PTI interview of Chinese Ambassador: Is China trying to buy out Indian media?

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The conduct of India’s prime news agency PTI by providing its national media platform on a platter to the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi to run an anti-India tirade and to lash out at the government of India and Indian defence forces is highly unprofessional, rather unethical and anti-national. More than the lack of professionalism and social responsibility on the part of a section of Indian media it has exposed Indian media’s vulnerabilities to Chinese influence and its money power.
All circumstances related to this interview and the conduct of PTI’s correspondent, the news bureau, the desk editors and the management of the agency clearly indicate that either all of them have been too clumsy and indifferent to a blatant one-sided and anti-India propaganda slipping out to the national and international media or there was an institutional surrender to some illegal gratifications for which Chinese government and its embassies have become notorious since decades. As an Indian journalist with half a century experience and sufficient knowledge about news agencies’ editorial policies and professional conduct, the first probability looks quite remote, rather impossibility to me. If the Government of India and Prasar Bharati have objected strongly to this conduct of PTI or if ordinary citizens took to outright condemnation of PTI on various social media platforms, the reaction looks natural and justifiable.
There are too many shocking elements associated with this historic episode of Indian journalism to miss. First, in an environment loaded with fear of viral contamination, while most of news meetings and interviews even by the best of news media are being conducted online, the act of the PTI reporter presenting himself physically before the Chinese envoy at his embassy looks out of place, if not fishy. But this is still pardonable in view of the significance of the extraordinary situation caused by clashed on border between two most populated countries on the earth. However, in a profession where news interviews are ‘demanded’ rather than prayed for, PTI correspondent’s opening the interview with expression of his gratitude to the Chinese ambassador for granting him the interview is outright nauseating and professionally degrading.
As per the text of the interview, released by the Chinese embassy, the PTI correspondent asked only three questions to the ambassador and did not pose even a single counter question even when the ambassador makes blatantly false, or at lease provocative, accusations against India and its armed forces about the sequence of violent events at Galwan Valley. It is strange that following outright national criticism, PTI claimed that the Chinese embassy had released only a part of the interview. But PTI did not release the actual full text of the interview to prove that its own conduct was above suspicion.
It is difficult to believe that the PTI news bureau, who is supposed to check the copy filed by every correspondent, failed to conduct its duty to ensure the very basic rules of reporting which demand that in case of allegations made by an interview partner the views of affected party must be sought. While the Chinese ambassador was profusely quoted verbatim, there was no attempt on the part of the correspondent or the PTI news bureau to seek the MEA for its opinion or reaction to the Ambassador’s wild allegations.
At one point the Chinese ambassador has been quoted as saying, “The incident was completely instigated by the Indian side and the responsibility does not lie with the Chinese side.” It is difficult to believe that the PTI correspondent and his bosses in the newsroom were not aware of the Indian government and public’s anger over savage murder of 20 Indian soldiers by the Chinese soldiers. Knowing well that the Chinese soldiers used iron rods, barbed wires and nail-studded iron clubs to kill unarmed Indian soldiers, the reporter did not put any counter question to the ambassador and meekly shifted on to the next question as if his job was only to take dictations from the ambassador. Rather, he further allowed the Chinese ambassador to paint India as a villain and China as a reasonable and considerate partner. In the interview, PTI has profusely quoted the ambassador with his preaching, “Onus is not on China. We are willing and able to properly manage differences. Mutual respect and support is sure way. Suspicion and friction is wrong path. Will jointly uphold peace and stability in border areas, ensure sound and steady relations.”
The worst culprit in this episode turns out to be the central news desk, the nerve centre of any media group where the news editor is supposed to check and cross-check every word of the story for its accuracy and reasonableness before it is released to thousands of subscriber media groups for further publication and universal broadcast.
As expected, the Prasar Bharati and the Ministry of Information and broadcasting have strongly condemned this unprofessional and ‘anti-national’ conduct of the PTI. There are indications that the government may go for a second thought about continuing contributing crores of rupees as a contribution in the form of subscription and grants to PTI.
As if to undo its sins, PTI released interview of India’s ambassador in Beijing the very next day. But the damage to the credibility of India’s premier news agency is already done. Many observers of Indian media find this conduct of PTI all the more shocking and indefensible because of the fact that the PTI representative in Beijing, or for that matter any Indian journalist stationed in the Chinese capital, are never given same freedoms in China as the Chinese media persons enjoy in India. Nor the Indian envoy has the privilege of meeting Chinese journalists and get his uncensored views published or broadcast in the Chinese media. Similarly, no Indian journalist, deputed in Beijing is allowed to visit Tibet or Xinjiang unless taken by the Chinese authorities on a guided and controlled propaganda tour for foreign media. But in sharp contrast, the huge army of Chinese journalists in New Delhi have all the freedoms to work and travel across India.
Even the news bureaus of government-owned and controlled Chinese media groups in New Delhi enjoy the privilege of appointing Kashmiri correspondents in Kashmir valley along with the facility of government accreditation from the Kashmir administration. But no Indian journalist in India is allowed even to apply directly to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi for visa to visit Tibet or Xinjiang. They have to apply directly to Beijing to get a positive response only if one is found ‘suitable’ by the Chinese authorities. However, The Chinese embassy conducts annual group tours of Indian journalists on guided tour of Tibet with the aim of ‘educating’ them to study and report about Tibet with a good understanding of Chinese perspective. In most cases, the trip is free for the visiting Indian journalists they are paid handsomely for ‘good conduct’. Interestingly, this tradition was started many years ago with Mr. N. Ram, the owner editor of The Hindu group who is a rabid communist and a staunch supporter of China’s colonialist occupation of Tibet. In later years his presence in almost every annually conducted media tour of Tibet and China won him the distinction of a ‘tour operator’ of China.
China has been known for sabotaging the inner democratic functioning and creating friendly pockets in many countries by buying out friends among policymakers, political leaders, bureaucrats, army top brass, intellectuals and opinion-makers like the journalists and think tanks in many countries across the world. Its first successful prime mover was Nepal where, as opposed to India spending big money in the developmental projects of Nepal, China focused on spending directly on and winning over individual policymakers and opinion-makers.
Of late, even as respected newspapers as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and The Telegraph came into public ridicule for publishing 4 or 8 pages special China sections which were fully paid for and contributed by the Chinese propaganda machinery. On the eve of New Year 2016 Jack Ma, the richest man of China and owner of Alibaba, outright bought away the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong which was known for its frank and critical views against the Chinese communist government. With this buy out this over the 100-year-old institution of democracy in Hong Kong overnight changed into a mouthpiece of the Communist Party and government of China. Similarly, the campaign of Chinese embassies across the world to buy out influential journalists, newspapers, TV channels and radio networks to mould public opinion in favour of China have come to public focus.
In India too, the Chinese embassy has been known for issuing full-page or multi-page paid advertorials in as respectable newspapers as the Indian Express to justify its colonial occupation of Tibet Or publishing ‘opinion’ articles of the Chinese ambassador in other respectable newspapers like the Hindustan Times. But this is the first time that it has been caught on the wrong foot for taking the most respected and most subscribed news agency of India for running its propaganda against India itself. No surprise that this weird collective conduct of a PTI correspondent, its news bureau and its management is being seen as yet another effort of China to influence India media to win a favourable image for itself in an otherwise hostile media environment.
(The writer is a senior journalist, a veteran China watcher and Chairman, NUJ(I) School of Journalism and Communication)