Self censorship is much bigger than VICE India

Yesterday’s article in The Wire makes clear what many of us already know: “freedom of the press” has to be put in quotes in India. As a foreign media brand operating in India, this is something Business Insider India has to contend with daily. In other words, self censorship is not VICE’s problem; as Indians, it is our problem.

Consider this line from The Wire article referring to VICE India forming a committee to review stories for political sensitivity before publication: “Such a committee doesn’t even exist in Vice newsrooms in Russia and China, which, at 148 and 176, rank worse than India’s score of 136 in the World Press Freedom Index.” We debated in our newsroom how telling it is about the state of dissent that VICE’s local and global leadership -- media veterans well-versed in being provocative -- feel the need to supposedly be more cautious in India than in China or Russia. Self censorship is, by its very nature, extremely difficult to quantify. Other mechanisms aside from committees may exist in VICE’s other offices, but the material presented by The Wire does peg India at a shameful position on the global spectrum of tolerance for dissension.

This is our shame as the media industry collectively. Yes, we can fairly assign blame to the government: the embarrassingly low rank of 136, which is in such close proximity to nations with overt censorship regimes, along with numerous other anecdotal examples, make it difficult to claim Indian democracy is healthy. The government should never curtail or chill free expression, full stop. But the media should also give up zero ground when we feel our freedom slipping. We should publish, sue, protest, and petition to protect the Indian citizen’s right to know. We should also combine these reactionary measures with a coordinated solution-based vision for getting India to #1 on such lists. So allow us to be clear at Business Insider India:

The opinions of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress Party, and their leaders on our coverage do not concern us.

The opinions of all other power brokers, from corporate India to state government to the military and beyond, are not accounted for when we at Business Insider India make editorial decisions.

These should be non-controversial statements.

We serve our readers and the public at large. To the extent these leaders are private citizens, we care deeply about their views on how Business Insider India should report the news just as we care deeply for the opinions of the millions of other Indians who visit our website every month as well as the millions who don’t. Furthermore, we echo the sentiments of both VICE India leadership and the writers who felt the need to resign: we respect the laws of India and abide by the ethics that govern journalists everywhere. While we believe some laws need to be changed to make journalism safer in India, we respect the rule of law and the fundamental character of Indian democracy. They are reflections of India’s people, our true masters.

Like VICE India, Business Insider India is also a part of the Times Bridge portfolio. Therefore we feel obliged to address notions of editorial interference on that front as well. We invite anyone, especially our readers, to suggest ideas and coverage to us. We do not disregard emails from management that inquire about our vision for Business Insider India. Indeed, we welcome and value inquisitiveness. Having well aligned business and editorial teams is essential to success. But, once again, the opinions of those in power, Times Group included, do not drive our editorial decisions.

Finally, when it comes to stories that pass muster on legality and ethics but make VICE leadership nervous about communal backlash or damaged egos, we invite VICE India (and all other media institutions) to openly license such articles or email them to editor@businessinsider.in so that we can openly license them. Stories that deserve to be told should not be shelved because of fear. If you stand for truth, Business Insider India stands with you.

One thing the age of the Internet has made clear is that someone somewhere will be offended by anything we do or publish. Our job is not to please, our job is to be honest and the truth is often uncomfortable and even offensive.
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