“A small town man from Kerala who shook the chairs of world’s largest democracy”
Josy Joseph, one of India’s prominent investigative journalists, has catalyzed impactful public debates and contributed to significant policy changes with his stories. His reporting has resulted in several high-profile officials being sacked, triggering the arrest of many others for corruption, as well as federal criminal and military investigations. Joseph’s high-profile investigations, such as those of the Mumbai Adarsh Housing scam and the mishandling of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi have driven the anti-corruption movement of recent times.
In an exclusive interview with Sabrang India, he spoke to Ujjawal Krishnam.
You are one of prominent investigative journalists in the country. What tools and ethics does that require? In a world where Gauri Lankesh, Narendra Dabholkar, and Govind Pansare were assassinated, how do you keep your courage and spirit?
Journalism requires integrity at various levels, especially academic and intellectual, both of which are missing in large quantities in mainstream media today. This is one of reasons why I decided the startup of my own. I think journalism in India, like several other institutions of Indian democracy, is facing unprecedented crisis brought upon itself by its own business models and external vested interests. I don’t look at myself as a hero in a movie, so I don’t think I would like to discuss courage in personal terms. I think journalists are supposed to do a particular job and that’s why they are journalists and not PR people or pimps. I am only trying to do my job.
I was shocked when I heard about your resignation from The Hindu. You are also known for shifting workspaces quite often; are there some strong reasons?
In my email, I have a folder called Morgue in which I have been storing many dead stories I was filing over last several years of my association with mainstream media houses. I am very sorry to confess that not a single media house has been very different from the other except for a brief period of time when I worked with Malini Parthasarathy at The Hindu. I don’t think I have come across an editor or a puppeteer who is doing journalism in full spirit and freedom; that’s why I have been shifting many jobs. I couldn’t bear this strange psyche anymore. Now I have decided to dissociate myself from the mainstream media to practise journalism with full freedom.
You have recently stated that you are starting a new media venture. What is that all about? How will it be different from media agencies of today?
See, journalism is no rocket science, so I am hoping that we can do journalism in a classic sense where highest levels of academic rigour are applied without being caught up in ideological narrow bases, which are plaguing our country’s intellectual discussions and preventing the progress forward. I hope to run a media house, which finds transparency across all the spectrum and celebrates facts. I hope we would be different in the way we will process journalism, in the way we will tell engaging stories and will stay connected with masses in their regional languages, and how we are going to be different from existing mainstream. We will have a lot of processes in place, which will not allow even an editor or myself or a group of seniors to censor story or kill one, which existing editors or puppeteers are doing daily across newsrooms.
What fraction of Indian media, according to you, is sold? Or influenced by crony capitalism and political dominance?
The existing mainstream media is hundred percent sold out; either on money or ideology terms or they are sold on vested interests. Some are sold on fear too. Fear, I find, is frightening in our mainstream newsrooms. Fear is the companion with which many puppeteers or editors in the mainstream newsrooms are getting up in the morning. I think they also go to sleep shrouded in sheets of fear and it is an amazing thing to watch people who acknowledge themselves as editors being so petrified by new facts and proof. I can’t single out any organisation, which can be termed unsold today.
How do you view new Indian digital media outlets like The Wire, The Quint, The Print and Scroll.in, etc?
I think the new generation media is trying to do better kind of journalism than established media houses. I would like to register the fact that far more academic rigor is required to study the challenges facing Indian democracy. Even among most new generation startups, consistent rigor is missing, but there are several bright sparks and quite a flow of outstanding journalism.
Are the security of tenure and job benefits connected to the independence of media?
I haven’t really thought about job security, tenure security, etc., because I have myself been moving around from job to job because of my own unhappiness as a result of happenings in the mainstream media. So, I don’t have that framework in mind when I think about my job. But I wish an ideal marker to be in place, every mainstream media should be bound to provide job security. In that context, I know where your question is coming from; we need different levels of accountability for media organisations.
If a newspaper is claiming to be a newspaper and is availing subsidiaries, buildings, postals, government advertisements etc. then there should be a set code of conduct by the virtue of which it will be held accountable. Indian democracy is very strange because the Indian government is one of the largest advertisers in the market, so there is a relationship between the government and newspapers, which goes beyond their democratic institutionalism. I think we need a different model of holding media houses accountable to people and government accountable, to recognize journalistic freedom. I don’t have a readymade answer, but the way many democratic institutions are suffering at the hands of the government of the day and becoming lapdogs, I believe journalism is suffering from a deep malaise and we have to deal with it.
Will a media cooperative owned by journalists work, a la Le Monde?
Media cooperatives, nonprofits, foundations: all are required to create a robust media environment, which unfortunately India lacks. Our own startup, which I am going to be part of, is going for the profit. We will not be afraid of the market. We are hoping that we will experiment and break the monopoly of existing mainstream media.
Print journalism is key in India, particularly in non-English languages. Yet all recent efforts are Internet-driven. How effective can this be when we have just around 20% Internet reach?
As far as opinions and policies are concerned, print media still remains powerful and it will remain so for few years. But don’t underestimate the fact that India is on the threshold of a massive technological revolution. The majority of Indians will soon be owning smartphones, and the flow of ideas will be gushing left-right-and-centre on the information highway. That is happening, partially thanks to the crony capitalism we have been practising. I think what we are seeing today is something very dramatic. The demise of newspapers will be earlier than we expect.
You have brilliantly investigated several scams. Which one of them do you believe was the biggest ‘feast of vultures’?
I don’t think that there is one story that can be told simply. The real scam is what our democracy has become today, the deep immorality at the heart of this democratic society. The conspiracy from within to destroy this unprecedented human experiment. The role of those in power has mostly been to destroy this democracy. This is unprecedented and shocking.
The organisational pressure is evident in several scenarios. Earlier Bobby Ghosh initiated the ‘Let’s Talk about Hate’ special series related to mob lynching, but had to resign from the editor-in-chief position at Hindustan Times. Many speculated that this was a result of meeting between the Prime Minister and HT proprietor Shobhana Bhartia. How do you view this?
It would be very silly academically to blame only the present government for the present media crisis. What the present government is doing is actually an accumulation of the last thirty to forty years of assaults on our democratic institutions, which started in a real sense with Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of the mid-seventies. We need to undo those fatal models, then only this crisis will end. Maybe the present government is doing it in a more organized manner, but in the last thirty-forty years every other government tried to manipulate media and destroy the essence of the fourth pillar of democracy in their best possible way.
In 2016, Jet Airways filed a Rs. 1,000-crore civil defamation lawsuit against you. What did this episode mean to your vocalism? Was it an indirect threat?
Defamation suits and other intimidating tactics by those in power are standard parts of our ecosystem, so I am not surprised…I am enjoying the fight! I am surprised by the silence on the part of the government on the serious claims against Jet Airways. The files kept in the government are rotting. My case is just a side act of a large drama called immoral Indian democracy.
India ranks low on the press freedom index. Do you expect to see any improvement in the coming decade? What measures could be taken to ensure the independence of the fourth pillar of democracy?
The crisis is not limited to Delhi or Bombay; it is far more pronounced in our villages, districts, and remote states where journalists are threatened by the local administrations, murdered for speaking the truth. I think, unless we work towards top-to-bottom reform on large scale, we will continue to face this crisis and it will remain a reality. Let us work towards a better democracy.