Senior journalist reveals how NDTV used to take editorial orders from PMO during UPA era

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi sworn in, we have been hearing about how the Modi government is supposedly clamping down on the freedom of the press and how there is a sort of ‘undeclared emergency’. However, a former journalist with NDTV, Samarendra Singh has revealed how back in 2005, a year after Dr Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister, Dr Singh got a story pulled off from NDTV, but nobody in NDTV claimed that UPA government was imposing ‘undeclared emergency’.

In a Facebook post, Samarendra Singh says that these days, it is ‘fashionable’ for journalists like Punya Prasoon Bajpai and Ravish Kumar to say that the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) is calling up the editors and owners of the media houses in an attempt to ‘censor’ content. However, the way news against the Modi government are coming out, the ‘censorship’ bit seems far from true.

“It is not that you can print anything against the Prime Minister and not expect a reaction. But is this ‘reacting to news’ something new? Is it really true that the PMO earlier never intervened and called up the editors and owners? Were channels allowed to show anti-government news? Was there freedom to run an anti-government agenda during the UPA?” Singh asks.

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Reminiscing an incident from 2005, Samarendra Singh wrote:

I want to talk about a 13-year-old incident which took place in the organisation where Ravish Kumar works. Those days even I used to work with NDTV India. And those days, India was run by the most ‘kind and weak’ Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. Sitting on the chair he got in charity, Dr Singh was also running the coalition government with a lot of generosity. In the ‘golden age’ of government and journalism, the krantikari journalists of NDTV had a brainwave of making a ‘report card’ of the ministers in the Manmohan Singh cabinet. A list of ministers who had fared well and those who didn’t was aired on NDTV India at 9 pm bulletin.

Dibang, the then Managing Editor of NDTV India, called me and asked me to drop the list of ministers who didn’t fare well. I told him that we should even drop the list of ministers who fared well otherwise it will appear as if we are buttering up the government. Dibang agreed and said he would have a word with Roy (Dr Prannoy Roy, owner of NDTV), and get back. Some time back, Dibang called back and said to drop the list of ministers who didn’t fare well but to air the list of ministers who were doing good.

Years later, when Dr Manmohan Singh’s media advisor Sanjaya Baru wrote the book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, it was revealed why Prannoy Roy did what he did. On Page 97 of the book, Baru reveals the ‘kind and weak’ Prime Minister had called up the powerful owner of NDTV and scolded him such that he was stripped of all his journalism. Roy himself admitted that he felt like a teacher had scolded him. After being scolded by Prime Minister Singh, the journalist-owner of NDTV, Prannoy Roy, could not even muster up that much courage to air the ‘report card’ on his channel. The list of ‘good ministers’ was run so that Dr Singh could be cajoled. Whether you call Roy a journalist or a businessman, this incident could be seen as bowing down to the government pressure or just buttering up the government, but it cannot be called journalism by a far stretch of the imagination.

The incident mentioned by Samarendra Singh is indeed mentioned in Sanjaya Baru’s book. Here is an excerpt from the book The Accidental Prime Minister:

The Accidental Prime Minister by Sanjaya Baru, page 96-97

As mentioned above, in May 2005, when the UPA-1 was reaching its first anniversary, reports had started appearing in the media that Dr Singh was reviewing performance of his ministers and a cabinet reshuffle was on the cards. On 9th May, 2005 when Dr Singh was in Moscow, NDTV ran a story that Minister of External Affairs, Natwar Singh had secured a ‘low score’ on the PM’s report card and was likely to be dropped from the cabinet.

A senior Congress leader, Natwar Singh has been perceived as a staunch and avowed Sonia Gandhi loyalist. So an upset Natwar Singh took the next day off on ‘health grounds’. When Dr Manmohan Singh heard of it, he asked to find out what NDTV had reported.

When he was briefed, the otherwise calm and composed Dr Manmohan Singh burst into anger and asked Baru to tell Prannoy Roy to “stop reporting these lies”.

When Baru called Roy to convey the message, Dr Singh took the phone from Baru and spoke to Roy himself. Baru recounts the incident in his book:

I called Prannoy Roy, the head of NDTV, and had just begun speaking to him when the PM asked for my mobile phone and spoke to Prannoy himself, scolding him like he was chiding a student who had erred, saying, ‘This is not correct, you cannot report like this.’ Indeed, the relationship between him and Prannoy was not that of a prime minister and a senior media editor but more like that of a former boss and a one-time junior. This was because Prannoy had worked as an economic adviser in the ministry of finance under Dr Singh.

The book corroborates the claims made by the former NDTV journalist. In fact, the book even suggests that this may not be a one-off incident as Prannoy was virtually subordinate to the then Prime Minister. Interestingly, no one cried ‘undeclared emergency’ back in 2005.

We had earlier reported how India Today and Indian Express respective owners, Aroon Purie and Anant Goenka had rubbished claims that Modi government is pressurising or arm-twisting the media houses to into following a narrative. Goenka had even went far to claim that ‘phone call’ (from the government to arm-twist the management into firing journalists) would have come through, it would have happened in case of either of the governments. Now this account by the former NDTV journalist confirms it.

In fact, Purie had said, “This government lets you (proprietors) know that they are unhappy, unlike the previous governments, who ‘would do sneaky things and otherwise try and make life difficult for you’. But this government (Modi-led NDA government) ‘says okay, you’ve done this story, you haven’t done this and that, but it is up to you to decide how much you want to yield or not yield.”

On being asked about which government is more controlling (towards the press), Goenka had said, “I feel there is a lot of talk about how intolerant this government is or how thin-skinned they can be to the press… but it is not new, it has always happened. We have had our editors in jail. It has also got to do with the strength of the government.”

Earlier in March, Supriya Prasad, the Managing Editor of the Aaj Tak and India Today news channels, too, had said that he never faced any kind of pressure from the government regarding news broadcasts or running ‘favourable news’. Amusingly, many ‘celebrity’ journalists, like NDTV’s Ravish Kumar and India Today group’s very own Rajdeep Sardesai, while trying to raise the bogey of ‘undeclared emergency’ or while commenting on CBI raids against NDTV promoters, have tried to insinuate that the Narendra Modi government was trying to muzzle voices in media by putting pressure.

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