An Awkward Silence

Massive layoffs at newspapers expose professional conditions that undermine the public sphere

01 March 2017
Jawaharlal Nehru University shows how shielding professionals from punishment for their political views fosters the kind of principled dissent essential to a democracy.
tsering topgyal / ap photo
Jawaharlal Nehru University shows how shielding professionals from punishment for their political views fosters the kind of principled dissent essential to a democracy.
tsering topgyal / ap photo

The historian Mukul Kesavan’s column in The Telegraph on 12 February was titled “A Delicate Balance: The state of the fourth estate.” In it, Kesavan begins by saying that “Midway through Narendra Modi’s term in office … [a]s someone who writes opinion pieces, I can report that the papers I write for haven’t suddenly begun to censor me. No edit desk has returned a copy with sentences underlined in red because it has felt uneasy with the political implications of something I had written.” Then, he moves on to less rosy thoughts: “the intimidation of reporters and correspondents is more commonplace and easier to cite,” and “the NDA government and the prime minister and the BJP’s online army exert real and concerted pressure on liberal journalists.” Kesavan observes at one point, rightly, that it is “increasingly the case that journalists who don’t enjoy the institutional shelter that big newspapers supply, are constrained and unfree.”

Less than a fortnight earlier, the ABP Group, which owns The Telegraph and the Bengali-language Anandabazar Patrika, notified hundreds of staff at its papers that they were being laid off. This was preceded by a similar exercise at the Hindustan Times a month earlier, with four editions and three bureaus being shut down. Kesavan, in over 1,200 words of writing, does not find space for the slightest mention of any of this. If The Telegraph’s edit desk did not encourage such wilful and convenient blindness, Kesavan must have taken the initiative himself.

On the face of it, the downsizing has all been voluntary—no journalist has been sacked, each affected individual has accepted a severance package and decided to move on. In reality, however, people have only tried to make the best of a bad bargain. No editorial logic has been advanced for the layoffs, and both media houses have presented them as necessary for reducing costs.

Hartosh Singh Bal  is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.

Keywords: media journalism academia Working Journalist Act JNU newspapers Ashoka University ABP public discourse Public goods
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