The Chilling of the Fourth Estate After 10 Years of Modi

By Amrita Singh, an assistant editor at the Caravan :

 

“A democracy like India is able to move ahead and function only because there is a vibrant feedback mechanism,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an interview with Newsweek in April, days before voting in the Indian general election began. “Our media plays an important role in this regard.” He added that the “claims of diminishing media freedom” in India were “dubious.”

The interview read more like a press release from Modi, divided under subheadings. It did not feature a single mention of Manipur, where his government has failed to contain an ethnic civil war that has been raging since May 3, 2023, leading to more than 200 deaths. It allowed Modi to paint a rosy picture of the state of affairs in Kashmir, even as his government is widely known to have clamped down on civil liberties in the valley. He was not even challenged when he claimed that minorities, including Muslims, were “living happily and thriving” in India, despite regular documentation of violence against the community.

There were many similarities between this interaction and the rare interviews that Modi has given in his 10 years as prime minister, in which pliant journalists typically allow him to project himself as the leader of a flourishing democracy. Given a weak opposition and his preference for top-down communication, there is no platform, except for such interviews, where Modi could be questioned for his actions and Indians can witness the prime minister be put on a spot. But journalists who end up talking to him adopt an uncritical approach—they seldom question him on issues of national importance and, instead, often air sensational jingoistic content, cheerleading him and his policies. The impression a casual observer gets is that Modi’s truth is the truth and his actions are always in the best interest of the country.

Modi has demonstrated that this is the only form of journalism he would like in India—one that would clear his path to attain his and the Hindu right’s goals of retaining electoral power and establishing a Hindu rashtra, or nation. While those in the mainstream media, such as Times Now and Republic TV, often meet this requirement, his government cracks down on independent journalists who still question his actions. This is a worrying trend for a democracy: Propaganda is encouraged, and actual journalism is demonized.

IN 2007, THE senior journalist Karan Thapar began an interview with Modi for the news channel CNN IBN by asking him about the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, when he was the chief minister of the state. Thapar asked Modi why he had not expressed regret about the killings and brought up how the Indian Supreme Court had counted him among the “modern-day Neros” who had turned a blind eye to the mayhem. Within four minutes of the conversation, Modi ended the interview.

Thapar wrote in his memoir, Devil’s Advocate, about the fallout of the embarrassing exchange, which was broadcast on national television. He heard that Modi’s team made the candidate watch the clip 30 times in the lead-up to the 2014 elections to prepare him to face the media. After Modi came to power, Thapar wrote, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s leadership iced the journalist out.

Since becoming prime minister, Modi has preferred unilateral communication. He has not held a single press conference in India wherein the media has been allowed to question him. Whenever he wishes to address the public, he takes to social media, publishes video speeches, or talks on his radio show, Mann Ki Baat, which according to a survey conducted last year by the Indian Institute of Management Rohtak has 230 million regular listeners.

The landscape of mainstream media in India has always been ripe to cater to this need of the prime minister. Many mainstream television and print news organizations are funded by government s and corporations, which strive to not antagonize political powers for their larger business interests.

This trend has become more and more stark in television media. The richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani, owns the Network18 group, which runs News18 and CNBC news channels, among other media. Last year, the billionaire Gautam Adani, who is considered close to Modi, officially became the majority shareholder in NDTV, which was until then considered by a section of commentators as the only news channel that had not cowered to the agenda of the Hindu right. Modi’s government is accused of operating in favor of Ambani’s interests, especially in the telecom sector. It has also faced several accusations of promoting Adani’s interests and shielding him as he combats allegations of improper business dealings. Today, news channels are known to largely toe the government’s line.

While these trends have existed earlier too, the brazenness of television news’ support for the Indian prime minister is jarring. “You keep a terrifying pace,” the primetime anchor Arnab Goswami said in one such interview with Modi in June 2016. “The number of meetings you hold, people say your officers find it hard to keep up.”

Moreover, mainstream media has not seriously covered many scandals that have marked Modi’s tenure. Few publications critically report on India’s border standoff with China, where experts have said the former has lost territory, with most unquestioningly supporting the Modi government’s denial. After 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a violent faceoff with China in June 2020, Sweta Singh, an anchor with the news channel Aaj Tak, absolved the government: “The duty to patrol the borders is of the army and not the government.” When the U.S.-based short-seller Hindenburg Research accused the Adani Group of pulling the “largest con in corporate history” by engaging in “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud” last year, instead of investigating Adani’s relationship with the government, popular television anchors were defensive of the industrialist. “Could this be a conspiracy whose target is not Adani but Prime Minister Narendra Modi?” another anchor at Aaj Tak, Sudhir Chaudhary, asked.

