Last week, an editor of a Bengali newspaper received a call from a senior Trinamool leader.
After exchanging pleasantries, the Trinamool leader told the editor that the newspaper’s coverage of the state’s handling of the pandemic was “making our dolo-netri (party leader) angry”.
The dolo-netri being referred to was, without any doubt, Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee.
And news of her displeasure was enough to make the editor summon the reporter covering the health ‘beat’ and ask him to stop criticising the state’s handling of the pandemic.
The young reporter, who had filed news reports in recent days of the poor condition of dedicated Covid hospitals and inadequate testing laboratories, protested that he was only covering the ground realities.
But the editor reportedly said that “it doesn’t matter” and from then on, only “positive reports” would be published.
The editor also reminded the reporter about the fate of the editor of Bengal’s largest-circulated Bengali daily who had to put in his papers early last month after Mamata Banerjee openly criticised the newspaper’s reportage.
The ‘ABP Example’
That resignation was preceded by a public diatribe against the ABP by Mamata Banerjee on 27 May.
She accused the newspaper of “creating panic, spreading apprehensions and provoking people”.
“We were asking for help from select groups, but that did not materialise. You have caused unthinkable damage to the state’s image and you will realise this only when you yourselves face some problems,” she said while referring to the newspaper.
She also alluded to recent layoffs and salary cuts by the newspaper management.
“You people do business in Bengal, sack people here and even cut the salary of your employees. You would have been taught a lesson if you were in any other state, and under any other government. We are a humane government, we work in democratic ways and we do not believe in taking action against such acts that you do,” Banerjee thundered.
As if on cue, the Kolkata Police summoned Anirban Chattopadhyay, the editor of the 98-year-old daily, on a complaint filed by the state government over a report on inadequate supply of PPEs to staff of a government hospital.
The state health department had said that the report was factually incorrect and wrote to the state home department, which filed the police complaint.
The resignation of the editor, apparently triggered by police harassment, sent a chilling message to the already meek media in Bengal: criticism will not be tolerated and the price for not singing praises of the Trinamool and the state government, despite its many failings, will be steep.
That was, however, not the first time the ABP group ran afoul of Mamata Banerjee.
In the run-up to the Assembly polls in May 2016, the Ananda Bazar Patrika and its sister publication The Telegraph carried on a relentless and often highly biased campaign against Banerjee.
The group’s editor-in-chief, Aveek Sarkar, was seen to be behind the media group’s shrill campaign and partisan coverage against Banerjee and her party.
Sarkar was said to be backing the Congress-Left alliance in Bengal at that time.
Banerjee, in fact, tore into the two newspapers at a public rally in Durgapur, calling them the “most destructive elements in Bengal”.
She named Sarkar and accused him of “spreading slander against Bengal”, “propping up the Congress-Left alliance” and seeking large parcels of land from her.
The Trinamool’s resounding victory at the hustings that year sealed Sarkar’s fate.
The group was already being denied government advertisements and that was hurting the company’s bottom line very badly.
The ABP group realised that it would not be able to survive any longer without government advertisements.
And with the group’s fond, albeit totally unrealistic, hopes of the Congress-Left alliance winning in Bengal being dashed to the ground, it realised that something would have to be done to mend fences with the Trinamool supremo.
Feelers were accordingly sent out and, according to ABP’s top management sources, the message that came back was that Aveek Sarkar would have to go.
Also, all the group’s publications would have to immediately cease criticism of the Trinamool and the state government.
The beleaguered group had to comply, since defying this diktat would have pushed the media house further into the red.
The replacement was explained as “part of the ongoing process of streamlining news operations”.
And the group also ceased to criticise, even mildly, Bengal’s ruling party and the government.
Insiders say that Arup Sarkar was reportedly told by Trinamool leaders that ABP group publications should train their guns exclusively on the BJP and the Union government.
As a result, since then, ABP group publications have gone soft on the Trinamool and the government it runs in the state.
Consequently, it has been receiving generous advertisement support from the state government as well, in stark contrast to the pre-June 2016 situation, when it was starved of such advertisements.
But as is human nature, journalists of the group started pushing the boundaries and the pandemic came in handy for the ABP group to take baby steps in critiquing the state government.
The feeling was that with the government busy handling the pandemic and with many others newspapers and news portals attacking the Bengal government’s mishandling of the crisis, the ABP’s censure would not upset the government.
But it did, and the ABP editor had to go.
A chilling message was thereby sent not only to all journalists of the ABP group, but to other media outlets as well.
Especially the ones which are dependent on state government advertisements.
Using Advertisements As A Weapon
It must be understood here that all newspapers and news magazines that are published from Bengal are heavily dependent on state government advertisements for sustenance.
In the absence of any large industries from whom they can get advertisements, all media houses — including local editions of ‘national’ newspapers — have to rely on the state’s largesse.
And this is the weapon the Trinamool government in Bengal wields to make journalists fall in line.
Owners and managements of news outlets routinely remind their editors and journalists of this stark reality to preclude deviant reportage.
State advertisements have become critical to a media outlet’s survival during this ongoing pandemic when corporate advertisements and those from non-government entities have virtually dried up.
And the Bengal government, despite its poor finances, has been extremely generous with advertisements.
Barely a day goes by without newspapers carrying large multi-colour display advertisements, with the mandatory smiling visage of Mamata Banerjee, announcing the launch of some scheme or the other.
Or the chief minister greeting people of the state on the myriad occasions, anniversaries and events that are celebrated in the state.
The Control Mechanism
Over the years, the Trinamool has put in place a ‘control mechanism’.
A pointsperson — a senior Trinamool functionary and very often a cabinet minister or an MP — is nominated by the party to liaise with select senior journalists of a group or publication.
