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Prem Prakash, ANI, and the perils of access journalism

The founder of Asian News International, India’s largest TV news agency, took to journalism to achieve ‘national objectives’ and made friends with several politicians and bureaucrats in top offices over the years

Prem Prakash on top of the Haji Pir Pass during the 1965 war against Pakistan as the mountain guns go into action (Photo: Penguin Random House India)

There’s an incident that Prem Prakash, chairperson of Asian News International (ANI), writes about in his newly-published autobiography, Reporting India, which merits a retelling.

The year was 1962. China had advanced along India’s borders in the North-East and Ladakh. At several checkposts, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had overpowered the Indian Army. The eastern neighbour’s forces were larger and better armed, and India’s under-resourced troops couldn’t keep them in check. More significantly, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai diplomacy had come a cropper.

A young photojournalist at the time, Prem Prakash was on his way to the North-East to cover the conflict. The Indian Army stopped the press contingent at Tezpur, Assam. No one would be allowed further, they were told. Prakash sent a telegram to the prime minister’s office (PMO), requesting intervention. Nehru allowed the press to be taken to the scene of action. En route, the army stopped them once again. Again, the PMO gave the press a go-ahead.

Eventually, the journalists reached Bomdila, now in Arunachal Pradesh. At the divisional headquarters, they met the corps commander, General Kaul. “He started showing us what kind of photographs the army would prefer,” writes Prakash. It was reminiscent of World War II propaganda by countries like Germany and the US, when many such pictures were staged and clicked miles from the action. “But the world of journalism had moved on. You did not do that any more.” The very idea, Prakash writes, was laughable.

Cut to 2020. Since May, India and China have been locked in a border standoff at multiple locations in eastern Ladakh. For the first time, Indian troops have been forced to be deployed in the harsh winter of Ladakh, in parts when temperatures fall below -20 degrees Celsius. Like Nehru, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomacy, too, seems to have failed. Unlike1962, however, the Union government hasn’t allowed journalists to report from the front-lines. Instead, information is released drip by drip, most often through anonymous “senior officials” and “highly placed sources”, with little chance of on-ground verification.

In these times of muffled reportage from conflict zones, ANI seems to have an upper hand. It was the first to report that Chinese forces reportedly killed 20 Indian troops in June, among the few agencies to accompany Modi on his visit to Ladakh in July, and has a large cache of photographs and videos of army trucks plying and helicopters landing in Ladakh, all of which are recycled by media outlets. Although it doesn’t have any boots on the ground, the agency regularly reports on the Chinese aggression and Indian valour at the border, reportage that is picked up by pro-establishment news channels to launch a high-octane dance-of-death the same evening.

An army vehicle moves towards LAC in eastern Ladakh in October, 2020. (PTI Photo)
An army vehicle moves towards LAC in eastern Ladakh in October, 2020. (PTI Photo) (PTI)

In 2018, AltNews, the fact-checking outlet, published a long list of the agency’s “inadvertent errors and oversights”, all of which seem to be aligned with the government's interests. In March 2019, an investigation by Caravan magazine claimed close ties between ANI and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Last week, EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based NGO, alleged that the agency was part of a large-scale disinformation campaign in Europe to allegedly further the interests of Modi and the Indian government. While ANI hasn’t directly addressed the allegations, its editor Smita Prakash, in a tweet on 11 December, accused “Pakistan and its proxies” of damaging ANI’s credibility “by hurling wild accusations of fake news”. Smita is Prem Prakash’s daughter-in-law, and is married to Sanjiv Prakash, managing director of the agency.

There do seem to have been “oversights”. In July, only days after it reported that there were no Chinese troops on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the agency released another report saying China was refusing to pull out its 40,000 troops in “front and depth areas”. There was “not even an apology” for putting out a contradictory report earlier, tweeted defence expert Ajai Shukla, a retired colonel from the Indian Army. The agency, he added, was “India’s largest, but worst-run, sarkari mouthpiece”.

But ANI, which registered as a news agency in the mid-1990s, didn’t always attract such criticism. In his heyday, Prem Prakash reported from several conflict zones, including the 1961 Goa liberation campaign, the 1962 Indo-China war, the 1965 Indo-Pak war and the 1971 war. His footage would be inspected by the government but as long as it didn’t give away the army’s positions or movements, he was allowed to air it. As Prakash writes, the agency extensively covered the state’s excesses during the Emergency, from the demolition of slums to the forced sterilisation of men and women, to the extent that chief censor Harry D’Penha, in charge of regulating press coverage, asked Prakash to go into exile or he would be arrested.

