Image Courtesy: theweek.in
The several hour’s long multi-city raids on the digital media platform The Wire have drawn a string of national and international condemnation of the same
Claws Out, read the Telegraph’s editorial on the raids of editors of The Wire, published on November 4.
“The men in uniform swooped down after Amit Malviya, at the helm of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s potent social media wing, accused The Wire of running a fake story that had tarnished his reputation: The Wire had alleged that Mr Malviya’s special privileges with Meta had enabled him to take down posts critical of the BJP on Instagram. After allegations of inconsistencies emerged, The Wire suspended access to its stories, conducted an ‘internal review’, and retracted the report. It was subjected to a disproportionate retaliation even though it played by the book.
“This anomaly — targeted punishment even after the media entity owned up to an error and retracted a story — must be one of the enduring features of press freedom under Narendra Modi’s watch. The episode raises an additional — relevant — concern for the media fraternity. News gathering is tricky business, with sensitive information often being obtained from anonymous sources. It is possible that such intimidatory action would — is meant to? — discourage sources from sharing crucial nuggets with the media.
“Of course, the response of the powers that be to The Wire is by no means unprecedented. One of the world’s largest democracies has, earlier, been a mute witness to this government cracking down on a number of media organisations. NDTV suffered the proverbial knock on the door by the taxman, as did Newslaundry. Meanwhile, the news channel, MediaOne, has had its security clearance denied by the Central government without being given reasons — a point that has attracted the attention of the Supreme Court. The consequence of stifling the media is apparent. India has continued to slide on the Press Freedom Index, with the deterioration being marked since the BJP’s assumption of political dominance. Indian democracy’s fate would be contingent on robust checks and balances against such predations on the media.
Heavy-handed hurry: On The Wire fiasco, read The Hindu’s editorial also dated November 4. adding that while the “Perils of editorial laxity are obvious, but defamation should be decriminalized.”
“What happens when there is a grave lapse in editorial judgment and something false gets published? If the report is against someone who wields influence, and the media institution concerned is a known critic of the Government, the consequences might turn out to be disproportionately severe. Digital publication The Wire finds itself in precisely this predicament after a series of its stories has been discredited due to what it admits is fabricated evidence provided by one of its own consultants. Its reporting relating to the alleged privileges enjoyed by a purported beneficiary of social media giant Meta’s ‘XCheck’ programme — privileges that it claimed included the right to report any post and have it taken down with no questions asked — has turned out to be a major debacle. Amit Malviya, head of the ruling BJP’s national IT department, named as the one who had got an Instagram post removed, has filed a police complaint, alleging a conspiracy by The Wire to harm his reputation through forgery. The Delhi Police, with whom The Wire too filed a complaint against its consultant Devesh Kumar for allegedly perpetrating an elaborate hoax by submitting fabricated digital proof, lost no time in searching the residences of its editors and seizing laptops and phones. Even by the set standards of the present regime in dealing with vocal dissenters, the hurry shown and the seizures made by the police are shocking. The effort seems to be to make an example of The Wire.
“Despite the element of forgery in this case, one cannot dismiss a possible conspiracy to discredit The Wire. Mr. Malviya has limited his complaint to its founders and the journalists whose bylines appeared in initial reports concerning him. Further, the complaint does not name Mr. Kumar, raising a doubt whether this is intentional. The police should not really be investigating the defamation angle, as Supreme Court judgments are clear that prosecution for defamation should only be at the instance of the aggrieved person, and there can be no police FIR. The case highlights the continuing hazard of having defamation on the criminal statute to be exploited by influential state-backed actors rather than a civil remedy to aggrieved individuals. The Court’s refusal to decriminalise defamation does add state power to the armoury of those waiting for occasional lapses in the media. The absence of malice, a key defence in such cases, is quite obvious in The Wire case, as no one would willfully publish a report based on fabricated proof and fake validation by experts under the clear risk of exposure. At the same time, media outlets should acknowledge the perils of the interplay between editorial laxity and confirmation bias in assessing a potential story.
It was the Indian Express’ editorial on November 3, 2022 that was most telling however:
Titled The Wire story and the police raids: A tale of two, it reads:
“Those in power out to delegitimise a free press. And a newsroom that put selfrighteousness above rigour.
