The India Today Group has directed its journalists to not share their personal political views on “any social media platform”, in order to maintain the company’s “reputation for impartiality”. Alarmingly, even as the company communicated the rule to its employees over an email on Wednesday, it wrote in the email “that this is not, by any means, a breach of your right to expression or freedom of the press”, and argued that free and fair journalism existed even before the advent of social media. MediaNama has seen a copy of the email.

This guideline is effective immediately, and will be in effect for the next two months. “ANY deviation or breach” from the direction can result in termination, the company warned in the email. The India Today Group owns and operates an eponymous English news channel and magazine, along with Hindi news channel Aaj Tak, among others. When MediaNama reached out to the company, it tried to downplay the entire incident, by claiming that the policy change was just a “short reminder of the best practices the Group follows” (more on that below). If the directive was indeed a reiteration of best practices, it is unclear why it is only applicable for two months, and doesn’t constitute an interim gag order for journalists.

While news organisations around the world such as the New York Times are known to restrict their employees from posting partisan endorsements or voicing support for political stances, the wide-ranging gag imposed by India Today is notable for how far it goes to discourage employees from posting anything “political”.

Post only India Today content on personal handles

The email, with the subject line ‘Interim Social Media Advisory’ also directed that at any person in contract with the India Today Group — including third party contractors — can “ONLY” (emphasis theirs) use their personal social media handles to post or promote content that belongs to the Group and has been used in print, digital or on air. “This means no replies, no retweets, unless it is our own content, even if you are tagged”, the company wrote in the email.

Kalli Purie, vice chairperson of the India Today Group, had in December 2019, sent an email to the company’s journalists asking them to “refrain from judgement and debating personal opinion” on their personal social media handles, according to a screenshot shared by AltNews co-founder Pratik Sinha, who was also the first person to tweet about India Today’s interim social media policy.

“This is horrid,” a former India Today employee remarked after seeing the new policy. “India Today’s policies bind their employees to say nothing about the company. I was asked to go for not returning to the head office during the lockdown. Yet the relieving letter says I can’t say anything about the company on social media, even after I left,” the employee told us, requesting anonymity. “As employees, we were not allowed to present our views on their anchors and instead, had to only support their views, if we wrote on social media,” they added.

India Today Group claims policy change a ‘short reminder’

The “Social Media advisory is a short reminder of the best practices the Group follows,” the company’s corporate communications desk told MediaNama after we reached out to them with our queries. It also said that its social media policy is publicly available on its website, and has been in “existence for more than a decade”. However, MediaNama couldn’t find the policy on India Today Group’s website, and we weren’t given a link when we asked for it from the company. Instead, the company attached a PDF of the policy in its emailed response (the file’s metadata showed that it was created in 2015, and not a decade ago).

The policy which the company shared with us says that editorial employees should avoid public expressions or demonstrations of their political views – e.g. through their profile pictures, hashtags, and twitter handles. However, the policy also allows its editorial employees to “engage with the other side”: “If you “like”, “comment”, “tweet”, “retweet” or join a group on one side of a debate, engage equally with the other side too,” the policy shared with us says.

When MediaNama asked them if the new interim policy will apply to any freelance journalists working with India Today, and an explanation on why it thinks this interim policy is not a violation of its employees’ right to free speech, the company declined to comment.

Text of India Today’s email to its employees

Here’s the text of the email the company sent on October 14:

INTERIM SOCIAL MEDIA ADVISORY

To maintain our Group’s reputation for impartiality, no journalist should share their personal political views on any social media platform.

If you are in contract with the India Today Group (Full time, Part time, Consultant, Retainer, or Third Party), your personal handles can ONLY be used to post content or promotion that belongs to the Group and has been used in print, digital or on air and retweet that which is put on the Group’s own handles. This means no replies, no retweets, unless it is our own content, even if you are tagged. You can reply with an ITG content story if you like.

This guidelines, EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY, will be considered the single-line Social Media Policy for the Group, for the next two months.

ANY deviation or breach will invite disciplinary action, including termination.

The thinking around social media self-regulation is an evolving framework globally. Our aim is to maintain high standards of journalism and focus on doing solid stories and curating strong content without getting tied down in needless controversy on social media.

This is not, by any means, a breach of your right to expression or freedom of the press. Free and fair journalism existed and thrived before the invention of social media and will continue to do so.

Please feel free to consult your Editor or HR for any clarifications.

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