Has the Indian Media Lost Its Ability to Speak Truth to Power?

25 February, 2015

In an interview with Maureen Dowd, a columnist at the New York Times, in August last year, James Risen—a journalist with the New York Times himself and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner—described Barack Obama as “the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.” About six months later, on 18 February 2015, the investigative reporter repeated that charge in a tweet, responding to a speech by US Attorney General Eric Holder in which Holder argued that press leaks were doing more damage than good to the cause of national security.

Given Holder’s speech today, I repeat: The Obama Administration is the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.

— James Risen (@JamesRisen) February 18, 2015

Describing the Attorney General as “the nation’s top censorship officer,” Risen tweeted:

I plan to spend the rest of my life fighting to undo damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and Eric Holder.

— James Risen (@JamesRisen) February 18, 2015

Having first taken on the Bush administration and now the Obama one, Risen has had multiple confrontations with the White House. The trouble began with the publication of Risen’s 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration in which he reported on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) operations in Iran and a National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program through which details of US citizens’ telephone and email communications were being accumulated, without any search warrants. Equally damaging was his account of Operation Merlin, a botched up exercise conducted by the Clinton administration through which it might have unwittingly hastened Iran’s progress with nuclear weapons. In 2010, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into how Risen had acquired the information that had been recorded in his book, and issued an indictment against Jeffery Alexander Sterling—a former CIA officer who had left the agency in 2002—accusing him of unauthorised disclosure of national defence information and obstruction of justice. On 26 January 2015, Sterling was convicted of espionage by a federal court in Alexandria, in the state of Virginia. Although Risen took the stand on 5 January 2015 for forty-five minutes, he refused to be drawn into testifying against Sterling. He repeatedly said, “In my stories or my book, where I say I had unidentified sources, I had unidentified sources. Where I say I had identified sources, I had identified sources.” Risen’s defiance has come to symbolise the bitter stand-off between journalists and the Obama administration, which has gone after more journalists and whistle-blowers than his predecessor’s—George W Bush—administration did.

In October last year, Risen released another book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, through which he criticised the actions of the Bush and Obama administrations in the aftermath of 9/11. Pay any Price documented the cold and calculated destruction of Iraq by multiple stakeholders: the US government, intelligence agencies, corporations, and contractors. Risen alleged that each one of these sectors leveraged the war and amassed huge amounts of wealth. “Greed and power are always a dangerous combination. In wartime, power expands and greed can easily follow,” he wrote. When revealing how huge sums of money flown into Iraq from the US were stolen even as the authorities were in the know, he noted the emergence of the “homeland security-industrial complex” helmed by a “new kind of counterterrorism entrepreneur who prospered in the shadows of 9/11.”

In a chapter titled ‘The War on Truth’ Risen wrote: “Of all the abuses America has suffered at the hands of the government in its endless war on terror, possibly the worst has been the war on truth.” Risen narrated stories of people who tried their best to scuttle the NSA’s domestic spying project from within the system. These stories, he wrote, were part of a larger plot “of how government secrecy—and a crackdown on whistle-blowers—has enabled the worst excesses of the post-9/11 era to go unchecked, from torture to data mining on massive scale.” As the government promoted unbridled and opaque secrecy, there grew a new class of security entrepreneurs and wild freebooters. “Secrecy breeds corruption,” Risen pointedly stated.

Apart from serving as a stunning condemnation of American claims to freedom, transparency and liberty, Risen’s work poses uncomfortable questions for journalists in our own context. Reading his books and interviews, one is forced to question whether journalists in India have lost the fearless tradition of reportage that would mandate putting their jobs and careers—if not their lives—on the line. The thought is especially relevant since such an intrepid journalistic tradition was not historically absent in India; it was present not just when the Indian media was fighting British colonial rule, but even after the country gained independence in 1947. As academic Mira K Desai pointed out in her paper, ‘Changing Face of Indian Journalism: Political Agitation to Economic Alliances,’ newspapers such as The Indian Express and The Statesman resisted censorship during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency by carrying blank spaces instead of editorials. Over two hundred journalists including Barun Sengupta—former editor of the Bengali newspaper Bartamaan—were arrested in this period while 51 journalists and camerapersons had their accreditation cancelled.

Since we often trumpet our own claims to democratic culture—like America—it is also worthwhile to look across the border. Najam Sethi, a Pakistani journalist and the former chief minister of Punjab, has been jailed thrice by three different Pakistani regimes: first by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for protesting against military action in Balochistan; then by General Zia ul Haq, for publishing a book by a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Mohammad Munir; and most recently by the Nawaz Sharif government for “treason.” “He’s a patriot who is willing to attack nationalism when required, a secularist who will illuminate the transgressions made by secularists, and a pacifist who will support internal and external military agencies whenever he feels that they have a case” Eshwar Sundareshan, a Bangalore-based writer, noted in the Dawn—an English daily based in Pakistan.

Is it possible that the fear of being tagged anti-national is tying the Indian media’s hands? Or have we inched so close to the powers that be in the worlds of politics and business that fearless speech has become near impossible? There can be little doubt that over the past two decades, changing patterns of media ownership and the commodification of news as infotainment have gone hand in hand with the dilution of editorial autonomy at the altar of money and business.

In making such comparisons, it is important to remember that American journalism is also mired in conflicts that are taking a toll on the media’s independence. War reporters embedded with the armed forces tend to supply the military’s versions of events, and mainstream American media is well-known for its cacophonous obscuration of a well-informed debate. The fact that mainstream American media did not interrogate the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ narrative that was fed to them by the White House in 2003, is an unfortunate comment on their autonomy and desire to cross the dotted line. At the same time a strong tradition of dissident media also peppers the landscape of American news—from individuals like Risen, Jeremy Scahill, Amy Goodman and Glenn Greenwald, to organisations like Mother Jones and The Nation.

The Indian media—especially in recent years—has gone after corrupt politicians and revealed huge scams. But arguably, these are not life-disrupting, career-ending stories that go beyond the unstated boundaries of conventional reportage. Often journalists and proprietors running media establishments do not wish to court that danger. The dotted line appears whenever exposes by strong reporters are ignored, or when, as in the case of the Radia Tapes, the media establishment’s close ties to corporations and politicians are not zealously covered. Abstract cases of corruption are easier to handle than specific charges against those in power. The current media discourse on Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai—which waxes eloquent on the case but refuses to engage with the larger issue of questioning the seemingly sacrosanct ideal of nationalism—or the anti-nuclear movement in Kudankulam, is trapped within the staid paradigm of prime time shouting matches.

Given these circumstances, I could not help but wonder what it would mean for journalists—in India or anywhere else—to speak truth to power.

As a possible answer to this question, in an interview with Democracy Now, Risen remarked that “without aggressive investigative reporting, we can’t really have a democracy, because the only real oversight for the government is an independent and aggressive press. And I think that’s what the government really fears more than anything else.”

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.