This functionary is the go-to person for the outlet for all government and party-related matters.
This senior Trinamool leader also influences (read: dictates) news coverage and feeds the selected journalists with news and ‘exclusives’.
The senior journalists of the media outlets in Bengal — at least the ones that are published from the state — vie with each other to curry favour with this particular Trinamool neta who usually hands out small personal ‘favours’.
This Trinamool neta also doles out state government advertisements to the media outlets that he liaises with, often through his favoured journalists in a particular publication.
These journalists, thanks to their ability to get advertisements, become more powerful within their publication or group and act as effective censors to nip any negative coverage of the state government or the Trinamool.
The unwritten rule for all newspapers that allow themselves to be dictated to by the Trinamool is that all Trinamool-related news must be ‘vetted’ by the party pointsman before publication.
Even press meets or statements by Opposition leaders have to carry Trinamool's rebuttal.
Even if it's a statement by Prime Minister Modi or Home Minister Amit Shah, critical of the Bengal government, the newspaper or TV channel has to carry an accompanying rebuttal from Trinamool.
And the rebuttal has to be lengthier than the original statement.
A senior journalist working with an English daily which has multiple editions across the country says that an MP who is the Trinamool’s liaison man for her publication keeps track of how much coverage the Opposition gets.
“If he (the MP) feels that the Opposition, mainly the BJP, is getting too much space in the newspaper, he asks his favoured journalists in the paper to make amends. And that is done without fail,” she said.
Journalists who display an independent streak are warned and, in case of continued defiance (which is, filing negative reports about the state government or the ruling party), are shunted off to insignificant ‘beats’.
Journalists working for national or regional publications which are not published from Bengal and, thus, are not dependent on the Trinamool government’s largesse are subjected to many tactics ranging from blandishments to threats to win them over.
Unfortunately for Trinamool, that has not worked in some cases, and the negative press it gets in some newspapers and TV channels is a cause of abiding heartburn for the party.
It Started During The Left Rule
The Trinamool, in its largely successful project to gag the media, is simply following in the footsteps of the Left (primarily the CPIM) which ruled and ruined Bengal for 33 long years.
But while the Trinamool has often been ham-handed in its bid to control the media, the CPI(M) had been much more subtle.
The Left had a big advantage because, thanks to its entrenchment in academia, most journalists were left-inclined.
“Most youngsters joining the profession (journalism) in the past were passouts from JNU and other institutions that were under the stranglehold of Left academicians. These young men and women had already been brainwashed and inducted into the Left fold. So they were overtly sympathetic to the Left Front government in Bengal,” said a former resident editor of a once-prominent newspaper that was known for its investigative journalism.
The Left, thanks to its influence over the media, would also ensure that only ‘sympathetic’ journalists would be posted in the Kolkata bureaus of the national newspapers.
Most such appointments would be vetted by senior CPI(M) apparatchiks.
As for the Bengal-based publications, the Left ensured that all those recruited by the media houses were party supporters or sympathisers.
“It was quite common to have people in newsrooms who were ex-members of CPI(M) affiliates like the SFI and DYFI. Many journalists were active card-carrying members of these outfits or of the CPI(M) — and to a much lesser extent its allies in the Left Front like the CPI and RSP — even after joining the profession,” said the former resident editor.
Naturally, then, there was barely any adverse news about the Left and the Bengal government at that time.
The many misdeeds of the Left were simply glossed over. That explains why even horrific massacres like the ones at Marichjhapi (read ), the torching of Ananda Margi monks in Kolkata (read ) and the terrible atrocities committed by CPI(M) cadres, went largely unreported.
The Ananda Bazar Patrika was one of the very few which dared to report a tad objectively, but that was because it was a pro-Congress newspaper and the owners of the group were close to the Congress, which was in power in Delhi.
The Statesman was also very critical of the government, and had frequent run-ins with the powers-that-be in the state.
The then chief minister, Jyoti Basu, who presided over Bengal’s industrial, economic, social, cultural and academic decline, used to famously say that he does not care what the English newspapers write about him or his government.
That’s because Left voters were mostly poor or lower-middle class rural folk.
The middle class and the affluent were never supporters of the Left anyway, and they used to be regularly intimidated by the Left’s election machinery which made elections in urban Bengal a farce.
Getting back to media censorship, in the dark era under the Left, even non-Left and unbiased journalists found it difficult to be true to their profession due to the prevalent climate of fear at that time.
“I used to receive many indirect threats initially. CPI(M) cadres in my locality used to pass comments and then my close relatives were told to advise me to pipe down my critical reports. I used to receive blank calls at night. I didn’t pay any heed, and then the threats became more direct. A social boycott of my family also started. My wife couldn’t take it anymore and I was forced to seek a transfer to our New Delhi bureau after a few years,” recalls a veteran journalist who was then working with a prominent Bengali newspaper.
Many journalists have similar horror stories to tell.
Almost all caved in, a few defiant ones paid the price: they were either eased out of reporting and transferred to the ‘desk’, or even had to leave the profession.
But it is the hypocrisy of the Left, and now the Trinamool, that is galling.
The Left positions itself as an ardent advocate of press freedom and is always the first to speak up against any curbs, real or imagined, on freedom of expression.
The Trinamool does the same. One just has to listen to the speeches and statements of the party’s leaders in Parliament or outside it to realise the sheer hypocrisy of it all.
One of the seven signs of fascism, she said in the lower House, was “subjugation and control of the mass media”.
Unbiased journalists in Bengal — and there are still a few left — say that Moitra would do well to look at her own Bengal backyard to realise that it is Bengal, and not the rest of the country, that turned fascist a long time ago and continues to remain in that state.
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