On 29 July 2016, Outlook magazine digitally released an investigative report called “Operation #BabyLift,” the cover story for its 8 August issue. The story, written by Neha Dixit, an independent journalist, detailed the manner in which outfits that belong to the Sangh Parivar had abducted young girls from Assam to indoctrinate them. Less than a week after it was released, on 4 August, Subhash Chandra Kayal, the assistant solicitor general of India at the Guwahati High Court, Bijon Mahajan, a lawyer and spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and Mominul Awwal from the BJP’s minority cell, filed a complaint at the Latasil police station in Guwahati, alleging that Dixit’s story incited communal hatred. The police registered a first information report against Indranil Roy, the publisher and executive director of the magazine, Krishna Prasad, then its editor-in-chief, and Dixit. Last week, on 13 August, Roy sent an email to the staff at Outlook. In this email, he announced the appointment of Rajesh Ramachandran, a former political editor of TheEconomic Times, as the magazine’s new editor-in-chief.
The sad inevitability of Prasad’s removal as the editor of Outlook, weeks after he ran the cover story and days after the magazine was taken to court over the piece, says much about the current state of the Indian news media. The incumbent editor, Ramachandran has claimed that the process for Prasad’s removal was set in motion long before the story in question was published. But surely the management of the publication had some leeway over when to exercise such a change. The timing they chose speaks for itself.
As is evident from this case, the government rarely needs to arm-twist editors directly. Employees from Outlook have claimed that the magazine’s promoters, the Raheja group—originally a construction and real estate development company—have been under sustained pressure for some time and that Dixit’s story regarding the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliate organisations was the last straw. The structures of news media ownership in this country, and the involvement of corporates who have huge stakes in businesses that require the government’s goodwill, ensure that editorial decisions are often tailored to the government’s preferences. While it may be unfair to focus on any one set of promoters, especially the Rahejas, who have, for over two decades backed the magazine despite pressure from successive governments—both the BJP and Congress—the message Prasad’s exit sends out is clear. Editors who take on the establishment run a constant risk, and the advantages of toeing the government line are rather evident in the profession.
Prasad’s removal comes at a time when the news media’s ability to tell uncomfortable truths is under siege by the current dispensation and those who speak on its behalf. In Kashmir, as protests mounted in the valley, newspaper offices were raided, staff detained, and censorship imposed on the local news media, all without any official government sanction. In the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, vigilantes who enjoy close linkages with the local police have successfully hounded journalists, exercising virtual control over news the police does not want to be reported.
Put together, these incidents indicate the absence of norms regarding the structure of news media in this country. The three relationships that define how the media actually functions—between the government and news media organisations; between news media organisations and journalists; and between the government and journalists—are largely unregulated. The lack of regulation allows the government to bring into play laws such as the maintenance of public order, which do not directly deal with the news media to control or regulate news coverage, but impact it nevertheless.