In a Zoom call on 6 December, Prakash rubbished allegations of bias. ANI was “still independent”, he said. Its reporters still “go out on the field, verify their sources and report”. “We receive hardly any subscription from the government. PTI [Press Trust of India, the largest news agency in the country] receives something like Rs9cr [some reports say it is 6cr]. We receive a pittance, it’s not even 1 crore, for what we provide.” For context, ANI provides a regular feed of news updates from India for foreign media, available free on Indian embassy websites.

Prakash didn’t wish to comment on the allegations related to the misinformation campaign in Europe. His agency has no "special" access to Ladakh, he said in response to a follow-up email. "From my experience I can tell you that on the front some times if army cannot handle many press people to be in the forward area, then a pool person used to be taken which meant that coverage would be available to all without any charge." But during our call, while referring to the role of a journalist in times of armed conflict, he said, “Whatever happens, your journalism doesn’t mean you go against the country.”

Early on in his career, Prakash writes, he had realised that “honest, straightforward journalism, used properly, can play a major role in serving national objectives”. But in recent years, ANI's journalism has often attracted charges of being partisan towards the BJP.

'Reporting India', an autobiography by Prem Prakash, chairperson of Asian News International (ANI), was published in November 2020
'Reporting India', an autobiography by Prem Prakash, chairperson of Asian News International (ANI), was published in November 2020

No matter how free the media, a reporter’s output is often constrained by the nature of the job. The angle of the story, the format of its telling, the length of a page or reel, the egos of subjects and confidentiality of sources are difficult to juggle, especially while battling deadline. Hindsight is a thinking journalist’s best friend. It’s why their autobiographies can make for a compelling read.

In ‘Lucknow Boy: A Memoir’, Vinod Mehta, former editor of Outlook, had several irreverent takedowns of those part of Delhi’s power circles. Kuldip Nayar, a veteran political journalist, was more staid in his tell-all ‘Beyond The Lines’, but wrote about the country’s policymakers with remarkable insight. So Prem Prakash’s autobiography, built on the back of his seven-decade experience in multimedia journalism, was much awaited.

Prakash is somewhat of a legend in broadcast journalism in India. He founded the world’s first global television news agency, Visnews, in 1953, decades before TV news became ubiquitous. In 1992, Reuters bought Visnews and turned it into Reuters TV. A few years later, Prakash formally registered the ANI. Today, it is the biggest television news agency in India, with 50 bureaus and over 300 reporters across the country, including in tier-2 and tier-3 cities.

Born in Rawalpindi, in today’s Pakistan, Prakash and his parents moved to Delhi during the recession of the 1930s. He entered journalism at the age of 21. He had no formal training but was a man on a mission. “I had seen India’s image projected abroad as a country of snake charmers and elephants,” he writes. “This image, as I was to find later, was deliberately chosen by the British to humiliate India... Thus, when preparing to launch my own agency—later to become ANI—my aim was to correct this distorted image of India.”

After some perfunctory details of his childhood and youth, Prakash opts to tell his story through those of prime ministers—Nehru to Modi—and the landmark events of post-independence India. He has little to say on the art, ethics or intricacies of photo and video journalism, which he practised. Early on, he had managed to build a network and secure access to the prime minister’s office and residence. Under Nehru’s “benign watch”, he worked hard and got noticed.

Prakash seems to have shared considerable bonhomie with the people he was to hold accountable as a journalist. He refers to a lot of politicians and bureaucrats in top offices as his “dear friends”. I.K. Gujral, he writes, liked to take his morning walks and tea with Prakash. On a tour to Bali, Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to sit next to him to watch the sangam of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. During the early part of the 1991 election campaign, Rajiv Gandhi, too, once specially asked Prakash to accompany him. The reason: “ANI’s crews had been travelling with him during the (1991 election) campaign and he had been very happy with them”

Vinod Mehta once told Mint that politicians and journalists should never be friends. But Prakash sees nothing wrong with it. “If you deal with a bureaucrat over a period, you develop a relationship,” he says. “It doesn’t force you to do things the way he tells you.” Rammohan Rao, the government’s principal information officer (PIO) in the 1980s, wrote in his memoirs that Prem Prakash was one of the journalists “who helped to project a positive image of the armed forces”. Smita Prakash, editor of ANI, is Rao’s daughter.

