On Saturday, January 6, Twitter was abuzz with a call to block the news portal The Quint, tweeted with the hashtag #BlockQuint, which put the spotlight on the question of media ethics.
The reason for social media users urging others to block The Quint was an article the website had published the day before which alleged that Kulbhushan Jadhav was an Indian spy, attributing the allegation to two former RAW chiefs:
The outrage this story caused on social media apparently made The Quint withdraw it:
Nevertheless, #BlockQuint was trending even on January 6 late afternoon and below are some of the actions and reactions of social media users:
Now, the fact that The Quint withdrew the story may indicate the publication was not confident of what it had put out, nor of the “sources” it had cited, etc. Then the question is: Why did the media outlet publish a story when it did not seem to be sure of its facts, all the more so when it was a very serious allegation to make, perhaps impinging on national security and sovereignty?
But the damage appeared to have already been done:
What arises out this Quint saga is the much bigger and much more serious issue of media ethics.
India as a democracy enjoys freedom of the press to a great extent, regardless of what sections of the domestic and foreign media say from time to time.
But what does such freedom of the press entail?
Freedom, as we know, cannot be absolute and must be exercised with responsibility. For instance, the media is legally bound to not publish the name of a victim of rape. But should or should not the media take the call on this, keeping in mind the victim and the human interest, of its own regardless of the existence of a law?
Again, what happens when a media outlet abdicates such responsibility altogether, or throws all caution to the wind and prints just what it feels like? The answer is likely to be The Quint’s story on Kulbhushan Jadhav which not only caused an outrage but the media outlet felt compelled to withdraw of their own.
But this is not the first instance of The Quint per se appearing to breach this boundary.
Here is a story published by The Quint in May last year which appeared to glorify Osama Bin Laden as a husband and father: Bin Laden, World’s Biggest Terrorist: The Story You Didn’t Know.
Even more dangerous and dubious was The Quint’s journalism which allegedly caused the death of an armyman. The police had to book the journalist Poonam Agarwal who had entered the army’s Nashik cantonment with hidden cameras and recorded videos of army jawans apparently working as “sahayaks” or helpers and doing menial jobs. The particular jawan who apparently committed suicide appeared to have been deceived by the journalist and his identity was revealed too. The matter had caused public outrage and it was argued that this so-called sting operation was unnecessary as the sahayak system was already in public discourse and debate. Below is the statement the Army had released:
Agarwal was booked under Sections 3 (espionage) and 7 (interfering with armed forces) of the Official Secrets Act for trespassing and abetment of suicide (under IPC).
Such then are earlier specimens of The Quint’s exercise of the freedom of the press. But this is not all. The Quint has even called Burhan Wani a “charismatic terrorist”: ‘Little Burhan’ Sabzar’s Nature Was a Contrast to Zakir Musa’s.
The Quint had also apparently attempted making a hero out of the same terrorist: Burhan Wani: The Face of Kashmir’s New Insurgency.
But this news portal seems to have extended the rights of the fourth estate to apparently take the side of India’s adversaries when the same have been even state actors. The Quint, as a matter of fact, has also appeared to justify China’s bullying tactics at Doklam by presenting the issue from the Chinese perspective: Hindu Nationalism Might Push India, China Into War: Chinese Media. Once more, an apparent case of pushing the boundary too far in the context of national security and sovereignty.
It should also be remembered that The Quint had provided a platform to writers who had even made death wishes for the PM:
Although the above writer was prohibited by The Quint from writing for the publication after another social media and public outrage — not without protests from other media quarters who so no wrong in Chatterjee’s tweets – the portal had provided a platform to another apparent believer in political assassinations who felt no qualms about making his views public, an individual named Vikas Malhotra.
The list runs long and, doubtless, The Quint is not the only media outlet that has demonstrated such tendencies. Below, for example, is NewsLaundry appearing to make a case for stone-pelters in Kashmir: When the Indian Army needs a (human) shield.
Or, CatchNews appearing to side with global terrorist Syed Salahuddin: ‘Global terrorist’ branding will only elevate Syed Salahuddin’s profile.
On the question of Doklam, The Wire has practically called the plateau Chinese territory: India-China Face-Off: Watch Manoj Joshi and M.K. Venu Discuss.
Again, the following article by Prem Shankar Jha, published by The Wire in July last year appeared to parrot China’s script on Doklam: The Bhutan Stand-Off Is an Opportunity, Not a Threat. Jha’s article not only accused India of “missteps” but even wen to the extent of saying: “We have a prime minister making one provocative move after another towards the dragon in the north, gambling on it not spewing fire and burning us at some point.” This, at the peak of the standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries!
To conclude our list for now, here is The Wire’s founding editor giving India what is apparently the same message as China would:
The same editor who appeared to advocate that India give up PoK and join China’s OBOR:
It is an understatement to say a lot of people need to do a lot of soul-searching pertaining to how they do their journalism. But while such soul-searching may be spiritually cleansing or otherwise for said journalists, what society needs is a serious debate on media ethics – what are the boundaries, if any; what are the dangers of crossing such boundaries, if any; and what happens thereafter.