IS PRESS FREEDOM UNDER ATTACK IN INDIA?

Even before a new website launched in India recently, a joint collaboration between a foreign media company and an Indian one, the bosses feared the free-spirited young liberal journalists they had hired. Amongst the red lines: no stories on Amit Shah, president of India’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). 

There’s an elephant in India’s newsrooms, the Modi government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always believed the media has been biased against him. Long before Donald Trump, he had seen the value of actively projecting the liberal media as his enemy. His party mostly boycotts NDTV, the only liberal channel, which the government has tried to financially cripple with tax cases that go on forever. 

It varies from newsroom to newsroom, but everyone knows this is a government you mess with at your own cost. Self-censorship is an obvious result, but the greater problem is media owners. Most journalists are sane people who choose stable jobs over revolution, so they go along with whatever line the owners and editors want peddled.

Friendly phone calls, messages sent through friends of friends, help nudge editors and reporters go soft on the government. It’s bad for business if the government is angry with you, the media owner reasons. Often he or she has other business interests to protect, be it sugar mills or automobile tyres. It’s bad for access if you piss off the government, the editor reckons. It’s another matter in this government access doesn’t get you any scoops to remember.

Then there’s the problem of events. Since most media is no profit-making, every single media company in India is organising events of all sorts. The large conglomerates are ready to organise whatever event you like, give you their branding and some media coverage for a cost. Large conclaves bring in big ad money. To impress the advertiser, it is important that senior ministers attend and speak at the event. For some, having prime minister Narendra Modi over is non-negotiable. Large newspapers turn government mouthpieces for months on end only because they want the prime minister to attend their summit. 

Most Hindi and English news channels peddle a line that suits the government. The largest English news channels have taken to openly doing fake news and anti-Muslim propaganda, which was a line they had earlier not crossed. On the rare occasion that they take a line against the ruling party, say a particular chief minister, people wonder if this is the government signalling something. It’s much better to watch the state broadcaster. 

One such Fox News clone, Republic TV, got its broadcasting license in a jiffy. But the government has been sitting on requests for broadcasting licenses by others. Top news anchors have lost their jobs and are unemployable because the establishment doesn’t like them. One newspaper editor and one magazine editor have lost their jobs because their owners couldn’t take government pressure.

New websites mushroom every other month peddling fake news that’s always helping shape the narrative the government wants, describing all criticism of the government as lies. Trump-style, the government tried to call mainstream newspapers out on fake news. It tried to define any news the government merely denied as fake news. After a lot of outrage, the government withdrew a circular wanting to punish journalists with loss of accreditation for fake news.

It is on the internet that small, new websites are able to write freely that they think of the government and its policies. The government wants to regulate the online medium, of course. If the papers and the news channels have submitted themselves to the government’s propaganda aims, why should 2-3 news sites not? Is this how the nation shall be united?

These things rarely get reported, and somehow critical news flourished between the cracks. Censorship, even self-censorship is not the greatest problem of the Indian media. Its biggest issue is that it genuinely desires to be on the right side of power. The Indian media is by nature pro-establishment. 

If instead of Modi and BJP, we had any other leader and any other party this powerful, the result of media freedom would have been the same. The Indian media takes seriously its role as a mirror of public opinion but is derelict about its duty to shed light on the government’s wrongdoings. That’s why this censorship doesn’t feel like one. Indians believe there is no threat to freedom and democracy as long as we have elections, never mind that India’s ranking in press freedom indices keeps falling.

 

If you work for an Indian news media organization or have had to deal with them, and have been a victim of censorship, please write to us whistleblowforus@safenewsrooms.org

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