Freedom of Speech” is a much heard of and much-debated term since 2014. It has been used and abused by various people from various political shades. It has become a catch phrase to be hurled at BJP whenever the opposing forces arrayed against Mr. Modi want to have their way. While the Left illiberal ecosystem was busy for the last eight years convincing the world that there is no freedom of speech and democracy is under threat, The Wire bomb exploded. It has put to the test all the assumptions about what is freedom of speech, who has it in the ‘fascist’ Modi regime and who is at the receiving end.
The Wire episode has also brought into sharp focus the issue of “Fake News”. The dominant Left-controlled media routinely blames social media and highlights ‘trolls’ of the BJP for spreading fake news. The problem was genuine and ails all the players and was supposed to be limited to social media. Mainstream media (MSM) was supposed to be immune from it. There have been slanted reports for a long time. MSM too has become a views delivery platform, but MSM or powerful digital platforms were rarely called out for fake news.
The only case that created equally huge controversy around freedom of speech was the case of Republic TV, that was cornered with that it influenced TRP ratings. But we all know the reason was its trenchant criticism of the then Maharashtra coalition Government of NCP-Shiv Sena-Congress combine. It was not a case of fake news. Not one of its reports has been found to be fake or challenged till now.
Lies of the wire
- In 2021, a Telangana court had made The Wire take down 14 articles it had published against Bharat Biotech, the makers of India’s indigenous Covid-19 vaccine, during the pandemic.
- In 2021, when India was reeling under the onslaught of unruly farmer agitation and the shameful attack on Red Fort, The Wire circulated a story of a farmer who died under his own tractor, driving it recklessly to crush policemen. The story said police bullets killed him.
- In 2019, businessman and honourary secretary of BCCI Jay Shah had filed a defamation case against the portal. The Wire had moved to the Supreme Court after the Gujarat High Court rejected their plea against a trial court order summoning them. In the course of the arguments, Justice BR Gavai had observed, “It’s nothing short of yellow journalism. What kind of journalism is this?”
- In 2018, The Wire published a report on alleged financial misconduct on the part Union Minister Piyush Goyal. The article accused Goyal of selling his investments in a private firm to the Piramal Group. The article also stated that Goyal allegedly kept the PMO in the dark and did not declare this transaction to the PMO. This was quickly refuted by The Primal group and they called the allegations made, ‘baseless’ and ‘devoid of merit’. They also warned of defamatory action against the website.
Meanwhile, there was and still is, routine harassment, arrests and shameful persecution of individual social media activists or simple users. It is worse as these individuals have hardly a political agenda except pin-pricking powerful politicians.
But let us come back to the high-profile cases of The Wire and Republic TV.
The two represent the two ends of the spectrum of political thought. The former running on funding from public and powerful industry–run funds, unabashedly Leftist with world-wide network and an open agenda of opposing and defaming Modi, nationalist organisations and Hindutva. The latter is self-financed; currently, the only journalist-run TV channel and unabashedly pro-Modi, anti-Left and professed nationalist. The idea of Freedom of Speech has no ideological colour, or so we are made to believe.
True journalism means presenting news and sharing your views as views, not news. It means ferreting out facts and letting readers decide even while you share your opinions openly on your platform. Journalism is not an agenda-driven activism camouflaged as journalism. Even politically committed news and views, media must maintain certain decorum and integrity.
The Republic TV owner, Arnab Goswami, was dragged out of his home by an armed police posse after subtle and not-so-subtle threats didn’t work. He had exposed the Careless Government that didn’t work. It was a vendetta from a government that couldn’t control law and order, that let cases of Palghar Sadhu’s lynching and a rising star’s suicide or murder. It was a time when two top police officers committed the most heinous crime of manipulating the law and its power to make money and browbeat a TV channel. Top officers of the channel – CFO, CEO, and journalists were also arrested and persecuted at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of members of staff faced police cases and threats of arrest. The corrupt police officers were in cahoots with the ruling alliance. If there was some solid evidence of fake news or hate-mongering against any community, one could understand. It was not prosecution or persecution for fake news; it was a show of state power that forced fake cases on a media house.