“These are challenging times for the independent press, their work an inalienablepart of the citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of expression and the right to know. Across the world, even and especially in settled democracies, fidelity to Constitutional compacts is tested by the weight of popular and populist movements. India is no exception. Governments both at the Centre and in many states have often shown a striking disregard for press freedom. Two years ago, on the watch of a Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress dispensation in Maharashtra, policemen barged into the home of TV anchor Arnab Goswami after the government re-opened an old case — was the message. Two months ago, the Income Tax department that reports to the BJP-led Centre , one of the country’s most respected public policy think tanks, and IPSMF, a foundation that supports independent digital media platforms. The police and agencies like the I-T Department, ED and CBI, sometimes act in concert to subdue and intimidate. It is in this setting — of a take-no-prisoners government and an FIR-happy police — that , a news website, made a grave mistake. And, in the aftermath, self-righteously continues to compound it.
Here is what the Editor’s Guild of India said in its statement dated November 2, 2022.
“The Editors Guild of India is extremely disturbed by the manner in which Delhi Police Crime Branch carried out search and seizures at the homes of founding editors and senior editors of the Wire, as well as their office and the newsroom in Delhi, on October 31, 2022. The searches were carried out in a follow up to a First Information Report (FIR), registered in response to a complaint filed on October 29th, by the BJP national spokesperson and head of the party IT cell, Mr. Amit Malaviya, against the news organisation.
“The haste with which the police searches were carried out at multiple locations, is excessive and disproportionate, and in the manner of a fishing and roving enquiry. Further, as per a statement published by the Wire, the police personnel seized phones, computers, and iPads from homes of the journalists, as well as from the office, and no hash value of the digital devices was given in spite of requests made by them.
“This is a serious violation of procedures and rules of investigation. Moreover, digital devices of editors and journalists would have sensitive information pertaining to journalistic sources and stories under work, the confidentiality of which can be seriously compromised in such seizures.
“It must be noted that the Wire has already admitted to serious lapses in their reporting on stories pertaining to Meta with references to Mr. Malaviya. These lapses are condemnable and the reports based on wrong information have since been withdrawn by the Wire. However, these police search and seizures in violation of established rules and in intimidatory manner is also alarming.
“The Guild urges the law enforcement agencies to strictly adhere to rules of investigation in this matter, and to ensure that integrity of sensitive journalistic information is not violated and other on-going work of the news organisation is not obstructed. The Guild further urges the Delhi Police to be objective and impartial in investigating all the complaints filed in this matter, and not use intimidatory tactics in disregard of democratic principles.
Meanwhile here is some international comment:
India: IPI condemns raid on The Wire, site’s top editors, comments IPI stating that, “Searches and equipment seizures, which follow reporting scandal, are excessive and violation of press freedom.
“The IPI global network condemns the raid by Indian police on top editors at the Indian news site The Wire after a complaint by a communications official of Indian’s ruling party.
“On October 31 police in Delhi searched the homes of The Wire editors Siddharth Varadarajan, MK Venu, Sidharth Bhatia, and Jahnavi Sen as well as at The Wire’s offices. The police seized several mobile phones and laptops belonging to the editors.
“The raids are in connection with a news report published by The Wire earlier this month claiming that Amit Malviya, the head of social media for India’s ruling BJP party, had a special arrangement with the social network company Meta under which Meta would remove content upon the BJP’s request. The Wire’s report was later found to be incorrect and based on fabricated documents and the news site later retracted it. It issued an apology to its readers and said it would be conducting a comprehensive review of its editorial processes. Malviya later filed a complaint against the paper’s editors for defamation and forgery, among other charges.
“IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen condemned the raids and equipment seizures as disproportionate.
“Indian authorities must stop their harassment of The Wire and its editors and return all equipment seized”, he said. “The raids on the news site’s offices and the homes of its editors, as well as the confiscation of mobile phones and other devices which may contain sensitive information related to the journalists’ work, are disproportionate, excessive, and a violation of press freedom.”
“The Wire has already stated that its news reporting in this case was not accurate and has taken steps to address the issue. However, this controversy must not be used as an excuse to intimidate The Wire as one of India’s leading critical news sites.”
“Media rights organizations in India have also condemned the raids. The Editors Guild of India said it was “extremely disturbed” by the raids, which it said were in “violation of established rules” and carried out in an “intimidatory manner”.