In Response to Media Coverage of Crimes Against Minorities, A BJP-Affiliated Think Tank Proposed Guidelines Curtailing Editorial Independence

At the helm of the PPRC is its honorary director Vinay Sahasrabuddhe (extreme left), a member of the Rajya Sabha from the state of Maharashtra and a national vice president of the BJP.
25 April, 2018

Crimes against minorities in India, specifically Dalits and Muslims, have risen dramatically since the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. A reasonable reaction to such hate crimes would have included increasing the allocation of funds to policing machinery at the local and state level. Instead, the Public Policy Research Centre, a BJP-affiliated think tank, had proposed that the state respond by shooting the messenger—that is, the media. In March last year, the think tank released a report making numerous recommendations about the manner in which media organisations ought to function. If adopted, these guidelines would considerably erode the editorial independence of Indian media establishments.

In early April this year, the Prime Minister’s Office ordered the withdrawal of a circular passed by the information and broadcasting ministry, which proposed guidelines to punish journalists found to have “created and/or propagated” fake news. As per the proposal, if a journalist is found guilty, her accreditation could have been suspended for a period of six months, or even permanently cancelled. Following widespread criticism from journalists and opposition members, the government decided to spike the guidelines within 24 hours of proposing them. In a year that will see four state elections, the guidelines created a perception that the government was seeking to muzzle the media. While the government might have retreated this time around, a look at the report released by PPRC suggests that the think tank’s blueprint for the Indian media establishment, endorsed by BJP leaders heading the organisation, is not conducive to its health, vibrancy and multiplicity of voices.

The PPRC report is titled “Examining Objectivity and Non-partisan Character of Media While Covering Atrocities on SC (Dalit) and Minorities: A report of cases between 2015–16.” It is primarily concerned with the adverse reporting that the BJP had to face in the aftermath of three sensitive cases between September 2015 and July 2016—namely, the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, the suicide of the PhD scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad, and the flogging of four Dalit youths in Una. The report argues that these three incidents were “chosen and singled out for disproportionate coverage” by media establishments.

Among its recommendations to remedy these concerns, the PPRC report urges the Press Council of India and the Editor’s Guild to establish a parameter titled “Un-adulterated News Reporting Quotient” to assess the “objectivity of news reporting.” The report further recommends media organisations to develop a “Common Style Book of News Reporting” to ensure that “proper, uncoloured vocabulary and non-judgmental terminologies” are used in stories. It also urges media platforms to periodically conduct an “internal audit of the space allotted, coverage extended, fonts chosen and terms/words” used for reporting on incidents of crimes against minority communities. The PPRC had submitted a copy of the report to the Press Council of India, but CK Prasad, the chairperson of the Press Council, declined to comment on the report.

The think tank’s strong ties to the BJP are evident from its board of directors. At the helm of the PPRC is its honorary director Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, a member of the Rajya Sabha from the state of Maharashtra and a national vice president of the BJP. Nalin Kohli, a national spokesperson of the BJP and the party’s prabhari, or incharge, for the state of Meghalaya, is also on the board of directors. According to the board of directors listed on the PPRC website, the remaining two directors, Sumeet Bhasin and Rajinder Arya, have also served in various positions within the party. Bhasin told me that “the idea of PPRC was conceived in 2010 by then BJP president Nitin Gadkari,” and added that it “became fully operational” in February 2011. “Till now we have released 12–13 reports, 20–25 monographs and many policy briefs on a number of subjects,” he said. “We even released a booklet comparing the models of performance under the NDA government and the UPA government.”

The PPRC report on the objectivity of the media examines other cases of deaths and suicides that did not receive the same media attention, and concludes that “media reporting gives differential weightage to incidents of similar nature.” It observes that the “selective reporting is followed by political escalation by opposition parties,” and that “certain cases were made icons of atrocities against marginalised communities.” All together, the report states that this leads to a “poisonous cocktail of news and views.” It also blames the media for adopting a “tone, tenor, direction and vocabulary of coverage” which was “uniformly directed to the disadvantage of the ruling dispensation allowing the politicisation of a criminal incident.”

The report accuses media organisations of giving “selective coverage to incidents of atrocity and discrimination” in reference to the suicide of Rohith Vemula, which “fetched widespread political escalation, painting the incumbent establishment ‘anti-dalit.’” It further accuses the media of using Vemula’s death and the Una violence “as a tool of political vendetta and media propaganda.” The report even goes on to state that Rohith Vemula was not Dalit, a claim that has been aggressively contested and denied.

In a foreword to the report, Sahasrabuddhe writes that the report is a “dispassionate study” conducted to “understand as to how, a large section of media adulterates news with views and provides a coloured, prejudiced and biased news causing severe damage to its own credibility.” The foreword zeroes in on three pillars of editorial liberties that journalists and editors enjoy, which Sahasrabuddhe claims has led to the “denial of ‘media justice’”—namely, the content of the news, the placement of the news, and the space allocated to the news.

The BJP national vice president has not spared editors and their editorial discretion either. Sahasrabuddhe argues that “media justice” is often denied by  “persons involved in the placing of the news,” who give a biased treatment to news items by giving “disproportionate or uncalled for importance” or “denial of importance” to stories. He also states that journalists often indulge in the “politics of vocabulary,” by using words and phrases that are “discriminatory or judgmental in nature.” Sahasrabuddhe complains that “disproportionate highlighting” is given to stories through “extra-ordinary column-centimetre space given repeatedly.” There is, however, no mention of a number of news-media platforms that have cropped up in the last couple of years producing news that projects the incumbent government in a positive light, notwithstanding the fact that many of these stories have been shown to fall short of the standards of factual accuracy and unbiased reporting.

The PPRC report makes a slew of recommendations to address these issues, but it fails to elaborate on the substantive feasibility or procedural technicalities of these recommendations. It does not explain what it considers to be “objective” news or “uncoloured vocabulary” or “non-judgemental terminologies.” It also does not elucidate on how numerous media houses, with varying notions on socio-economic or geopolitical problems, should agree on a common style book. To bulldoze a uniform style would effectively eliminate editorial and newsroom liberties.

Implicit in such recommendations is the possibility that they can be misused by the government to tailor news to its own agenda. Irrespective of whether these recommendations are employed by the government, it offers a peek into the PPRC’s designs for the Indian news media landscape, which were endorsed by senior members of the ruling party.