The role of the media in a democracy, from the point of a liberal media practitioner or theorist, is that of a watchdog. The act of inspecting the state’s activities and policies are as significant in a democracy as free speech. As free speech or expression can only be expected when citizens are informed, information does not refer just to government plans and policies. Instances of corruption and wrongdoings are also expected to be highlighted so that people can express themselves in elections through their votes or even prior to that. Investigative journalism is an important aspect of this process.

It is appropriate, in this context, to recall the Watergate scandal exposed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. It remains a landmark in investigative journalism, so much so that every scam disclosed in the Indian media, suffixes the word “gate”. Coalgate and Vadragate are recent examples. Unfortunately, they are merely about the inclusion of a word, no more than that.

The Watergate scandal had a huge impact on political discourse in the US; neither Coalgate nor Vadragate have had that big an impact. In this sense, it is difficult to consider those who unravelled the scandals in India on par with Woodward and Bernstein. There are huge differences in journalistic attitudes.

In Watergate it was pro-active. It could have ended with a brief report about the arrest of five men on charges that they broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. carrying wiretapping equipment on June 17, 1972. But the two young journalists smelt something wrong and went after the full facts. They investigated the case by themselves to reveal that the five were not mere burglars but plants by the Republicans to bug the Democrats at their headquarters. Though the incident had no real impact on the 1972 election, even after the denials by the re-elected president, Richard M Nixon, they continued their work and published several reports establishing the nexus between the five men and the President’s top staff. Investigative journalism forced Nixon to resign.

In contrast, in Coalgate it was the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s report that disclosed the loss to the exchequer from allocations without auction. In the case of Vadragate, the story was first broken by The Economic Times more than a year ago, but wasn’t taken forward by the rest of the media. It was when the activists-cum-politicians of India Against Corruption held a press conference to disclose the dealings between DLF and Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, that the issue was resurrected. The media and journalists remained re-active rather than pro-active. Neither scandal was exposed by journalists; more importantly, they did not take the story forward. They were happy to publish reports on the basis of information provided by others.

Rumours about the death of investigative journalism in India have been strengthened by the direction taken by Coalgate and Vadragate.

Dr Manoj Ranjan from Panjab University, Chandigarh, in his book Media in Modern India describes investigation journalism as “a branch of journalism that usually concentrates on a very specific topic and typically requires a lot of work to yield results. It is an in-depth article or series of articles based on research and investigation, usually over a long period of time”.

The definition highlights one of the points about investigative journalism, the need for time for research and investigation. In a competitive media environment, it can be argued that journalists do not have enough time to investigate one particular issue. After reporting an event they are expected to jump to the next one. Time constraint may indeed be an issue. However, in the case of Vadragate, this is irrelevant. As veteran journalist R. Jagannathan has pointed out, “at least two publications did have information on the DLF-Vadra capers well before Kejriwal came on the scene, but neither of them chose to pursue it. In one case, a story was even written in draft form, but it never made it to print.”

In the article, he tries to highlight two major aspects of investigative journalism. First, the tendency in India, even though there is time for investigation, to ignore the signs. Second, he points to the journalist’s helplessness; even if someone reports such activities, there is every possibility that it will be killed due to various pressures. No doubt these are major hurdles in the way of investigative journalism. But if we go deeper into the history of investigative journalism in the country, we can find more causes.

For this we need to look into the history of investigative journalism and its present status in India.
Investigative journalism starts with the history of press in India. East India Company officers, in constant fear of disclosure of their illegal accumulation of wealth through private trade, discouraged the establishment of newspapers. But six years after the appointment of Warren Hasting as Governor General in 1774, the country’s first newspaper was published from Calcutta, a weekly named Bengal Gazette. The publisher was James Augustus Hicky who had the support of Philip Francis who wanted to become Governor General. This newspaper reported matters concerning Europeans but it was the product of the conflict between two factions in the Governor General’s Council; so it disclosed the activities of the authorities working under the then Governor General. Though the Bengal Gazette was in no way in the league of modern investigative newspapers Hickey’s efforts represented the nascent stage of investigative journalism.