Prem Prakash, chairperson of ANI, is somewhat of a legend in broadcast journalism in India (Photo: Penguin Random House India)
Prem Prakash, chairperson of ANI, is somewhat of a legend in broadcast journalism in India (Photo: Penguin Random House India)

How did Prem Prakash manage to earn the goodwill of successive regimes? “I was never treated as anything more than a human being,” he says. “They have as many weaknesses as you and I. You give them the respect of the office but treat them as equals. Others would go, ‘Sir’ and this and that... I would treat them as normal people. I would call Indiraji as Indiraji, Atalji as Atalji, Chandrashekhar as Netaji. You should be yourself. Ji is a simple, gracious way of doing it.”

Until the moment of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, when Prakash was still active in the field, the book is bristling with energy, anecdotes and the occasional critique. Sanjay Gandhi, the enfant terrible of the then first family of India, is criticised for excesses during the Emergency. Morarji Desai, “who hated the media in general and my cameraman in particular”, also gets some flak.

But the chapters post-1990s, when he transitioned to a managerial role at ANI, seem half-hearted. The tenures of Manmohan Singh and Modi are combined in one chapter. At this point, the book starts reading more like a nation’s history than an autobiography.

There are some glaring omissions, especially the rise of Modi and militant Hindutva. Prakash is critical of demonetisation and the implementation of the goods and services tax, but there’s no mention of communal lynchings, “love jihad” or crackdown on dissenters. Prakash bemoans the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 as “a terrible situation” without pinning the blame on anyone, condenses the Gujarat riots of 2002 into one line, adding that “Modi maintained that he had taken all possible steps to curb violence”, and declares his support for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, approved last year. “I’m at a loss to understand why the government did not educate or inform people of its true import,” he writes. As it happens, the government did publish several “Myths vs Facts” advertisements in newspapers and social media at the time.

Questions on the omissions receive curt answers. “I have no opinion on that,” he says on the Babri Masjid demolition and the Gujarat violence. On the rise of communalism, he says, “It’s not at the level that Hindu Muslim riots have taken place in the past.” On the crackdown on dissenters, he draws a line: “I am not debating Modi.... I haven’t met him, I know nothing about him personally.” On press freedom in India, he says: “Freedom has not been compromised but journalists have compromised themselves. The government has done nothing as such. I don’t see it. Maybe you do.”

After the 2014 election, and ahead of the 2019 election campaign, Modi gave two press interviews to ANI’s editor Smita Prakash, the most he's given to any media organization. “I am holding fast to my desire to be as neutral as possible in the interview,” she wrote in a behind-the-scenes account of the first interview. “My questions are beyond the riots of 2002, beyond Hindutva and beyond hate speeches.” The second interview, aired on 1 January 2019, was criticised for her unwillingness to persist with hard questions, even on issues such as the alleged Rafale fighter jet scam.

An interview by Smita Prakash, editor of ANI, with PM Modi aired on 1 January 2020 was criticized for her unwillingness to persist with hard questions
An interview by Smita Prakash, editor of ANI, with PM Modi aired on 1 January 2020 was criticized for her unwillingness to persist with hard questions

Smita asked “tough questions”, counters Prem Prakash, even if she didn’t do follow-ups. “I have given them a style which is there in all foreign correspondents. Indian correspondents on TV have a habit of being rude. They are harsh. When you talk to your guests, particularly the PM, you are not going to be harsh. You are going to do it in a respectable manner. If the PM is not going to answer after you have put subsequent questions and so on, you leave it to him and let the viewers judge.”

Some did judge. “The entire nation is asking why the prime minister can speak for one-and-a-half hours in a staged interview but not answer the fundamental questions of Rafale,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said in Parliament the next day. BJP leaders returned fire, defending both the PM and Smita Prakash. Then finance minister Arun Jaitley tweeted: “The Grandson of the ‘Emergency dictator’ displays his real DNA—attacks and intimidates an independent Editor.”

Prakash’s book has an episode from the 1975 Emergency that may illustrate the comparison. While he was reporting in the field once, some people stopped Prakash’s car near a gurudwara in Delhi. There were rumours of a lathi-charge at a demonstration nearby and people wanted to know if it was true. Before Prakash could answer, a Sikh man interrupted and addressed the crowd: “Why are you asking them questions? Can’t you tell they are journalists? They are not allowed to speak.”

The sentiment still resonates.

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