ahead," proclaimed a bye-lined report on the front page of 31st August's Times of India. The paper said that the IB assessment "has been reportedly communicated to the Prime Minister's Office." Nothing of the sort had been sent to either the Prime Minister or to anyone in his Office. Nothing of the sort had been sent to the Home Minister or his office. And I say that after checking with the persons directly concerned: at the highest levels in the Prime Minister's Office, in the Home Minister's Office, in the Intelligence Bureau.

"Guilty Kargil Generals exposed," screamed the headline across six columns of the front page of The Asian Age of 1st September. As the magazine Outlook had done in its cover story earlier, the paper maintained that Brigadier Surinder Singh had sent letters to the Army in August and November, 1998, warning them about Pakistan's build-up and designs in the Kargil sector. The Army has denied having received any such letters.

What the spokesman of the Congress(I) had released earlier in the day, the paper carried as a great scoop: a "receipt" from the Army of a communication from Brigadier Surinder Singh. The date on the receipt itself should have alerted the paper: clearly visible in the facsimile it carried across two columns, the date was 28 June, 1999. But the letters which the Brigadier was supposed to have written were said to have been written in August and November 1998! The receipt had absolutely nothing to do with the non-existent letters.

Not only the date on the receipt, the text of the receipt too should have made that clear: at the very top, the receipt stated, "Received HQ 15 Corps letter No 29734/SS/Conf dated 28 Jun 99 containing 68 (sixty eight) pages from Brigadier Surinder Singh, SM, VSM" It is well-known that Surinder Singh had been transferred. He had sent a representation against his transfer. This was a receipt for that representation! Not just that, the officer was by this time involved in litigation with the Army. He had been directly in charge of troops in the Kargil sector. Sending patrols etc., and keeping a vigil in that area had been his direct responsibility. He was certain to be questioned on why patrolling had been inadequate. If any single person's claims needed to be cross-checked before publication, they were of this officer. But then defeating "communal forces" justifies everything!

The Congress built its campaign on these twin predispositions -- to print canards without verification, and to broadcast anything and everything so long as it served "the Great Cause" of harming "communal forces". Every day, the party spokesman would hurl one new concoction. And the next morning, these papers would reach it to millions of households. "Rs 900 crores loss to public exchequer because of sugar imports from Pakistan," the spokesman declared. Not just that, on the premise that the concoction would fetch more if it could somehow be linked to national security, the spokesman asserted that actually through these imports Vajpayee had helped arm ISI and the Pakistan Army to invade Kargil! "Will they dare to name the owner of Kundan Sugar Mills?," he demanded, with an air of having some devastating information up his sleeve. They were allowed to import 80,000 tonnes, and thereby provide foreign exchange to the Pakistan Army and the ISI.

It turns out that import of sugar had been placed on Open General License in 1994 by the then Congress(I) Government. That a score of traders had been importing sugar since. That sugar had also been imported from Pakistan. That one of the importers was a trader in Chandini Chowk of Delhi, named Kundan Sugar Mills. But what had that trader to do with the Prime Minister and his family? And the firm had imported not 80,000 tonnes, as the Congress(I) had alleged, but a paltry 2,500 tonnes! As for loss to the exchequer was concerned, the Government had not imported any sugar at all -- how was there a loss of even 9 paise, to say nothing of Rs 900 crores? In fact, while the Congress(I) Government had allowed imports of sugar at zero import duty, the present Government has successively raised the duty to 27.5 per cent: it is now that every teaspoon of sugar imported will contribute to the public exchequer!

Each of these facts could have been ascertained with just a phone-call. Each of them should have been common knowledge among journalists. But the rule held, "Swallow and vomit." And the press became the megaphone of calumners.

The daily allegation has become the mainstay of the Congress(I)'s campaign this time round, and that of its allies in the media. But this is just a new low. It is this very party with the help of some of the same papers which in the 1989 elections forged and broadcast documents to prove that Mr. V. P. Singh and his son Ajay had a secret account in St Kitts, an account into which millions had been paid as kickbacks. And that was just one of seven forgeries which these worthies had put out through the media. That was their explanation of the kickbacks in Bofors.

This is one of the central issues before the electorate today: should it place the country in the hands of a party, and a leadership which is so comfortable with falsehood?

More is at stake than just an electoral outcome. The eagerness with which the press is making itself the hand-maiden of falsehood poisons public discourse -- something even more elemental for a society than elections. The press often complain that politicians do not discuss issues. But surely one of the main goads to them to discard issues and pedal calumny is that papers and TV channels as good as black out whatever they have to say on issues. At a discussion on Starnews, the Congress(I)'s spokesman recalled that he had fielded Dr Manmohan Singh one day to talk on economic issues, and that the result had been that next day the papers had not carried a word about the Congress(I)'s press conference. "You mean, sleaze sells?," the anchor asked. Yes, said the spokesman.

On the one side that was quite a confession -- as sleaze sells, the Congress(I) had decided to peddle sleaze. But on the other, it was an important statement of fact. Coverage of Parliament exhibits the same trait: hulla gets much coverage, considered speeches get next to nothing; naturally, that balance becomes an encouragement to the hulla-raisers.

The entry of TV has compounded the problem. As it is, newspapers had given up examining issues in any detail. TV has it as an article of faith that viewers turn off if any image lasts for more than 30 seconds, that they do not want to be bothered by detail. So, the moment someone start explaining the point at issue, the interviewer shuts him up, "What you mean is that you do not agree with Mr..., Let us move on, well, Mr... what do you think of the other charge...?"

Several things can be done. The press should not print allegations unless they are backed by evidence.

Second, if it just has to print the allegation because of urgency or because of the importance of the person making it, the press should pursue the allegation on its own in the days that follow, and report its independent findings on the matter.

Third, TV programmers should devise extended issue-based discussions among experts, and among political representatives.

Fourth, while the legal provisions on defamation are excellent, victims hesitate to go to court because of the time it takes to bring the case to any sort of conclusion: it took the victim thirteen years to get a judgment even from the lowest court in a case against The Indian Express in which to my personal knowledge the paper had no defence at all. The remedy, therefore, is to leave the defamation provision as it is but to legislate day-to-day hearings of defamation cases. And for courts to award exemplary damages.

Fifth, even under the law as it is, to repeat a libel is libel. When a newspaper or TV channel broadcasts a libelous statement, it compounds the libel manifold. Unfortunately, in practice the courts are too liberal in this regard, and often papers are able to get away by pleading that they merely repeated what X had said. The provision on repeating libel must be enforced with due sternness.

Finally, in one respect the current situation needs to be turned on its head. The harm calumny does is infinitely greater at the time of elections. But our current practice seems to be to be even more lax during elections in regard to what is permissible. Notice that while the Election Commission has deemed fit to pronounce its views on all sorts of matters in the past few weeks, it has done nothing, it has not even said anything that would dissuade party spokesmen from hurling defamatory allegations.

The defamation law should be enforced even more rigidly in case the defamatory statement is made during elections, if necessary the law should be amended for this purpose.

Such changes are necessary both to prevent elections from being polluted further, and also to save media from its own excesses.

India Connect
September 7, 1999

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