The very first regulation of the press in India was the Wellesley Regulation 1799, introduced by the then governor-general, which had the effect of imposing pre-censorship on an infant newspaper industry. It was abolished by governor-general the Marquess of Hastings in 1818. But when John Adam became acting governor-general he enacted a new regulation known as the Licensing Regulation Act 1823. According to the new law, every publisher needed to get a licence from the government before starting a newspaper. It also allowed the government to cancel the licence. It was important for the colonial rulers to bring such laws because, by now, Indians had entered journalism.

The concentration of major media houses in fewer hands leads to an absence of diversity in the treatment of issues and content itself. It also endangers the survival of small media houses. It is possible, due to the absence of restrictions on cross-media ownership, for groups to dominate the market both vertically (print, radio, television and the internet) and horizontally (production and distribution).

As 19th century wore on, there was an increase in the number of newspapers owned by Indians, particularly in the vernacular. It was more effective in disseminating nationalist messages and gathering support for freedom. To tackle this, the colonial government came out with the Vernacular Press Act in 1878.

These draconian laws and also the fact that the press, by and large, was either overtly pro-British or anti-British and in that sense served as a vehicle for campaigns ensured that there was no scope for investigative journalism. The press in India, during the freedom struggle, was more focused on changing the political system rather than just changing the process of those systems. It supported self-rule and governance. The ideological battle overshadowed the investigative role of the press.

The growth of Indian-owned newspapers in the 19th century was also due to rising awareness among the educated class. When the hypocrisy and insincerity of colonial administration together with the denial of opportunities to the educated young people in princely states on accounts of their caste status was exposed, hundreds of newspapers came up demanding freedom of expression and criticising repression by the princes and the British administrators. English newspapers like The Hindu (Madras 1878) and Amrita Bazar Patrika (Calcutta 1868) became major voices in the demand for administrative reforms in recruitments, social justice and privileges for the lower castes. Similarly, the vernacular press, like Kesari in Marathi started by Bal Gangadhar Tilak was also used for the same purpose.

Along with awareness of caste discrimination grew the sense of nationalism among the elites. In the 1880s the first ever resolution by the first ever Congress session demanded the appointment of a committee to inquire into the functioning of an administration was proposed by the editor of The Hindu, G Subramanya Iyer. Some Congress presidents were either editors or had started publications. Ferozeshah Mehta started the Bombay Chronicle and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya edited the daily Hindustan. Therefore, journalism during the freedom struggle was responsive. Investigative journalism had to wait to get into stride.

The nationalist feelings that emerged during the freedom movement were carried over after independence and had a key role in retarding investigative journalism. The so-called nation-building project swallowed up the energies of the media, which became a tool of government propaganda. All India Radio was already disseminating information on development projects and ended up becoming a propaganda tool for the Congress. The print media was in the hands of private players but the government made sure that it could be gagged by keeping some colonial laws intact.

Though Article 19 (1)(a) stated freedom of expression was a fundamental right the press in independent India was/is still monitored through colonial laws. It is important to note that Article 19(1) (a) does not clearly refer to freedom of the press, unlike America. The First Amendment to the American Constitution a.k.a Bill of Rights clearly states: “The amendment prohibits the making of any law infringing on the freedom of the press”. The irony of Indian democracy is that the law makers do not consider it important to ensure protection for the freedoms of the fourth pillar. For the media, therefore, the freedom of India merely was a transfer of power. No major changes were introduced to ensure its independence. Perhaps that is why not many instances can be found where journalists disclosed the wrongdoings of the authorities.

Free India was almost immediately confronted with scams and corruptions, one of which was the Jeep Scandal in 1948. V K Krishna Menon, then High Commissioner for India in London, was suspected of illegal dealings in connection with the purchase of jeeps for the army needed during the Kashmir operation. An inquiry committee headed by Ananthsayanam Ayyangar suggested a judicial inquiry but the Nehru-led Congress government announced on September 30, 1955 that the subject was closed. On February 3, 1956 Krishna Menon was inducted into the Nehru cabinet as minister without portfolio. The press did not breathe at any time in this affair.

