Punya Prasoon Bajpai on his former show Masterstroke. Photo: YouTube
Punya Prasoon Bajpai on his former show Masterstroke. Photo: YouTube

A former news anchor at an Indian television news channel has alleged he left his show because of censorship and pressure from the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.

His show, called Masterstroke, often aired reports that looked into government policies.

Punya Prasoon Bajpai, the former senior anchor at ABP News, wrote on the website The Wire that he was told by the channel’s proprietor to not mention Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his prime-time show, which had been critical of the government. The channel also faced unexplained blackouts during the show and the withdrawal of advertising.

Bajpai quit ABP News, which is owned by the Anandabazar Patrika group, on August 2. He was followed out the door by Managing Editor Milind Khandekar.

Their departure prompted journalists, viewers and activists to raise their concerns about the government curbing freedom of the press, an integral part of any democracy. Bajpai’s story for the Wire confirmed people’s fears of interference.

His resignation came after criticism from senior ministers about a report aired on his prime times news show. The report claimed that a woman from a farming community in rural Chhattisgarh was tutored by officials to make false claims that her income had doubled thanks to government schemes when she spoke to the prime minister on a video link. Later, when the channel tracked down the woman and her fellow workers, they admitted that no significant profits had been made under the government schemes. Things then started getting difficult for Bajpai and the media organization.

No Modi in news

Bajpai said he received two directives from the channel’s proprietor to not mention Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Masterstroke or show his image. “Mention the names of his ministers by all means; point out anything amiss in a government policy if you want to, even name the minister of the concerned ministry. Just don’t refer to Prime Minister Modi anywhere,” the proprietor cum Editor-in-Chief told him.

Bajpai said: “In the context of the prevailing political scenario, following the diktat [directive] would be an immensely difficult task … How would it look, showing the reality on the ground without a whisper about the claims made by Prime Minister Modi about the success of the programs?”

Bajpai pointed out in his piece in The Wire that it was impossible not to use Modi’s name or image as “everything revolved solely around Modi.” “This is so for the simple reason that for the BJP which came to power in 2014, the government is synonymous with Narendra Modi. For the BJP, Prime Minister Modi is their unparalleled star campaigner as well.”

Government pressure and boycott

The way Modi was projected by the media while others were excluded resulted in the prime minister’s image and speeches becoming “sort of an addiction” for viewers and “a necessity for the TRP ratings of news channels,” wrote Bajpai.

He said a 200-member team headed by an additional director general under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting monitored the content of news channels. Based on the team’s reports, the Prime Minister’s Office advises the editors of news channels on shaping content to show success stories by the government. If that doesn’t work out, they go to the proprietors. Bajpai said a senior member of the monitoring team warned him that the government’s wrath was about fall upon him and his show.

Pressure started mounting on the channel from the last week of June, when BJP spokespersons stopped appearing on debates and then stopped giving comments. However, ABP News and Masterstroke still had high TRP ratings.

Bajpai said things escalated when “one edition of Masterstroke carried an exclusive report of the proposed thermal power plant in Godda (Jharkhand) – a project in violation of all rules and regulations, a project that is of the Adani group. For the first time, the woes of farmers in the area were brought out through this exclusive report – how Adani’s proximity to Prime Minister Modi had made the Jharkhand state government change its regulations.”

Bajpai said the BJP boycotted the channel and in the parliament, journalists were told that ABP News and Bajpai would be “taught a lesson.” Bajpai claimed he then had a call from a member of the government’s monitoring team, who said: “After what you have shown in your report today [July 9], anything can happen. Be vigilant.”

Shortly afterwards, ABP’s satellite link was interrupted during the primetime show and the interruption lasted every night for an hour when Masterstroke was aired. As well as the Hindi national news channel, four of ABP’s regional language channels were affected by the disturbances as well. The interruptions to the broadcasts were never explained.

At the same time advertisers withdrew. One of the biggest advertisers, Patanjali, an Indian retail brand run by Baba Ramdev who is known to be close to BJP, withdrew and other advertisers received anonymous messages telling them to drop their ads from the channel.

Bajpai decided to leave the organization. “The editor-in-chief who is also the proprietor, or the management, stands before you with folded hands, asking you what should be done. In these circumstances, what can you do – go on leave perhaps, or resign,” he said. After his resignation, Patanajali’s ads returned to the channel.

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