Expectedly, post the 2019 general elections, Indian media has turned into a pool of blood, each day bringing news of journalists leaving their organisations (Nitin Sethi of Business Standard), or being moved around (Faye D’Souza at Mirror Now).
At least two anchors (Ajit Anjum and Smita Sharma) have left TV9 Bharatvarsh, and there have been hordes of pink slips issued at Network 18. Digital sites are scaling down (Scroll, Daily O), and the Hate Tracker site has met its end.
As always, there are grim whispers in the air of political pressure at the proprietorial level. But with plausible deniability becoming the brahmastra, there is no clear way of establishing a clear link.
Sukhdeep Kaur, a reporter at the Birla-owned Hindustan Times has stuck her neck out and explained through a series of tweets, and a Facebook post, the circumstances in which she has had to leave the organisation.
The twist in the tale: Congress is no better than BJP.
“For someone who is not social media savvy, it takes me a lot of courage to tweet and take to Facebook to write about how journalists are being arm-twisted by governments and those in positions of power within the organisations they work for.
“I am forced to write in larger interest of media freedom and to tell my kids I stood for justice, when it came to my own rights too.
“I was asked by HT to join the Delhi national political bureau by September 2, in the middle of my kids’ school session, if I wished to save my job. At same salary, lest I accepted the offer.
“Neither the timing, manner and reasons for current transfer to Delhi inspired confidence. The entire sequence of events was planned weeks ahead of my contract’s renewal.
“I was asked to appear before the “code of conduct” committee on July 26 at New Delhi. It was ostensibly to look into my complaint of unequal treatment, being kept off my political beat on important days and no career progression despite high rating for my work. But the COC treated me as the accused not the complainant. I was grilled ruthlessly for an hour on what they called “biased” reporting citing complaints of Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and his media adviser, Raveen Thukral.
“Even for stories dating back to March 2017, when the Captain government was sworn in. For a headline like “Patiala peg to Punjab cabinet”! It forces me to ask why was my hard-hitting reportage on Badal government not seen as biased? I had to finally ask the COC if I was in the dock? If so, why now?
“I have been an anti-establishment reporter and it takes courage to write against those in power. It is because of the same courage that HT sent me to cover floods and riots. It is the same courage that gives me the conviction to write now.
“It is clear that I am being penalised. But a journalist should have the courage not only to write but also speak his or her mind within the organisation.
“I wonder why Amarinder did not find me “biased” when he trusted me to publish sensitive information against his political rivals when he was in opposition. If the CM was complaining — and if that is the new yardstick for a reporter’s integrity — why was my political beat not changed? Why was it not changed when I myself requested a change last year on being told of complaints by CM to company’s chairperson? Why was I not transferred to Delhi when I myself sought it before start of academic session of my kids?
“And if at all my reporting is “biased”, why transfer me to the national political bureau? Can I risk to report against the powerful with the same courage after knowing my own organisation will crucify me?
“As for the managing editor’s intervention on some of my stories since December last year — “to go only with resident editor’s approval” — I would like to clarify that no story went without sir’s approval. The two big stories that were taken off the pages in December and January before going to print too had been approved by sir. Both had necessary versions and supporting documents. They were on leaders of different political parties, which shows I have no bias in favour of or against a particular party or individual.
“In hindsight, I feel my remark before the COC that my son has to take his class 12 board exams was best avoided. I am being asked to move to Delhi at a short notice, on September 2, the day the half-yearly exams of my 13-year-old daughter begin. The aim was to create circumstances that force me to quit.
“I may be too small a reporter to make a difference to an organisation like HT but I am too self-respecting a person to take this humiliation.
“As a mother I owe it to my children to be with them when they need me the most. As a journalist, I owe it to my profession not to let those in positions of power gloat in the feeling that they can change the course of our lives and careers.
“Since the aim behind the entire move was not to renew my contract, I was left surprised at all the manoeveuring that went into it. My August salary was withheld and my contract was not renewed after I refused to accept the transfer. On September 9, I got a call from the Chandigarh HR office to collect my termination letter and sign an agreement for full and final settlement of my dues.
“I have been warned of legal consequences as I have tweeted about all that happened. I am not unnerved. I have told HT higher-ups in my emails that there is no glory in disempowering women by taking their jobs. If this is how we are treated as journalists, what hope lies in other professions? I came to HT as part of my learning. And I have. I have no regret on losing my job. It was a job well done.”