DNA’s explanation about its self-censorship is not convincing

For Scroll.in on 14 July 2014

During Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, articles censored by the government resulted in blank spaces in the papers. The equivalent of those blank spaces today is a link on a website where an article once existed but now says, “The requested page could not be found.”

The difference is that the government doesn’t have to censor these days, the paper will do it for you if there was something inconvenient for the powers-that-be. LK Advani said of the press during the Emergency that it crawled when it was asked to bend. Today, they might be beginning to do so even when not asked to do anything.

If you find the Emergency analogy alarmist, never be too sure. Today’s media self-censorship is silent, driven by owners who need to be on the right side of power, and pliant editors who only want to keep their jobs. It’s a silent Emergency.

“I could say editorial prerogative. But that would be arrogance. I could blame the author, but that would be cowardice. I could blame the government or my ‘bosses’ but that would be a lie. I could say I didn’t know it went up, but that would be a cop out.”

When the head of digital content of a large media group writes a defensive explanation like that on her personal blog, you know that the PR disaster has hit them like a storm.

When on July 9, the DNA newspaper’s website removed an op-ed article on Amit Shah by Rana Ayyub titled ‘A New Low in Indian Politics,’ (click here for the original link or here  for an alternative one) it was the second time they were doing this disappearing act.

On April 30, they had similarly pulled down an article by Shehzad Poonawalla called ‘Mamata Banerjee calls Narendra Modi ‘butcher of Gujarat’; here are 9 myth busters on 2002 post-Godhra riots’ (click here for the original link or here for an alternative one), which addressed nine points raised by defenders of Narendra Modi, who was then the Bhartiya Janta Party’s prime ministerial candidate.

What is common to both these cases is that the articles were taken off the DNA website after they went viral on social media. The pulling down of Ayyub’s article became a big issue on Twitter of Friday, July 11, with the so-called ‘sickular’ lot crying foul and Modi-bhakts refusing to condemn the take-down, finding excuses for it.

Because the outrage on Twitter was itself newsworthy, rival publications Firstpost and The Times of India carried stories about it.

Long after the issue exploded on Twitter, Harini Calamur, head of digital content at the Zee media group, which owns DNA, wrote an explanation on her personal blog. Why is such an explanation not on the DNA website? She worries about readers’ ire over content removal but she addresses readers of her blog, not that of the DNA website.

Her response is more about how Firstpost and Times of India aren’t so clean that they can point fingers at DNA. “I should have caught onto something that was in the piece, but I didn’t,” is all she would say by way of explaining why the article was taken down. “Especially vis-a-vis the role of the judiciary,” she cryptically explains in the comments.

Through retweets, she hints at potential contempt of court. Perhaps this is a reference to these words in Ayyub’s article: “Shah managed his way out with a tried and tested formula of transferring judges, practiced brazenly in his home state of Gujarat through his tenure as home minister.”

If DNA found material in the article that was factually incorrect or not backed by evidence, it should have explained on that page itself. Are they also planning an explanation for the removal of Poonawalla’s article in April?

If DNA published an article and later found it inaccurate, defamatory or amounting to contempt of court, then should it not apologise to readers? Publish a correction or clarification? It is disingenuous to think that nobody will notice the quiet removal of the article.

In other words, Calamur’s explanation two days later doesn’t add up. This case is an obvious example of a media house censoring itself after an article it published became inconvenient.

This is not the only such case. NDTV briefly removed from their site a story about the Gandhi family’s financial dealings with Herald House in Delhi, once the building from where the National Herald newspaper came out. The difference between DNA and NDTV was that the page was back on the NDTV website after some Twitter outrage.

Meanwhile, Umesh Upadhyay, the brother of the newly appointed Delhi state BJP president Satish Upadhyay, is media director at Reliance Industries, and has been appointed ‘escalation officer’ with powers of editorial oversight at CNN-IBN and other Network 18 news outlets.

Whose media is it anyway?

Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose at CNN-IBN made a difficult yet honourable decision to leave the company rather than compromise their editorial freedom. These are days when India needs more editors to have the spine to refuse to bend and crawl.

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