Therefore, the very first scam provides proof of a conspiracy of silence. Even after the opposition’s demands and the inquiry committee’s suggestion for a further probe was ignored by the government, the press remained silent. Many scams were exposed by different parties but the media remained silent. The pattern was broken only two decades after independence. The Maruti scam, brought to light in 1974, was the first directly related to the Nehru family. Sanjay Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi, was favoured with a licence in 1968 to make passenger cars. The press took the issue to levels no other scams had been taken before.

For the first time, there was direct criticism of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the government. This was a time when opposition parties were more vocal than before after the Congress split of 1969. Till 1974, the Indira-led Congress faced opposition from many sides including from within by the group led by Morarji Desai.

This is probably the reason for the press’ boldness, which was missing in 1948. Now journalists critical of the government were supported by the opposition political parties and the press too played the role of accomplices of the political opposition.

Newspapers, for the first time after independence, were openly talking against the government which led Indira Gandhi to inflict huge damage during the emergency. On June 25, 1975 the declaration of an emergency by Indira Gandhi also very nearly tolled the bell for journalism in India. The first step was to cut off electricity to all newspaper offices on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi. Soon many journalists against the emergency were arrested. As the major reason for emergency was to gag the opposition it was important also to gag the press. Both Mrs. Gandhi and her son Sanjay believed the newspapers were to blame for lionising their opponents and creating “an atmosphere of distrust” against the government.

On 22 March 1977, the Emergency was withdrawn after Indira Gandhi lost the election and Morarji Desai became prime minister. Though he remained in power for only a couple of years and Indira Gandhi returned in 1980, the press now was far more aggressive.

The strategy of the Emergency was an abject failure. It was unable to gag opposition leaders or the press.

Indeed the Emergency spurred many journalists to fight for the freedom of press and welfare of the people, among them Arun Shourie. He is acknowledged as the pioneer of modern Investigative journalism in India for his stories and exposes. Shourie and The Indian Express uncovered corruption in the highest echelons and exposed several major scandals of the era, including “India’s Watergate”, the cement scam in Maharashtra which forced chief minister Abdul Rahman Antulay to resign after being convicted by the Bombay High Court.

The name of Ashwini Sarin is not well known but he too has a key role in the story of investigative journalism. The Indian Express reporter exposed human trafficking by breaking the law himself when he bought a tribal girl named “Kamala” in 1981 to show how easy it was to buy humans in India. His report on trafficking after he bought the girl was a new angle on investigative journalism, controversial as it may have been. His work attracted a lot of interest and created a whole discourse around trafficking. His work also inspired the movie and play named Kamala.

Shourie and Sarin are among the individuals who showed how investigative journalism can further the cause of democracy. Soon more scams and scandals were disclosed and the story of the Bofors cannon became legend. It remains a landmark in Indian investigative journalism because it brought out the pro-active role of the journalists involved in the story.

Chitra Subramaniam of The Hindu got many of the major breaks in the scandal, which involved big bribes paid to Indian politicians, from her colleague who got the news on Swedish radio. Altogether, Bofors became the best example of investigative journalism where the journalist was pro-active and shook the political establishment thoroughly.

If we look at the Bofors scandal and the role of press from a different perspective, we also get a sense of the journalist’s helplessness. In an interview with Newslaundry, Chitra Subramaniam said The Hindu stopped publishing stories related to Bofors due to internal management problems, because of which she had to resign. When asked about censorship and delays in publishing by the editor, she replied, “Sitting on the story and pressure from Rajiv Gandhi’s government, I respect all that.

“I respect the pressure of an editor. There is a space which the editor should exercise in a transparent way. When you do a story like this, of course you are going to get pressure. That to me is not relevant.