The Wire’s influential founder Siddharth Varadarajan was caught with pants down for spreading fake news and, when caught, was found manufacturing evidence to justify his organisation’s foul play. Were it not a powerful MNC like Meta, Varadarajan would have brazened his way out of this mess as a self-righteous defender of democracy. Unfortunately for him, he hit a wall like Meta. Just a few weeks prior to this story, was the story of Tek Fog that was invented by The Wire team (claiming to have worked on it for weeks) to show the ruling party BJP and its IT head Amit Malviya as some sort of fascists out to crush any opposition. Both cases became global news with the active cooperation of the ecosystem to the extent that India’s democratic rankings were downgraded by their friendly watchdogs. When the founding editors apologised from a high moral ground, there was no apology to the real victims of The Wire’s shenanigans.
Those who talk of closing the case with an apology want us to forget that it was not the first time that The Wire was seen as a propaganda vehicle of the left out to defame national forces and the nation. However, its target was Modi – the most powerful symbol of a reawakened Bharat.
Bharat Biotech, inventors of Covaxin, were defamed and fake stories circulated that were shared by global platforms. It was an attempted sabotage of India’s efforts to develop her vaccine. Bharat had to move courts that ordered The Wire to take down 14 stories and bar it from publishing more stories. Imagine the agenda of stopping the development of the Indian vaccine when the world was tottering with a disaster of epic proportions. But the mighty editors were neither arrested nor raided.
When India was reeling under the onslaught of unruly farmer agitation and the shameful attack on Red Fort, The Wire circulated a story of a farmer who died under his own tractor, driving it recklessly to crush policemen. The story said police bullets killed him. Despite the report from the doctor who did the post-mortem that there was no bullet injury, and the person didn’t die of a bullet injury, the publication went on to cast aspersions on the doctor and did not withdraw the report. No member of The Wire was harassed. When both the recent stories of The Wire went up in smoke, Amit Malviya made a police complaint for defamation. Simultaneously, the ED raided Siddhartha’s residence and office to search for evidence of data manipulation and false evidence creation as per statements from Meta and other sources. He was not arrested like his ‘professional comrade’ Arnab.
And the ecosystem woke up to the oppression of freedom of speech! We had the usual suspects from the illiberal class defending The Wire and criticising the government. The high priest of liberalism, N Ram, the great venerable international magazine The Economist came out to defend Siddharth and his baby. Opposition spokespersons came to TV to protect freedom of speech and seek to absolve a criminal act because the great man had apologised.
Did any of these worthies support Republic TV and Arnab when he was persecuted? His only crime was his abrasive style. None of his stories was manufactured fake news. Did any ‘liberal’ stand up for his freedom of speech? No! The politicians defending The Wire today were laughing at Arnab and his team. One minister, now in jail, said gleefully, “Arnab might commit suicide.” Did any illiberal condemn it? No sir. Why? Because the torch bearers of secularism ran the government!
The industry watchdogs like NBA and Editor’s Guild went silent in the case of Republic TV. In fact, Editor’s Guild criticised Republic TV based on a fake TRP manipulation case. Did any of them apologise after the truth was out? No! The same Editor’s Guild issued a strong press statement based on fake story of The Wire about the oppression of freedom of speech. But, after the fakery was exposed, it simply washed its hands off. It called for closing the issue since The Wire had issued an apology that was more to absolve its owners and make a scapegoat of a young reporter whose professional life is in ruins now.
Not an Indian Citizen
One point that has escaped public scrutiny is that Varadarajan is not even a citizen of India. He is an OIC cardholder, to the best of my knowledge. Should foreigners be allowed to dictate newspaper policies & news dissemination? How dangerous this can be is seen in this latest conundrum.
Yet again, we can see that “Freedom of Speech” is a one-way street patrolled by illiberal liberals who can decide the driving direction of the street and penalise the offenders. It is a one-eyed class that had lost all sense of judgement and played partisan politics when none was required, as we can see from the gross contrast in the cases of the two media houses. This case also illustrates that the left lobby can go to any extent to defame India and its leaders, and its culture. It can use its international lobby to create huge echo across the globe that shows India in a very poor light while our Prime Minister is trying his best to create a positive image of India with pro-active global action for the welfare of humankind. The only reason is that this cabal looking at ‘poor wretched’ India through western eyes cannot tolerate an India rooted in its culture and proud of its heritage. It is time to stand up to this intellectual bullying and free ourselves to enjoy true freedom of speech.