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17 Jun 2017

Meet Central Broadcaster of India - How CBI has become the spokesperson for India and press freedom

Anita Joshua, TT, New Delhi, June 16: Veteran journalist Arun Shourie had last Friday listed two perceived weaknesses of Prime Minister Narendra Modi: social media and foreign media.
Confirmation has come swiftly from the unlikeliest of sources: the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which has told The New York Times on record that "India does not require any lesson on freedom of the press from The Times".
Which begs the question: who made the CBI, a glorified police service, the spokesperson for "India"?
The audacious sentence appears in a letter to the editor the agency sent to The Times in response to a scathing editorial on the freedom of the media in India against the backdrop of the CBI raids on the founders of NDTV.
The CBI has also taken up cudgels on behalf of the information and broadcasting ministry, unwittingly or otherwise confirming another assertion by Shourie: that the ministers in the Modi government are " bandhua mazdoor (bonded labourers)".
The rejoinder activism by the CBI has put Prime Minister Modi and President Donald Trump on the same page less than a fortnight before the two meet in Washington: both can now stake claim to the honour of having unleashed pulverising prose on The Times. Trump usually tweets his outrage at unholy hours in language that sometimes flummoxes his audience; Modi has now shown he has a more dependable instrument.
The CBI, described by the Supreme Court as a "caged parrot" when the UPA was in power, has spread its wings after The Times editorial appeared on June 7.
Titled "India's Battered Free Press", the editorial pegged its comment on the CBI raids but the thrust was on a larger issue.
"The raids mark an alarming new level of intimidation of India's news media under Prime Minister Narendra Modi," The Times editorial said. "News outlets that run afoul of the government can lose access to officials. The temptation to self-censor has grown, and news reports are increasingly marked by a shrill nationalism that toes the government line."
The Times editorial concluded with the following sentence: "The Central Bureau of Investigation said on Tuesday that it 'fully respects the freedom of press'. Even if that's true, the question still outstanding is whether Mr. Modi does."
The CBI then took the unprecedented step of arrogating to itself the role of spokesperson for the nation - and in the process confirmed that Shourie's diagnosis of the weaknesses of Modi is correct indeed.
The letter is attributed to R.K. Gaur, the press information officer and spokesman for the CBI.
Government sources said the rejoinder was drafted by the CBI, vetted by the information and broadcasting ministry and cleared by the PMO. Normally, whenever the government wants to contest reports in a foreign publication, it is the diplomatic mission in the country where it has been published that issues such a clarification.
Asked why the CBI picked out The Times while several newspapers had commented on the raids, Gaur told The Telegraph that the agency had issued a detailed clarification on the raids the very next day itself for the Indian media. But that clarification had not offered to the Indian media the wisdom the CBI has now tried to drill into The Times and had confined itself to the details of the case.
The letter said the editorial was "one-sided" and it failed to consider the investigation history of the case against RRPR Holdings (of Radhika Roy and Prannoy Roy of NDTV) by different tax and law enforcement agencies in India since 2011.
While the CBI may be competent to comment on the case, the investigation agency has gone far beyond its brief by speaking up for the information and broadcasting ministry, too.
In its editorial, The Times had referred to how NDTV Hindi was taken off air for a day for its reporting on the Pathankot airbase attack.
The CBI chose it fit to comment on that as well. "Your editorial states that NDTV Hindi was taken off the air for a day for reporting on a sensitive attack on an air base. The decision was arrived at after a proper inquiry in which NDTV also participated. No democracy can allow the country's security and public safety to be compromised by irresponsible reporting of terrorist incidents."
On the NDTV investigation, the CBI said: "In this entire case, due process of law is being followed. India has a robust and independent judiciary that strongly protects democratic freedom and that an aggrieved person can always approach. India does not require any lesson on freedom of the press from The Times. Our institutions and traditions are nurtured by our rich and diverse cultural heritage and democratic ethos."
Had the CBI stopped at stating the facts of the case, the rejoinder is unlikely to have been questioned.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal's media adviser Nagendra Sharma was quick on the draw: "Was the CBI rejoinder to NYT on NDTV outsourced? Else why is the CBI answering the one-day ban on NDTV India in its rebuttal instead of MIB (information and broadcasting ministry)?"
It may be a coincidence but information and broadcasting minister Venkaiah Naidu had also found himself at the receiving end of Shourie's withering words when the former editor spoke at Press Club of India last Friday on the need to defend the freedom of the media.
CPM's Sitaram Yechury tweeted today: "This govt has time & resources to respond to a foreign newspaper's edit, but no empathy for farmers suffering and dying across India. #Shame."
Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi also weighed in. "India ranked 136/180 (on the World Freedom Index), however CBI to NYT: 'India dsnt require any lesson on freedom of the press from The Times."
On the 2017 Freedom Index, brought out by the Paris-based global media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontiers - India had slipped three notches from 133 to 136 over the past year.

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