Yes, the paper did have courage to go as far as they did but I think the reporter’s space is also important”. These lines indicate how sometimes journalists fail to investigate the wrongdoings of any authority due to internal pressure from within the media house.

This is what R Jagannathan too highlights in his article referred to earlier; “In one case, a story was even written in draft form, but it never made it to print”.

In contrast, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were able to pursue their investigation because they did not have to face any internal pressures, either from the editor or from the owner of the Post.

Internal pressure, which has its roots in ownership patterns, has become one of the main reasons for the decline of investigative journalism. The sudden spurt in television news channels has created a new ownership pattern. Media scholar Paranjoy Guha Thakurta in “Media ownership trends in India”, published in The Hoot website, deals with some aspects of media ownership patterns to make this point.

Firstly, he talks about the oligopolistic character of the media industry. The concentration of major media houses in fewer hands leads to an absence of diversity in the treatment of issues and content itself. It also endangers the survival of small media houses.

Secondly, it is possible, due to the absence of restrictions on cross-media ownership, for companies, or groups or conglomerates to dominate the market both vertically (print, radio, television and the internet) and horizontally (production and distribution).

Thirdly, political parties and persons, realising the power of media in disseminating propaganda, are interested in owning and controlling increasing sections of the media. In response to such interest some profit-centric media companies sell their shares to these people.

Fourth, promoters and controllers of media groups have other business interests and use their ownership to promote these businesses. Fifth, the industrial conglomerates are acquiring direct or indirect interest in media houses for the promotion of their products.

So the media in 21st century India is in thrall to the market economy and editors have to filter content through many layers before printing or broadcasting it. Thus, the media often remains silent and blind. 

Not always, however, as the investigation of the 2G scam shows. Then there is the story of the Radia Tapes. In November 2010, Open magazine carried the transcripts of telephone conversations between Nira Radia, a political lobbyist, and politicians, officers of corporate houses and senior journalists. Outlook magazine followed with a similar story just days later.

The sting operations that are today considered a part of investigative reporting was used to great effect by Tehelka magazine from the late 1990s onwards. Its sting operations have exposed people from different sectors like sports and politics. In 2001 it exposed match fixing in Indian cricket and in the same year it launched Operation West End, to expose the corruption underlying defence contracts.

Tehelka’s victims include former BJP president Bangaru Laxman (caught on tape) taking a bribe of ₹1 lakh to fix a fictitious defence deal to supply equipment to the army.

Therefore, the depressing scenario of a media more concerned with profits and pleasing its masters, is lifted by the examples of Open and Tehelka and of journalists like Shourie, Chitra Subramaniam and Sarin.

On a different note, the advent of communication technologies and Internet has brought investigative reporting into the hands of common citizens. Many media researchers believe that this is shading out the difference between the producer and consumer and is, moreover, highly accessible. A report can be published/broadcast through blogs, sites or mobile radio if mainstream media refuses to do so.

One example is CG Net Swara in Chhattisgarh founded in 2010 by Shubhranshu Choudhary. CG Net Swara has helped poor villagers fight oppression by the local authorities who even denied them work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. On one occasion, the circle officer paid no heed to the grievances of people seeking work and even shouted at them for coming so often. He also refused to pay them for work done a year before. In response, one villager recorded the officer’s rebuke which was published on India’s first mobile community radio. This attracted the attention of mainstream media and invited government action against the officer.

Investigative journalism today is not merely the job of professional journalists; at least if it is for the exposure of ground level corruption. People using social networking sites can also speak or write about corruption which they have experienced themselves. But it is always necessary for democracy that the mainstream media focuses on corruption exposed by individuals or alternate media like CG Net Swara.

The media in a democracy has several roles, one being a bridge between government and the people. To function properly the fourth pillar of democracy needs to be independent. This is the central problem facing every media house as what we can see is the influence of various stakeholders in filtering the information that needs to be disseminated. This is the reason why real journalism is at serious risk in the country.