What was so ‘anti national’ about interviewing China’s ambassador to India?

PBNS writes to PTI threatening to withdraw its subscription after the latter conducts the interview.

Prasar BhartiImage Courtesy:in.china-embassy.org

A major battle on the Indian media front has played out over the weekend. This time around it is not about the bloodbath of journalists being forced to resign from major media houses. It is in fact a ‘threat’ of a great financial pull-back that the national broadcaster Prasar Bharati, has made to one of the biggest news agencies of the subcontinent Press Trust of India (PTI). 

Reportedly irked by PTI’s interview of Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, sections of which were quoted by the embassy website, Prasar Bharati News Service (PBNS) wrote to PTI threatening to withdraw its subscription. As reported by The Hindu, the letter to PTI stated that it was no longer tenable for the public broadcaster to “be a patron of PTI as a news agency” because of its coverage. 

The coverage here was the Ambassador’s interview, where he put forth China’s view on the clashes in Ladakh. The interview caused a sensation with the ambassador’s answers being interpreted as putting the onus on India for the clash in Galwan Valley on June 15, where 20 Indian soldiers were killed brutally.  

This PTI interview was also put up on the embassy’s website, starting with this question, “Thank you for accepting my interview. How do you see the face-off in Galwan Valley?”

The answer, “Recently, the Chinese and Indian border troops engaged in fierce physical conflicts in the Galwan Valley in the western section of the China-India border, causing casualties. This is the situation the Chinese side would not like to see. The incident was completely instigated by the Indian side and the responsibility does not lie with the Chinese side. I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate our position and opinion…”,  said the Ambassador and went on to put forth China’s point of view.

It is a given that an Ambassador of a country is its representative posted to put forth the official views of his nation. Interestingly, even as he did so, the Ambassador did concede there were “casualties” on the India-China border.

The PTI also asked, “What do you think is the prospect for solving the current border face-off?” To which the ambassador answered, “China and India are willing and able to properly manage differences. At present, the overall situation in the China-India border areas is stable and controllable. We hope the Indian side meet the Chinese side halfway, avoid taking actions that may complicate the border situation and take concrete actions to maintain stability in the border areas.”

Prasar Bharti, however, took umbrage to this interview and termed it ‘anti national’. Its ‘threat’ to PTI went viral over the weekend and senior journalists stood in solidarity with the news agency. Foremost has been The Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) and Press Association that have expressed “deep concern over the threat issued by the national broadcaster, Prasar Bharati, to review its subscription of the Press Trust of India (PTI), the national news agency, purportedly because it carried out an interview with the Chinese Ambassador to India on the Ladakh clashes.”

According to the IWPC, by doing this interview, “PTI was only doing its professional duty. At a time when the Chinese have intruded into Indian territory, it is the job of the journalist to ask the representative of the Chinese government, why this is happening.” 

The senior women journalists pointed out that it was “ironic that the government has chosen to crack down on a venerable institution like the PTI, hours after marking the 45th anniversary of the Emergency”. It was in 1975 that the Indian media was heavily censored by the government and events of that time have gone down in history as one of the worst periods for journalism in India.

The Prasar Bharti, via PBNS, taking on a similar tone has called PTI’s  coverage as being “detrimental to national interest” and “undermining India’s territorial integrity”. According to IWPC, “It seems the authorities have failed to appreciate the meaning of a free, objective and unbiased media which is the touchstone of a democracy.”

A PTI tweet and news alert, stated the Hindu, had quoted ambassador Vikram Misri as saying that the Chinese troops should move back to their side of the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, which contradicted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that there had been no intrusion. A subsequent PTI report based on the interview did not mention the ambassador’s quote.

The paper also reported that there has been no official word yet from Prasar Bharati on its letter to PTI where it also  warned that it will review its subscription to the agency’s news feed. The government run All India Radio, and Doordarshan are the biggest subscribers of the PTI news feed. The billing amount runs into many crores each month. The Hindu report explains that “PBNS is a recently launched wing of Prasar Bharati and does not have much of a footprint even on the public broadcaster’s website except for an authenticated Twitter handle.”

The new report added a statement from other journalist associations from across the country. The Indian Association of Foreign Correspondents said it was standing solidly with PTI for doing its journalistic duty. Condemning Prasar Bharati’s arm-twisting, the association said, “It is surprising that those who fought for freedom of the press during (the) Emergency are using exactly the same tactics to muzzle the press.”

In a statement issued jointly from Hyderabad and Chandigarh, the Indian Journalists Union (IJU) condemned Prasar Bharati’s threat and cited not just the Chinese ambassador’s interview but also the interview given to PTI by the Indian ambassador to China in Beijing.  Describing Prasar Bharati’s action as “blackmail” of the news agency, the IJU said, “In the best traditions of credible, balanced and ethical journalism, PTI carried the interviews of both the Chinese and Indian ambassadors to give their versions to the people.” The Union has also asked the Press Council of India to take suo motu cognisance of the threat to cripple the economic viability of India’s premier news agency.

Meanwhile the news agency had updated its interview with Comments from the Ministry of External Affairs with the headline: “China reaches out to India; Says meet us halfway” written by Manash Pratim Bhuyan. It added the statement by External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava that held China “directly responsible for the border standoff saying it has been has been amassing a large contingent of troops and armaments along the LAC since early May and conduct of the Chinese forces has been in complete disregard of all mutually agreed norms.” 

Incidentally, this is not the first time PTI has interviewed a Chinese Ambassador. In 2014 it had interviewed the then Ambassador Le Yucheng before the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping who was the first head of state who paid a state visit to India after the Narendra Modi government took office. This too was carried on the embassy’s website. Some questions asked then were, “Chinese leadership always speaks in positive tones about the importance of bilateral relations with India and the need for the two Asian giants to co-exist peacefully. Yet Chinese incursions into the Indian territory, its claims on Arunachal Pradesh and visa problems for certain categories of Indians continue to inject a sour note into the ties.”

The answer was, “As I said, the China-India boundary issues are very complicated and sensitive, the solution needs time and patience for negotiation. A basic fact at present is that there does exist border disputes between China and India. Our two sides have different understanding on the ‘Line of Actual Control’ which results in a different understanding of so-called ‘cross’ the Line.” 

The PTI had faced no threats after that interview.


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