Felt Delhi Was
No Longer My City
Words by ABHIMANYU HAZARIKA
September 10, 2020
Ayush Tiwari feels remorseful about being confined to four walls instead of reporting from the field. A journalist with Newslaundry, he has been frustrated by the COVID-19 related national lockdown. When I spoke to him in late March this year, he had just finished a piece on the spread of the Spanish Flu in 1917 and the restrictions imposed on freedom of speech in the US at the time.
Tiwari revealed how the pandemic has changed dynamics in independent media organisations. Newslaundry, like other digital media platforms, initially had to minimise reportage and contend with fact-checking, follow-ups on previous stories, and news curation through podcasts. Even so, organisations like the one he works for have avoided the mainstream media’s practice of either ignoring, or under-reporting, important stories like those on migrant workers, or the victims of religious violence.
Most recently, Tiwari won praise for his coverage of the violence that broke out in Northeast Delhi in late February, and the Delhi Police’s subsequent investigation, by political commentator Saba Naqvi. But it was this assignment that altered his relationship with Delhi and its people. On the second day of the violence, 25 February, he visited Loni, a city at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. A mob physically assaulted Tiwari and other journalists that day.
‘This happened at the site of a culvert where nine Muslims were killed. When we went, there was initially no one in sight on the roads though people looked at us suspiciously from their homes. Suddenly we saw men chanting Jai Shri Ram gather, and then set fire to some of the Muslim homes while the Uttar Pradesh Police looked on, citing jurisdictional issues.’
When Tiwari and his colleague went to the affected localities, the police told them their safety was not guaranteed. Some of the residents said 'Mullah media aagya' (the Muslim media has arrived).
‘I had only ventured to Northeast Delhi once, to cover an Amit Shah rally. Going there this time was overwhelming. Facing assault, getting chased by a frenzied mob – it did not feel like my city, my Delhi, at all.’
The aftermath of the riots coverage caused Tiwari immense trauma. He felt ‘uncomfortable and uneasy’ returning to the affected localities to investigate the discrepancies in the Delhi Police’s chargesheet regarding the February 2020 events.
Newslaundry was among the few media organisations, apart from Scroll.in and The Caravan, that exposed some glaring inadequacies in how the police went about the cases involving Muslim victims. Even so, residents of Northeast Delhi were split on the independent press coverage their neighbourhood had received. Tiwari realised this after observing how the Delhi Police conducted its probe in the area. He said that some Hindu residents were offended that their locality was receiving a ‘bad name’. This did not deter him.
‘Ultimately, like peers in the field are expected to, I did what I had to without complaining. I had to accept that, in many cases, a crowd’s hostility was a normal occurrence,’ he explained.
When three reporters from The Caravan suffered the brunt of this hostility in August 2020, Tiwari covered their story immediately. While he was shocked that the attack took place, he remained unsurprised by the impunity granted to the attackers.
'No law for journalists’ safety is feasible or can help, as legislators have vested interests in keeping us threatened. Distrust of the media across viewers of different political leanings is a doing of both the media and the political class,' Tiwari emphasised. A truly free and safe reporting space would entail that the actions of politicians are rigorously examined and questioned, while simultaneously allowing media houses to maintain their distance without facing any institutional backlash, he added. Currently, mainstream media-houses and politicians have found comfort in a model where they share undue proximity and shared political goals.
Tiwari’s first acclaimed report was from Kashmir, after the abrogation of Article 370 and the subsequent communication lockdown across the state. Describing it as a 'frantic fifteen-day stay amidst war-like scenes,’ Tiwari describes a dismissive and suspicious attitude of officials towards reporters.
'I wasn’t even a year into my job, when my boss [Abhinandan Sekhri, Newslaundry co-founder and CEO] asked me if I could leave for Kashmir and write about daily life there amidst the restrictions. I jumped at the opportunity and my tickets were booked for the next day.'
His article titled Pen drives and gumption: How journalists in Kashmir are dealing with communications blockade was lauded by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and The News Minute’s editor-in-chief Dhanya Rajendran, among others. It detailed the plight of journalists in dealing with the total clampdown on information sharing in Kashmir, and revealed the tricks of the trade local media persons had to employ to do their work.
‘For every story, I have complete backing from the editorial team and my style of writing is encouraged,’ says Tiwari.
His colleague at the time, Amit Bhardwaj (currently a reporter for Asiaville), attests to his unique voice, describing Tiwari as ‘sharp and energetic in assessing and covering media news differently’, something that is not always encouraged at mainstream news outlets.
Tiwari’s way with the pen incurred the wrath of right-leaning commentators like Dr. Anand Ranganathan, on whose participation in the Khilafat 2.0 conference Tiwari had written about. Many conservative voices on Twitter accused the journalist’s work of being ‘mediocre’.
‘My boss at Newslaundry, Abhinandan, backed me through it, and the story still stands,’ said Tiwari.
The looming realisation throughout Tiwari’s career has been the regressive coverage of minority communities by the mainstream media. This, he says, predates the present regime. He specifically refers to the lack of political will to investigate the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, orchestrated by Congress party leaders.
He elaborates, ‘Even in 1984, the calls for justice by the media were few and far between and it became a tendency to normalise the late formation of an investigating commission only after a regime change.’
This tendency, in turn, has been fuelled by the close proximity between large media houses and the establishment. Most of these media houses run on business models designed for quantity not quality. The Centre-run Press Information Bureau (PIB) runs PIB Fact Check, which Tiwari wrote an article about. The service has been accused by journalists of undermining independent news.
‘Online perception matters for governments these days, especially on Twitter where a lot of reporters source their stories. Hence, [the state has] been posting flimsy rebuttals to findings by non-legacy, independent media houses that raise key questions to the establishment.’
The protections that are provided for journalists, under the outdated, but well-intentioned Working Journalists Act (1955), help with the financial side of things in cases of wrongful termination, Tiwari describes. The Act guarantees that a journalist facing termination can be paid the equivalent of fifteen days salary for every completed year of employment. Sadly, a lot of media houses are escaping these obligations through contractual hiring. There is also a silence when it comes to reporting on its own workers and their plight. Tiwari says that the industry often refrains from covering large-scale layoffs at publications.
When asked if he would return to academia or choose to go back to the field, Tiwari answers with a determined face, ‘With all that is happening in the country, it is a morally opportune time to be in the media. Going for a Master’s degree at this point would be a disservice to journalism.’
Even so, given the toxic nature of newsrooms and the worsening conditions of a city that no longer feels like it is his, Ayush Tiwari does not rule out getting disillusioned soon.