Democracy Direct Dissenter

article

Siddharth Varadarajan, a London School of Economics alumnus, chose to shun his predictably cushy life for the thorn-strewn path of old-school, honest journalism, and is making the government count its pennies

Chandrani Banerjee

Chandrani Banerjee

Chandrani Banerjee has studied at the Columbia Journalism School, and covered the US elections, 2016. She has also filed an experience report for UN office of Drug and Crime about the Indian migrant workers, and worked with Outlook

He has been dubbed as ‘Anti-National’ by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), identified as a Modi critic, and his caretaker was beaten for his non- compromising attitude meet Siddharth Varadarajan, the dissenter and an editor who believes that dissenting voices are the essence of journalism.

Siddharth Varadarajan (born 1965) is an Indian-American journalist, editor, and academic. He is the former editor of The Hindu. He has reported on the NATO war against Yugoslavia, the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq and the crisis in Kashmir. Varadarajan has edited a book titled “Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy”, which is about the 2002 riots.

Varadarjan is known for his fearless journalism, which is mostly against the ruling party and government. A look at his course of work describes that he never toed any political line while reporting. He cared less about the rest than the real news and most of the time, he invited trouble for himself pursuing his passion for true journalism.

Pamela Philipose, a veteran journalist and a colleague of Vardarajan says, “Since 2014, expressing dissent is not easy. This is the most difficult thing. I have known Siddharth since he has joined the profession. And I have seen his stint with The Hindu too. He tried to transform the paper but that has cost him a lot. He could have fallen in line with the demands (of the management) and flourished. He could have acquiesced to follow the ‘official line’ and he would have got into any top publication in the country. Instead, he decided to start The Wire and sacrifice the perks that could have come his way with a little ‘accommodation’ and ‘adjustment’. He decided to go against the flow when it is the toughest thing to opt for.”

Starters

He attended the London School of Economics and studied economics, and then went to Columbia University. He taught at the New York University for many years before joining The Times of India as an editorial writer in 1995. In 2004, he shifted to The Hindu, another English language newspaper, as Deputy Editor. He worked as the Hindu’s Chief of National Bureau.

In May 2011, the shareholders of Kasturi and Sons Limited held an extraordinary general meeting and voted to appoint Varadarajan as The Hindu’s editor on the recommendation of the company’s board, thus making Varadarajan the first editor of the newspaper not drawn from the family of shareholders in its 150-year history. Prior to his appointment, The Hindu’s editors were drawn from the family of the company’s owners. In 2013, while publicly announcing his resignation, Varadarajan went on to launch his new venture. Allegedly, a member of The Hindu board had criticised Varadarajan for not giving enough coverage to BJP leader Narendra Modi. And this had led to the fallout.

Kick Dust

Controversies and Varadarajan go hand in hand. In The Hindu, he faced a court case for becoming an editor as a US citizen. Similarly, many controversies erupted for the stand he had taken in his own venture.

In 2014, Siddharth Varadarajan posted on his Facebook and Twitter pages to say that four men had beaten up the caretaker of his Delhi flat on February 23 and said, “Tell your sahib to watch what he says on TV.”

In 2015, Varadarajan, along with Siddharth Bhatia and MK Venu, co-founded the online news portal called The Wire and became one of its Founding Editors.

In 2016, the controversy over a JNU event and its fallout has officially snowballed into the year’s biggest political debate, with politicians, historians, journalists, students, writers, universities, ‘nationalists’ and ‘anti-nationals’ jumping into the fray. And among all this chaos, a battle of words had begun between news channel Times Now and The Wire… all, over the allegedly doctored video of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar.

The brief account of attrition between the two editors made huge headlines in the media and social media.

The Wire questioned the authenticity of the video that was aired by the BJP spokesperson on the News Hour debate, which fuelled the controversy. The BJP spokesperson claimed that JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar was shouting for ‘azaadi’ and termed this as anti-national.

This is when Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Wire, published on February 19, an opinion piece countering the Times Now, among other channels, accusing them of fabricating a case and peddling forged ‘evidence’ against Kumar.

Then, Vardarajan apparently received a call from News Hour anchor Arnab Goswami claiming that the show never ran the video. Goswami clearly insisted that Times Now had not shown the video at all, and that when BJP spokesman attempted to show it on air, he had stopped the latter from doing so.

Scribes’ War

The Wire accepted in good faith Goswami’s claim and wrote:

“In an earlier version of this article, Times Now was listed as one of the channels that broadcast the doctored tape of Kanhaiya Kumar. The channel’s head, Arnab Goswami has clarified that a BJP spokesman sought to play the clip on his iPad during a debate but was not allowed to, as the clip was not verified, and the clip was never played on the channel.”

