Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, in his own words, makes a living by criticizing those in positions of power.
An Indian journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker, Guha Thakurta has written extensively on contemporary society, politics, and economy, with an eye on the rights of the marginalized. He has exposed some very high-profile cases of corruption involving the corporate sector, the government and the media.
His 2014 book, Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis (co-authored with Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri) is a daring treatise on how the Reliance Group, India’s largest conglomerate, in collusion with those in power in the government, benefited by blatantly exploiting loopholes in the system. The book says, “The group deliberately ‘squatted’ on reserves of natural gas and curtailed production in anticipation of higher prices that are administered by the government, to the detriment of the interests of the country’s people.”
In Sue the Messenger: How Legal Harassment by Corporates Is Shackling Reportage and Undermining Democracy in India (2016), Guha Thakurta and the lead author, Subir Ghosh, show with over a dozen case studies how big corporations maliciously slap legal cases on journalists and media companies to harass and intimidate them, control the flow of information and stifle dissent.
His documentary film Coal Curse: A Documentary on the Political Economy of Coal Energy (2013) was about all that’s wrong in the coal sector – corruption, human rights violations, etc. His other films include Hot As Hell: A Profile of Dhanbad (2006-07), Grabbing Eyeballs: What’s Unethical About Television News in India (2007), Advertorial: Selling News or Products? (2009), Blood & Iron: A Story of the Convergence of Crime, Business and Politics in Southern India (2010-11), and The Great Indian Telecom Robbery (2011).
Guha Thakurtha also wrote Media Ethics: Truth, Fairness and Objectivity and is a co-author of the report Paid News: How Corruption in the Indian Media Undermines Democracy, an exhaustive study on malpractices that plagues the country’s media.
He is currently the editor of The Economic and Political Weekly, the much respected peer-reviewed journal of social sciences described by The Guardian as “a unique institution providing an unrivaled commentary on the emergence of modern India.”
Guha Thakurtha recently spoke to The Diplomat on Indian media, corruption. and ethics. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
Watching Indian news channels in the current atmosphere of frayed India-Pakistan relations, it seems TV studios have turned into war zones and our neighbor could be nuked any moment. What do you make of the war-mongering going on in TV studios?
It is not just jingoism. A section of the media has become warmongers and they (television anchors and TV journalists) are behaving like a lynch mob. A lynch mob is a mob that believes in taking the law in its own hands. It is regrettable but true that there is one section of the media, namely some English-speaking television anchors, which has degenerated into behaving in the same way as the vigilantes attacking Dalits and Muslims in the name of cow protection. They are whipping up hysteria, whipping up tensions in programs ostensibly believed to be talk shows… My only hope is that people don’t take them seriously.
But people do, don’t they?
A section of the audience may start believing in the delusions that these channels propagate in the name of patriotism, in the name of upholding and preserving national security. But we must give viewers more credit than we do. I personally believe the viewers are smarter than we think and they do not treat these news channels any different from entertainment channels. They watch them with the same willing suspension of disbelief as they do potboilers at the movie theaters. A more mature section of the TV audience is able to see what these programs are up to; they are able to call their bluff. Over time, these channels also expose themselves for what they are.
What ails Indian media in present times?
India is the only country in the world that has over 100,000 registered publications. This gives you an illusion that there is a lot of heterogeneity, a lot of plurality, whereas there are a few groups, a few dominant media organizations (calling the shots). Sometimes, they work like a cartel and they dominate markets. There are different kinds of domination. There are no restrictions to cross-media ownership. Owners of the media, content creators, are often the content distributors. These lead to conflicts of interest [and] domination.
The government tries to control the flow of information and marginalize dissent. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never addressed a press conference. He gives only exclusive interviews to those television channels which ask him questions he wants asked. They are the pliant media.
Journalism has become a risky profession. Journalists are working in extremely difficult circumstances, especially in the rural, non-metro areas. Many have been physically liquidated, trying to expose corruption and wrongdoings.
On the other hand, there is the harassment from the corporate sector. In Sue the Messenger we have shown how the corporations have used the law, or misused it, to file SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suits to intimidate, harass journalists. The legal harassment of journalists in the hands of the corporate sector shackles reportage [and] undermines democracy.
Is Indian media afraid to expose corruption in the corporate sector?
That’s not entirely true. Media houses often expose corruption in high places. When you are being critical of advertisers or potential advertisers you tend to think twice, simply because these are the people who contribute handsomely to your coffers. Large newspaper houses earn 90-95 percent, sometimes 98 percent, of their income from advertisers or sponsors. So they are often reluctant to antagonize them.
What is worse – government or corporate control?
It is difficult to answer. Both are bad; both kinds of harassment, intimidation are to be condemned equally. Both of them seek to control the flow of information. Both of them try to use their power and their influence to stifle voices of dissent. So, it is difficult to distinguish sometimes which is worse or even which is the lesser evil.
Do Indian media really care about their freedom? Some channels and media outlets are happy being propaganda vessels, it seems. Besides, corruption in media is also a big issue.
Well, yes, one section of the media is more loyal than the king, as the saying goes. But there are all kinds of media, all kinds of publications and channels. There are all kinds of journalists and reporters. One section is not just corrupt, but also criminalized. When we speak of criminalization of politics, we must also talk about criminalization of media. There are some journalists in name only. They are actually advertising agents or public relations officers. It gets much worse than that: some are extortionists, blackmailers. They’ve had to spend time behind bars. But that doesn’t mean the entire media are corrupt. On the other hand, there is also a section which is honest and sincere; it is diligent. It will not be fair to generalize.
Former West Bengal governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi described Reliance Industries as “parallel state” for exercising power “brazenly” over natural and financial resources. Everyone knows that everyone is afraid of Reliance and its promoters, the Ambanis. Having taken over one media company after another, they are perhaps the largest media conglomerate today. Indian media is very careful, and even afraid, about reporting on them. Their shady deals hardly ever get reported. You were slapped with legal notices by both the Ambani brothers for the book Gas Wars. But you are relentless in your pursuit to expose their every single wrongdoing – writing for independent media, self-publishing when established publishers back out. Aren’t you ever scared?
Of course I am worried about many things in life. But a journalist is not supposed to be a stenographer. A journalist must hold truth to power. A journalist is supposed to try and expose what is wrong in society. A journalist is supposed to try and contribute to greater transparency in public life. The role of the proverbial fourth estate is to act as an institution that provides checks and balances to those who are in positions of power and authority. If a journalist becomes a stenographer or and advertising agent or a public relations officer, in my opinion, he or she is not fulfilling his or her duties and obligations.
Yes, of course I am scared, for various reasons. But not scared for doing my work. If you are doing your work diligently, sincerely, it shouldn’t scare you. Just because you are seeking to expose corruption in high places, just because you are seeking to be critical of whoever is in power, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be fair and balanced and objective. If you are scared of what you are meant to do, then you shouldn’t be in the profession.