15 Kannada journalists have been arrested for forgery, blackmail, extortion in last 45 days. The tree is rotting from the top; there is an ethical vacuum. Kannadigas should be concerned about the news they are consuming.

As a Kannadiga who has been an English journalist all his life, it is deeply depressing and distressing to watch the current plight of Kannada journalism, both print and electronic. On the one hand, there is a burgeoning intellectual vacuum in newsrooms. Gone are the brains who shaped the minds of readers and leaders with balance, nuance and substance. In its place is loud, comic-book froth and frivolity in the name of the “market”.

And, on the other hand, individual and institutional integrity is at a premium. In just the last 45 days, at least 15, if not 17, Kannada journalists and media organisations have been accused of forgery, blackmail, extortion, bribery, intimidation, and worse.

It is tempting to dismiss the evidence as anecdotal, or as election-eve excess. But the deviance, bordering on the criminal, has become so rampant and so brazen that conscientious Kannadigas should truly be worried of the news and views they consume.

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# In Vijayapura, a Suvarna News reporter and a cameraman were arrested for blackmailing a doctor. The channel’s head Ajit Hanumakkanavar has had to ignominiously report on-air that “yes, a thief amongst us has been caught”, and reiterate its “zero tolerance to corruption”. 

# In Bangalore, a Public TV staffer, pretending to be from TV9, was arrested for threatening and demanding Rs 50 lakh from another doctor, in collusion with a ‘Samaya News’ reporter. The channel’s head H.R. Ranganath (in video, above) has said he “welcomes and encourages everybody” to report such culprits. 

# In Raichur, a former Times of India reporter was named in an FIR against B.S. Yeddyurappa after an audio clip emerged of a JDS MLA’s son being wooed over to the BJP with huge amounts of cash as part of the execrable ‘Operation Lotus’ aimed at dislodging the Congress-JDS coalition government.

# In Bangalore, the special correspondent of Uday India was arrested from the BJP office after the leading Kannada daily Vijaya Vani was named in a police complaint of publishing a forged 2017 letter purportedly sent by minister M.B. Patil to Sonia Gandhi, on the eve of the first phase of elections.

# Again in Bangalore, a journalist working for the now-defunct Focus TV was arrested for creating fake Facebook accounts and blackmailing a BJP MLA with morphed audio and video clips. On the same day, a former TV9 journalist was arrested for threatening and extorting a doctor.

If you read these mainstream media incidents along with the detention of the so-called editor of the fake news website Post Card News in the aforementioned M.B. Patil fake letter case, and the pre-publication gag order taken out against 49 media organisations  by Vishwa Vani columnist and Mysore MP Pratap Simha, it is difficult not to conclude that Kannada media in a state of decay. It is rotting.

What you also see is a strange conspiracy of silence.

Nobody wants to bell the cat.

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It is nobody’s case that such corruption is happening for the first time in Karnataka, or that it is happening only with Kannada media. Not at all. Journalistic integrity is an age-old problem, across countries, across languages. There have always been black sheep whose primary focus was anything but journalistic.

The Devaraj Urs regime was known for “five-star journalists” who partook of superior hospitality. From Ramakrishna Hegde to S.M. Krishna, chief ministers have found it easy to woo susceptible journalists with blandishments like house sites under the G-category. And a couple of well-known reporters in Bangalore have been known less for their reporting than their skills in procuring transfers for government officials—for a price. 

It is just that the problem has reached stratospheric levels in Karnataka with the entry of cable and satellite news TV channels. There are far too many players all eyeing the same slice of the pie, many of them ready and willing to bend the rulebook for cashflow purposes.

And, in post-liberalised India, greed has replaced need.

With media institutions themselves resorting to corrupt practices—think MediaNet, think “paid news”, think Private Treaties—to create revenue streams, individual journalists (most of them deliberately poorly paid) are happily using their visiting cards as a source of income.

The problem is exacerbated with right-wing political patronage.

One former chief minister says some reporters demand money even to run government press releases. Any surprise then that a TV reporter of a news channel is rumoured to be running an engineering college, if not a chain? Or that an editor has the license for a power plant?

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Girilal Jain, the late editor of The Times of India, once proclaimed that in India “politics sets the pace, everything else follows in its wake”.

In Karnataka, one of India’s most corrupt states, its journalism is doing precisely that.

It is following in the footsteps of its politics. Worse, it appears to have overtaken it in its prevalence, to the extent that politicians now complain of media excesses. Could there be a more shameful situation for a progressive state with a rich history of language and literature?

From a distance, it is evident that the moral and ethical compass has collapsed in Kannada journalism.

Judging from the names and number of owners, editors, anchors and channel heads whose integrity is routinely and repeatedly under question, it is also quite evident that the tree of Kannada journalism is rotting from the top. Not surprisingly, none of them is in a position to counsel, speak out against, or rein in colleagues lower down the food chain.  

It is high time the sage heads of Kannada journalism sat with the Karnataka Media Academy, industry bodies like the Press Clubs and Reporters’ Guilds to tackle the issue head-on. There is an urgent need for newspapers and news channels to evolve a common “Code of Ethics”. 

Students of journalism in colleges and Universities should, in particular, be made aware of the cardinal importance of trust and credibility in the profession they desire to enter by academics and newsroom leaders. 

Besides maintaining the freedom of the press, “maintaining and improving the standards of the press” is one of the functions of the Press Council of India. It should consider holding a pubic enquiry in Karnataka so that the public can fearlessly depose against media corruption.

Equally, citizens should use social media more to alert the world of journalistic offences. Only the fear of being named and shamed can restore some degree of respectability.  

Above the entrance of the Vidhana Soudha hangs the slogan “God’s work is government’s work”. The Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was a journalist before he turned to literature, called journalism “God’s chosen profession”.  Taken together, at the moment it appears that as if Karnataka politics and journalism is full of atheists.

If left unchecked, “Kannada Journalism” is in danger of becoming an oxymoron, if it is not so already.

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An abridged, translated version of this piece appears in today’s Praja Vani, the Kannada daily from the Deccan Herald group.