On Wednesday night, Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Open magazine announced on Twitter that he had been peremptorily handed a termination notice after he refused Rs 15 lakh to “move on quietly” (Is that the going rate for a journalist's silence these days?). In another tweet he added that this was the culmination of futile efforts to convince him to leave “without fuss”, that it was imposed by owner Sanjiv Goenka (chairman of the $4.3 billion RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group, which owns Open Media) and that no reasons were specified. I tried to contact Mr Goenka on the phone and sent him an SMS asking for his comments, but there has been no response yet. In a subsequent interview to The Hoot, Goenka said “as a matter of policy, I don't want to comment on any individual employee".
I do not know Bal personally, I only know of him through his articles in Open, especially his political analysis and opinion pieces which have been incisive and more importantly, uniformly critical, without fear or favour. His was an honest voice, raising important questions, at times about issues we tend to gloss over or be content to bury under the carpet, such as the 1984 riots. His last piece for Open was a brilliant analysis of the eerie similarities the two prime ministerial hopefuls, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, share.
This has, of course, been the season for the forced departure of editors. Last month, we had Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu putting in his papers when he was suddenly relegated to consulting editor, after a stormy board meeting. One of the reasons, it was alleged later, was that Varadarajan had ostensibly given the desk instructions not to cover Modi's rallies and campaigns though he has categorically disputed this charge. And earlier this year, editorial heads at Forbes India were unceremoniously shown the door. Three of them -- editor Indrajit Gupta, managing editor Charles Assisi and director, photography, Dinesh Krishnan, have taken the legal route and are currently fighting their wrongful termination in court.
If we go into the issue of wrongful termination of journalists, there are also, as a journalist colleague pointed out, hundreds of other journalists who have been shown the door without warning or reason, such as those fired from Network 18, without too many voices being raised in their support. Many media companies retain employees on contract making the job of firing that much easier. Hearteningly, Bal has revealed that he will be challenging his dismissal in court even though he, too, had signed a contract that technically would not come within the ambit of the Working Journalists Act. “...If the journalist's employment is to be terminated, the least that should have been done is that he should have been given a reason. The reason would require fact. I think this is the minimum protection a journalist needs because dismissal of a journalist cannot be arbitrary…,” he said in an interview published in The Hoot. No reason or explanation was given to Bal for his termination.
But leaving aside the fact that wrongful termination is atrocious, whosoever is subject to it, editor or trainee, Bal's forced exit raises also portends an ominous era for Indian media and by extension, threatens the country's democratic fabric. In a telling comment in his interview to The New York Times, Bal says “This is a particularly divisive and important election in this country, and I think the role the media plays is very, very important. I do think that overall there is an attempt to stifle voices which are independent.”
One of the critical roles the press in a democracy is expected to play is holding the polity accountable. If those who do so are forcibly silenced, what hope is there for a healthy democracy?