At the receiving end

Every interest group, whether governments, corporates or activists, expects a newspaper to mimic its world view

Journalists in Chennai have come together to protest against the Tamil Nadu government’s attitude towards the news media, which has hit a new low. In a clear violation of Article 19 of the Constitution, a television channel in the State has been slapped with a case under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code (promoting enmity between groups). The excesses of the State government and the inhibition of free flow of credible information is worrying. This pressure from the state apparatus amounts to direct censorship. This and other recent events such as the killing of five employees of the U.S.-based newspaper Capital Gazette by a reader over an old report on his guilty plea to criminal harassment, the targeted murders of journalists Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari, and the reckless use of social media to spread canards show that pressure on independent media has grown manifold.

Understanding journalism

Editorial judgment has become more challenging than ever before as every interest group, whether governments, political parties, corporates or activists of various hues, expects a newspaper to mimic its world view. The ease of communication in the digital era has not increased our ability to talk to each other; instead, we talk at each other. Dialogue has given way to concurrent monologues. A democratic public sphere is not a power display of pull and push but a participatory process of give and take.

Joy Mayer, an Adjunct faculty at Poynter and Director of, wrote in the wake of the Capital Gazette killings: “Across the industry, we need to do a better job of explaining our work, demonstrating our credibility and actively earning trust… Community newsrooms need to tell a consistent, repetitive story about what motivates our work, the range of information and stories we offer, what sets us apart, who we are, how we operate and how people can reach us. Telling that story should be a constant drumbeat — part of the rhythm of our work.”

As a news ombudsman, I earnestly attempt to explain in this column how this newspaper works. At the cost of repeating myself, I must point out that this office follows an open door policy where any criticism is welcome, and divergent views are given due consideration before a final call is taken on complaints. The idea is to ensure that the channel for debate is kept alive, and that the middle ground is not ceded in these polarising times.

Reports on the highway

Last Friday, there was a mail from a reporter working for a Web-based news magazine accusing this newspaper of censorship in its reportage on the Chennai-Salem highway. He compared three reports published on June 29, 2018, to arrive at that conclusion. The first was a report headlined, “Green corridor: govt. talks of ‘fantastic’ compensation”, published on the State pages. The report said the State government had told the High Court that landowners whose properties had to be acquired for the proposed highway would be paid “fantastic” compensation. The critic failed to notice the caution in the report — both the headline and the report used the word fantastic within quotation marks. He also underestimated the importance of recording the official position.

Then he compared this report with two field reports — “Eminent Domain factor eclipsing other Constitutional rights?” and “Green corridor threatens to deprive SCs/STs of their land” — that appeared both in the Hosur edition and in the online edition of the newspaper. These reports documented the lack of due process and the additional burden that the project may have on marginalised communities. He concluded that these critical reports in the local edition and the government’s view published on the State page amounted to censorship. One may question the wisdom of selecting one story and dropping the other, but I don’t think anyone who practises censorship publishes critical stories in one edition and not in another. In a multi-edition newspaper like The Hindu, space is premium. Apart from a copy meant for all editions, news editors select about 20,000 words for each edition from a processed corpus of hundred thousand words. In this inevitable process of compression, there is a conscious effort not to deny local stories for local readers. However, all stories that have appeared across editions are available online.

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