Whose Lie is it Anyway: #Fakenews

The fact that even the Panchatantra and the Aesop’s Fables have a story about the shepherd boy who cried wolf when there was no wolf, underlines the fact that the phenomenon of fake news is not something ultra modern or a product of the internet age. However, to discuss the cry-wolves of our times, Nitin Pai, founder of Takshashila brought together personalities of contrasting backgrounds and competing tones for the last panel discussion at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2018. In attendance were award winning journalist best known for her Bofors investigation and editor-in-chief of thenewsminute.com – Chitra Subramaniam, Paris born journalist and author who has been South Asia correspondent for Le Figaro, one of France’s leading newspapers – François Gautier, Editor of The Hindu – Mukund Padmanabhan, Editor of scroll.in – Naresh Fernandes, Founder and Editor of AltNews – Pratik Sinha, and Sreenivasan Jain, Managing Editor of New Delhi Television (NDTV).

In order to set the context, Nitin asked each panelist about what defined fake news. Naresh opined with an example that while misinformation could be an error of judgement, disinformation with malice would count as fake news. Pratik of the AltNews gave the example of the Amritsar train tragedy wherein a fake narrative had been peddled about the driver’s religion to create social unrest and stressed upon the fact that fake news was affecting people of all ages, including children. Chitra joined the discussion and asserted that the phrase ‘fake news’ was an oxymoron and according to her there was only good journalism and then there was bad journalism. She also added that fake news happens when people with motives manufacture events and news.

Sreenivasan Jain kept the central government and the party in power at the centre at the centre of his attack and went on to say, “I believe that the only way to solve a problem is to first identify the problem. Fake news is not just lying in the dark corners of the internet but the central power itself plays a game of fake news by churning out propagandist theories and cherry picked data. These institutions, be it the government or the party in power have mainstreamed what was on the fringe.” He claimed that love jihad, scare mongering in the name of cows were part of this fake news propaganda. François, on the other hand, maintained that the word ‘fake news’ was too strong a word. Journalists have strong opinions and they pick stories and derive from them according to their opinions. He cited the example of the Nun rape case at Jhabua where mainstream media rushed to point fingers at the Hindu right wing groups but soon it was found that there were tribals and christians involved. François also cautioned people against the impulse of demonising the politicians because they were the the elected representatives in the country.

Nitin Pai further wanted the panel to explore the doors where fake news could be checked and threw the question to Naresh. Naresh mentioned that the government was trying to bring in some technological solutions to this menace but that wasn’t going to help. The session grew hotter by second and Sreenivasan provided a counter to François by saying that to criticize politician is not demonising him and to criticize the BJP doesn’t mean one is anti-Hindu. For him, the fake news machinery run by the government itself is the most dangerous one when compared to the fake news being peddled on whatsapp. Chitra had a contrarian point of view and asserted that she had lived through congress regimes and remembered how she and her family were harrassed with spread of falsehoods for ten years. She also claimed that while the word ‘fringe’ gets quoted a lot, the lot on the stage was the actual fringe which didn’t really understand India and how India thought. According to her, journalists must earn the right to be read like the politicians earn the right to lead.

François added his own perception of the Indian media and said that the Indian people did not have much respect for the the Indian media. Also, according to him, most of the media establishments have been left leaning in India. He underlined the importance of his views because he was born a catholic and unlike other people who parrot what they had heard from their older generations, he had learnt India first hand. Nitin went deeper into the subject and asked the panel if there were prejudices of people playing out as well. Pratik explained the importance of giving due attention to the fake news happening on whatsapp. “For rural areas, the influential people do affect opinions of the common people because they own smartphones and have access to internet and news”, added Pratik.

The session concluded with an attempt to fix the accountability question. Mukund agreed that Whatsapp was one of the major vectors for fake news and as such should not be ignored or downplayed. Also, not only does fake news affect the ignorant or gullible but also the intelligent and the informed lot. He maintained that the damage done by fake news was much worse than the redressal options like retraction etc.. Journalists and media houses must learn to apologize more often because there is no shame attached with it if one makes a mistake”, opined Mukund.

