What the Silence Over Journalist Suman Chattopadhyay’s Arrest Tells Us About Bengal’s Media

Politics

What the Silence Over Journalist Suman Chattopadhyay’s Arrest Tells Us About Bengal’s Media

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The arrest of a veteran journalist by the Central Bureau of Investigation in Kolkata a couple of weeks ago, in connection with the iCore chit-fund scam, has gone mostly unreported by news organisations in Bengal, laying bare a deep-rooted – and often difficult to expose – nexus between the political world and the media.

Suman Chattopadhyay, the editor of Times group-owned Bengali daily Ei Samay has been an accomplished journalist since the ’80s, and has been credited with transforming the tradition-heavy Bengali journalism with his fresh ideas. This had made him a known face in Bengali journalism circles, and a media darling in the state.

But to everyone’s surprise, Chattopadhyay’s arrest was given a wide berth by several regional media organisations – none of the top Bengali dailies, the Ananda Bazar Patrika, Pratidin, Aajkal, and Ei Samay, carried news of the arrest. Ei Samay slyly dropped Chattopadhyay’s name from the print line in the next day’s edition and named the sports editor as the paper’s new editor.

The silence of the media becomes especially telling when we consider the coverage given to another chit fund case four years ago, the Saradha scam. In 2014, the arrests of former Trinamool Congress MP Kunal Ghosh, who had served as the editor of Bengali daily Sangbad Pratidin, and the daily’s editor-in-chief Srinjoy Bose, had gone on to have major political ramifications and had sent national news anchors into rage comas.

So what explains the silence around Chattopadhyay’s arrest?

The silence of the media becomes especially telling when we consider the coverage given to another chit fund case four years ago, the Saradha scam.

One possibility is that there’s an undercurrent of fear in these media circles, with several media professionals probably wondering: Who’s next? Journalists are scared to openly admit that this self-censorship might be a deliberate move, perhaps because any attempt to report the matter would earn the wrath of the powers-that-be at the Centre.

Even as the BJP-led Centre claimed that the arrests have been aimed at ensuring justice for those cheated by the Saradha, Rose Valley, and iCore chit fund scams, the state government sees it as a ploy to tarnish the TMC’s image. Meanwhile, a crackdown against journalists known to be hobnobbing with non-BJP political leaders is spreading paranoia among several media houses, who see this arrest as a warning by the Centre. Enough drama to fill up an Ekta Kapoor serial here.

Chattopadhyay’s arrest could now open a can of worms as the CBI gathers details against other big names in the state media. Ever since the Saradha chit fund scam was unearthed in 2013, Bengal has seen a mushrooming of newspapers and channels that thrive under the patronage of the state government. Three newspapers of the Saradha Group, one of eastern India’s biggest deposit-taking companies – The Bengal Post, Sakalbela, and The Seven Sisters Post – were closed in April 2013 soon after the company’s collapse.

Still, even Chattopadhyay’s rivals probably weren’t expecting the prolific journalist to be arrested. Many believe his proximity to the ruling TMC had helped keep him safe and evade arrest for three years, after first being quizzed by the CBI in 2014.

he ruling party at the Centre will also not be willing to offer any leeway to journalists whom they consider close to the Congress and the Trinamool Congress.

Meanwhile, members of the saffron party are probably waiting with bated breath for Chattopadhyay – a known BJP critic – to be implicated in the scam. The journalist’s proximity to Congress leaders has also helped him get on the wrong side of the BJP, another reason that might explain the lack of support from his peers.

The arrest comes just months before a thrilling 2019 general election. As TMC chief Mamata Banerjee attempts to project herself as the prima donna in national alliance politics, the BJP looks all set to demolish her credibility by raking up the chit fund scam. The Saradha scam will end up being one of the biggest arrows in the BJP’s quiver in Bengal, where 42 Lok Sabha seats are at stake.

The ruling party at the Centre will also not be willing to offer any leeway to journalists whom they consider close to the Congress and the Trinamool Congress. Apart from the TMC’s aggressive posturing, the BJP also finds it difficult to fight “anti-BJP propaganda” that they see from a section of media. So cracking down on these media houses seems to be a way to assert power and influence their coverage.

The buoyed BJP has stepped up its activities in Bengal, organising rallies and agitations across the state to protest against what they see as the TMC’s high-handedness. The party announced a series of “Rath Yatras” last October, a decision met with ridicule from CM Mamata Banerjee, who termed it “Ravana Yatra”. But the BJP has continued its juggernaut, rolling by in air-conditioned raths.

In just a few months the two political giants face the test of General Elections. The BJP will be looking to reclaim from the Northeast and Bengal what it lost in the Assembly elections, and Mamata Banerjee will look to unite the Opposition. In all this hysteria, the silence of the media speaks louder than words.

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