The cableThe withdrawal of his reports on social media giant Meta, the parent company of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, is nothing more than a blip in the larger context of Indian journalism. However, given the current state of India’s media, the misreporting by the news portal, which has been one of the few remaining voices to question the BJP government’s sins of omission and commission at heart, could have costly consequences for independent journalism in the country.
The essential facts of Cable-Meta Imbroglio are known. early last month, The cable reported that the head of the BJP’s IT cell, Amit Malviya, enjoyed special privileges at Meta that allowed him to step down from any post. The website published certain redacted emails from two cybersecurity experts who appeared to have reviewed the source material for the stories. While Meta said the reports were false and the so-called evidence was fabricated, several experts pointed to inconsistencies in the material corroborating the stories. Those The Wire is said to have consulted also came out and said they had not reviewed the technological evidence for the story.
Finally, on October 23rd The cable retracted its reports and subsequently apologized, saying it had been deceived by a “member of our meta-investigation team.”
Should The cable were editorial controls far tighter before going public with a sensitive story? No question. Should it have done double, triplet to ensure its reporting was watertight when the subjects involved were a global corporate monster and a key official in a government not known for its benevolence towards its critics? Of course.
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The cable admitted this, apologized for his gross editorial error and took the stories down. It also retracted a previous story about the so-called “Tek Fog” app, as one of the journalists involved in the meta-investigation was also part of that report. Predictably, there was much outrage and gleeful laughter from government right-wingers and supporters, who claimed the incident had destroyed the credibility of the website, which has been known for criticizing the ruling party for proving they were dealing in fake news and so forth. And glee was palpable among some of the journalists who suggested it The cable had confused journalism with activism and had therefore been lax in verifying the veracity and accuracy of his story.
But that was not the end of it. Following a police complaint from Amit Malviya alleging fraud, forgery and defamation on the part of the website, Delhi police searched the homes of Cable Co-founders Siddharth Varadarajan, MK Venu and Siddharth Bhatia and a few others confiscated their phones and laptops – an action that was appallingly excessive and in all likelihood not entirely lawful. Indeed, the power of the state machine was unleashed on journalists for editorial failure, much like those who had committed serious crimes.
Independent of The cable tricked into falling for an elaborate staging to discredit her and torpedo her credibility (she filed a complaint against the reporter in question), there is no doubt that the website failed to exercise due diligence before publishing the reports . However, it’s not as if the alleged comfort between Facebook and the BJP hadn’t been reported earlier. In 2020 the Wall Street Journal reported that BJP hate speech, while clearly in violation of FB’s content policy, has not been removed from the social media platform. Not long after, a senior Facebook India executive resigned after being accused of giving improper favors to the ruling party.
Read | Delhi police conduct house searches at the founders of The Wire
Be that as it may, retractions from news organizations are always detrimental to publication and are likely to be used against it. In 2017, CNN was forced to retract a story alleging that Anthony Scaramucci, a close associate of then-US President Donald Trump, had ties to a Russian hedge fund. Though Scaramucci was mollified after CNN pulled down the article and issued an apology, Trump and his supporters pounced on the blunder and went to town, declaring CNN a purveyor of fake news. But even Trump, extreme as he was in every respect, would not think of sending the police after CNN’s editors.
The police raids on the editorial office of The cable show that in India today any news organization that dares to criticize the government is being hunted down for any kind of oversight. It only takes a misstep – or even the slightest hint of it – for the state to launch swift and ruthless retaliation against an entity it perceives as hostile to it. In June this year, Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News (which, among other things, has exposed many falsehoods propagated by BJP proxies), was arrested and held in detention for 23 days for allegedly offending religious feelings because he tweeted an image from a Hindi film in 2018.
“Of course, not all releases have the same ‘standards’. Last week, OpIndia, a stridently right-wing news website, published a story that appeared to indicate that a Twitter user had accused financial journalist Sucheta Dalal of launching the #MeToo investigation into the late journalist Vinod Dua (OpIndia later admitted that it was conclusion.) When Dalal vigorously denied the claim on Twitter, saying she had never met Dua, OpIndia just added her reaction to the story and apologize to her for not contacting her about her comment.it didn’t remove the false and defamatory non-story like it should have.
However, one can be assured that this lack of editorial ethics on the part of OpIndia will not cause epic shock and horror on social media, nor will it cause the crime industry to turn on its editors.
The point is that in India today, while media close to the powerful can get away with all manner of journalistic impropriety, including gleefully spreading misinformation, telling the truth to the powerful has become a dangerous proposition for independent voices. You have to be careful with slander, but is true journalism possible when you have to step on eggshells, watch your back, and self-censor at every step? And what journalistic objectivity can a publication claim when it has to weigh one anti-government story against nine others finding ways to praise and justify government policies?
The clumsy and disproportionate government response to The cableThe error of goes beyond the immediate harassment of the site’s editors. It is clearly intended to intimidate other journalists and media organizations that maintain their independence and have still not pledged allegiance to the ruling party. It’s another blinking red lightbulb telling you these are the worst of times for a non-partisan journalist in India.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.