The session came to a close with a wide array of questions from the audience members and seemed to reinforce the idea of diversity in discourse which the Bangalore Literature Festival stands for.

Separated at Birth – India & Pakistan at 70

The realization of true ramifications of the partition of India would be perhaps an ever-developing phenomenon and the people of the divided regions would have to look back at the tragic beginnings of the process every once in awhile. When we stand at a distance of about 70 years from the partition, it would serve us well to look back and measure our progress in all the years in between then and now. The session ‘Separated at Birth – India & Pakistan at 70’ was aimed at such an introspection and a measured reflection of the ever vacillating fortunes of the two countries.

Journalist and filmmaker Adrian Levy, Lt. General Kamal Davar who has written ‘Tryst With Perfidy – Pakistan and its Deep State’, Former IFS officer and Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan (2013-15) TCA Raghavan, and feminist publisher and writer who has authored ‘Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition’ formed the panel with Nitin Pai, the co-founder and director of the Takshashila Institution playing the moderator. Nitin Pai brought in Bangladesh too to the equation and asked Raghavan about what Pakistan got right in the last 70 years. Raghavan began by explaining how the partition was an event that affected not only India and Pakistan but there were about three to four more partitions that took place at the same time. With India and Pakistan, Punjab was divided and also Bengal was divided. The Pathans were divided by the Durand line between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Apart from these, the Muslim community itself got divided. This partition did cast a shadow that continues to live till today. Coming to the question of what Pakistan had done right, Raghavan quoted a South Korean Ambassador who once told him that he envied our relationship with Pakistan pertaining to the shared lifestyle and choices. This was because we are doing just fine when compared to South Korea – North Korea. Pakistan and India also worked together on the complex issue of the Indus water sharing.

Pai asked Davar if the Indian army had an admiration for the Pakistani army. Davar admitted that both the armies shared a common root and hence there is a sense of admiration but the attitude from the other side had been myopic and they have harboured a pathological and obsessive hatred towards India. In the same breath, he also appealed to all the political parties that when it came to the issues of national security, they must not politicize them.

At this point, Ritu was invited to bring in the Bangladesh angle by the moderator. Ritu said that she was essentially a partition family and life had become a before and post-partition phenomenon in her growing up years. “The partition was being lived by the divided families and not by the army or the government.”, said Ritu. Ritu explained that she had started studying the partition from all the three perspectives of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and found out that the partition study was essentially a preoccupation of the Indians. While Pakistan developed a new nation narrative and Bangladesh developed a revolution centric narrative, they never had a desire to look back at partition. Ritu lamented the absence of any kind of historiography of Pakistan and Bangladesh partition. For her, the partition has remained an unfinished business for all the three countries. “Even for the partition of Bengal in 1905 and 1911, no one really knows anything.”, added Ritu.

Adrian joined the discussion from a traveller’s perspective. Since he has travelled extensively on both sides of the border and has not been tainted by diplomacy, he has seen a struggle for democracy in both the countries. He spoke of successive failures of democracy in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s ouster being the latest, and how this was a bad thing for India. On a euphemistic tone, Adrian told the audience that Imran Khan who calls himself a crusader for freedom of speech and democratic values, owns the largest residential property in the protected green belt of Islamabad and the wastewater from his wash dumps into the reservoir that supplies water to the city implying that Imran Khan was perhaps doing the same to the country. Adrian also spoke about the role of China and Iran in the equation.

While Dawar admitted being an unabashed admirer of Indira Gandhi for her role in one of the most crucial victories of the Indian military, Raghavan said that leaders like Indira Gandhi or Bhutto in Pakistan had a deeply divided legacy. However, it was also true that the democratic institutions of India have always set a benchmark for the neighbouring countries.

The panellists mutually agreed that India has at times exaggerated its role in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Raghavan said, “Pakistan has 200 million people and is nuclear-armed. What India can do to foster democracy in Pakistan is a superficial question. It is for the people of Pakistan to do it. All we can do is play immediate neighbours.”