Soon thereafter, Times Now put up a notice on its channel in which it called out The Wire and Varadarajan for publishing a “factually incorrect” report about showing a ‘doctored video’ of Kumar on the English news channel.

A reader of The Wire sent Varadarajan the ‘YouTube Link’ in which it was clearly shown that the doctored footage was being aired on the channel. The Wire called Goswami for having aired the doctored video. Goswami – a known umbrella-holding journalist for the right wingers changed his stance from “We never aired it” to “We said the footage was unverified”.

He then put out an edited version of the show with a description saying, “The News Hour clip where the BJP spokesperson showed a video that was put on a Hindi channel and had to be examined and could not be taken at face value. The Wire’s website shut down due to a technical failure and its twitter handle tweeted out the following ‘Dear readers, thanks to Times Now’s false accusations against The Wire, traffic to the site has been booming! It’ll be online in a minute. We’re now waiting to see how Goswami responds. Could there be an apology in the offing? Are we in for a historic television moment?”

Faraz Ahmad, a renowned journalist and another friend of Varadarajan, says, “Dissent is not a good word these days. He decided to embrace something that he knew will bring in troubles. This is courage. He has created hope for the coming generation of young journalists who will believe that falling in line is no grace but standing up and showing the truth is.”

He has now been viewed as a dissenting voice which goes against the government and points out the follies fearlessly.”

Jay Walking

The recent controversy that made huge headlines was the news report highlighting the phenomenal growth of a company owned by the ruling BJP party president Amit Shah’s son. This resulted in a court battle for The Wire.

This report claimed in The Wire that the turnover of Jay Shah’s firm grew exponentially after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the country in 2014.

The Wire’s plea, seeking quashing of this criminal defamation case filed by Shah’s son Jay, was rejected by the Gujarat High Court. Justice JB Pardiwala said that the article is defamatory and the trial court should proceed with the case.

The High Court initially directed the trial court to complete the hearing on the case in six months, but later withdrew that order. This means there is no time frame for the trial court to complete the hearing.

The lawyer for the author of the article and editors of the news portal had maintained that the news report was not defamatory and the facts were there to support the claims made in the story. Lawyer of The Wire told the court that this article was a part of investigative journalism and filing a defamation suit was against the freedom of the press.

Jay Shah’s lawyer SV Raju, on other hand maintained that the article was defamatory and the two witnesses examined in the lower court proves that it tarnished the reputation of his client.

So, a defamation case was filed on October 9, 2017, and the court initiated proceedings based on CrPC section 202.

Court Battle

The case has been filed against the author of the article Rohini Singh, and against founding editors of the news portal Siddharth Varadarajan, Siddharth Bhatia and MK Venu, Managing Editor Monobina Gupta, Public Editor Pamela Philipose and the Foundation for Independent Journalism, which publishes ‘The Wire’.

Jay Shah also filed a separate civil defamation of Rs 100 crore against the website over the article.

During the court appearances, The Wire team reached the Ahmedabad court and Siddharth Varadarajan tweeted a picture of his team outside the court, stating the accused were smiling while the complainant gave the court a miss. Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate SK Gadhvi had issued summons to journalist Rohini Singh, the five editors and the non-profit company that publishes The Wire.

The summons were issued after the Metropolitan Court prima facie found that a case of defamation, punishable with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years with or without fine, was made out against all the seven respondents.

The hearing was earlier adjourned on October 11, 2017 after Jay Shah’s lawyer failed to appear in court, pleading that he was busy in a case in the Gujarat High Court. Then again, it was adjourned on till October 26 because the court went on a Diwali break.

The court had also prevented the news portal from carrying any more articles on Jay Shah’s business after the BJP chief’s son filed the case.

Varadarajan

Varadarajan often appears on TV news shows as a political commentator. The unidentified men also issued threats against Varadarajan’s wife, sociologist Nandini Sundar. Sundar, author of a book on the Naxalite-ridden Bastar region, has been waging a battle in and outside court against the Chhattisgarh government for its alleged human rights excesses. Neither Varadarajan nor Sundar were home when the attackers visited.

Varadarajan said he did not want to speculate on the motives of the attackers, and that the caretaker was not hurt too badly and is recovering. “He is shaken, more than anything else. The Delhi Police has been very co-operative and is examining CCTV footage to see if the caretaker can identify the attackers walking around the neighbourhood. I am making this incident public on the advice of friends who believe it may serve as some deterrent value,” Varadarajan wrote on Facebook.

Does he plan to watch what he says on TV? “No!” he says. “The funny thing is, I don’t even know what could have provoked whom, because I am speaking on TV every other day.”

The attack, court cases against his online news portal and constant denial of his news reports shows that his dissent has made him count at the corridors of power. In old-school, true journalism, it has always been a badge of honour if the government is ridiculing a news report and filing court cases. The honour of journalism and hope remains in the days to come with dissenting voices.

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