A moment that should have been one of quiet celebration and pride in the good work of our armed forces in the massive evacuation effort in Yemen has turned needlessly ugly, with junior external affairs minister V.K. Singh, the feisty former chief of army staff, using the epithet 'presstitutes' to describe the media.
Friends what do you you expect from presstitutes. Last time Arnab thought there was 'O' in place of 'E' #TimesNowDisaster— Vijay Kumar Singh (@Gen_VKSingh) April 7, 2015
His beef in this instance was with the Times Now news channel, which had highlighted the previous day a throwaway comment the retired general made in Yemen, telling a reporter of the ANI news agency that he found the rescue effort less exciting than his controversial visit to the Pakistan high commission in Delhi. He was perhaps being facetious, but the reporter certainly didn't bring up the reference or ask for a comparison.
The unseemly controversy over his visit to the Pakistan high commission also stemmed from a similarly unprompted tweet posted by him. When the media took it up and reported that he had been pulled up by his bosses, he piped up again on Twitter, attacking The Indian Express and its journalists using the same epithet, which he had first used against that publication on a sensitive story it wrote.
What the minister is implying is clear--the journalists and outlets criticizing him are available for hire, and are doing so at the behest of someone, presumably his professional or political rivals. It's a mystifying charge because in both instances the controversy arose from what he said, unprovoked and unprompted. But be that as it may, he has now made this very serious allegation not as a private citizen, but as a minister. He should either produce proof to back the allegation or apologize unconditionally.
Politicians everywhere attempt to intimidate and discredit inconvenient journalists. So Singh's behavior is nothing out of the ordinary. But the use of this particular epithet and the brazen manner in which he is repeating it without consequence, is disconcerting for multiple reasons.
First, even in the Indian context, Singh did not invent the usage of this epithet against the media. It started in the uproarious run up to Narendra Modi's election campaign by his supporters on Twitter principally against women journalists on Twitter. There will hardly be a woman journalist on Twitter who has not at some point been called a 'presstitute' by anonymous cowards who doubtless consider their use of the silly portmanteau a towering intellectual achievement.
By co-opting the epithet, the minister, who ought to condemn such rabid sexist bullying online, is instead giving currency and legitimacy to such behaviour.
Second, the fact that he has done it repeatedly without consequence, suggests that the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Narendra Modi government don't view this as a transgression. Giriraj Singh and Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, Singh's ministerial colleagues who have in the past made similarly despicable remarks, were asked to apologize. Not so the foul-mouthed junior minister, who heads, in a touch of irony, the ministry that runs India's global efforts in diplomacy.
This is hardly surprising, as the tone of this government's attitude towards the media is set by the Prime Minister himself, who has variously described it as 'bazaru' (sell-outs) and 'news traders'. Discrediting critical media is indeed in the interest of every politician, but such a dim institutional view of critical journalism is unfortunate for the BJP, which has had at least a few founding leaders who wrote and dealt in ideas and discourse.
Third is the danger of allowing lowly social media discourse (and all of it is by no means lowly) to cross over into the mainstream. Social media can amplify the worst devils of our nature. Anonymous handles and people with no reputation to lose are often abusive, abrasive and foul. People in public office suddenly beginning to behave similarly must give us pause about what will come next.
"There will hardly be a woman journalist on Twitter who has not at some point been called a 'presstitute' by anonymous cowards..."
The Business Standard journalist Mihir Sharma was last week subject to several days of vicious attacks and threats on social media based on his religion. #comeoutsimon was the hashtag of the mob, factually wrong and fundamentalist in differing measures. If we signal that this kind of madness is kosher, which is partly what the government is doing by remaining silent on the abusive minister, we will pay a heavy price in the days ahead.
Times Now editor Arnab Goswami, who was named in the minister's Twitter attack, hosted a television debate last night where the columnist Swapan Dasgupta seemed to say that while the minister's choice of the epithet might have been "casual", the criticism was valid because the channel's news hierarchy, prioritizing Singh's faux pas over the rescue effort in Yemen, was flawed.
I was surprised to hear this coming from a journalist. If media outlets had to fashion their news judgment on majority opinion or nationalist sensitivities, we would never have a diverse and vibrant media. In fact the ability to think differently from the herd is prized, rightfully, in any competitive newsroom. Let those news judgments win and lose at the altar of the remote control and let's not use this straw man to justify the lack of judgment and good taste in a public official. And it's altogether disingenuous to conflate Singh's abusive comments with the humanitarian work he led in Yemen. One deserves praise, and doesn't in the smallest measure absolve the other, which deserves thorough condemnation.
Disclosure: HuffPost India is published in association with The Times of India Group, of which Times Now is a part.