The obfuscation of truth on primetime news is supplemented with action against critical journalists. Multiple journalists have been arrested—36 between 2014 and 2023—including under draconian anti-terrorism laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Independent media organizations, such as NewsClick, have faced raids. The government also raided the BBC’s India offices after its international bureau made a scathing documentary on Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat violence. The situation is especially dire for Kashmiri journalists, many of whom are often randomly summoned to police stations and questioned. Last year, the passports of multiple journalists from Kashmir were suspended. Foreign journalists working in India have also complained of facing a hostile environment. Recently, Avani Dias of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. said she had to leave India abruptly as the government told her that her reporting had “crossed a line.”

The Modi government, with its near-takeover of many bodies that are meant to keep it in check, has brought in laws that can be arbitrarily invoked to penalize anyone it wishes to. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules were introduced in 2021, giving the government sweeping powers to control digital media. That year, the Caravan, where I work, published a story on a report on government communication that had been based on meetings of a group of ministers and consultations with “prominent personalities.” It showed a list of recommendations that had been discussed in these meetings for the government to control negative coverage in digital media, where some outlets still practice independent journalism. In these consultations, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, then the union minister of minority affairs, voiced a wish to “neutralise the people who are writing against the Government without facts and set false narratives/spread fake news.” One of the “action points” that came out of the consultations was to constantly track “negative influencers [who] give false narratives and discredit the Government” so that a timely response could be given.

The government’s definitions of “fake narrative” and “fake news” appear to be the opposite of what the terms denote—the document showed that it wanted to rein in news websites such as Scroll.in and Alt News, which have demonstrated their journalistic credibility over the years, and instead promote OpIndia, a communal pro-government propaganda portal that masquerades as a journalistic platform. The government’s Press Information Bureau also set up a fact-checking unit in 2019; its stated aim was to control “fake news” about its policies, but in practice, the unit has often just denied reports critical of the government without furnishing any evidence.

Worryingly, the government’s warped idea of the journalist’s role seems to have trickled down to the public—independent journalists often face condemnation, with labels such as “anti-national,” simply for doing their jobs. Especially in Modi’s second tenure as prime minister, a streak of vigilantism has appeared against journalists. In at least a handful of cases, journalists covering communal issues have encountered angry mobs who have threatened or beaten them.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a senior journalist who has reported on Adani—also among the people who faced raids last year for contributing to or being associated with NewsClick, whose founder is currently jailed under the UAPA—told Foreign Policy that Modi and his supporters had “mastered the art of double speaking.” He referred to a few statements that Modi had given about welcoming criticism of his government. “And he’s just done just the opposite,” he said. Between 2014 and 2024, India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, dropped from 140 to 159. To see how the government could improve the country’s rank, it set up a committee in 2020, which concluded that India’s rank was “not in line with the ground situation” and was the product of “Western bias.” Thakurta added, “This attitude that he and his supporters have, in my opinion, is not good for India.”

Since I began my career as a journalist almost six years ago, the possibility of being targeted for doing my job appears to have increased. In two incidents, my colleagues at the Caravan were beaten up on the field—once by the police. After our aggressive coverage of the massive protests against the farm laws, in early 2021 our Twitter account was withheld for a few hours, and my editors, among other Indian journalists, faced cases of sedition. This February, the government invoked its new IT rules against an in-depth report by the Caravan on the Indian Army torturing and killing Kashmiris during interrogations and forced the publication to take down the piece. In April, the Indian Express reported that an internal inquiry of the Army had found “serious lapses in the conduct of 7-8 personnel, including officers, at various levels” during the same interrogations.

THERE IS NO reason to believe that attacks against the press will not increase should Modi succeed in winning yet another term. A hashtag that independent journalists often use online is #JournalismIsNotACrime. The industry is already infamous for being largely low-paying, with few jobs, and being tilted to accommodate and favor the upper castes and the elite. If this trend of targeting independent voices continues, the viability of journalism as a profession could deteriorate further.

It is telling that few have questioned Modi’s claim in Newsweek that media freedom has remained intact in the last decade. Many have let it go as his standard denialism. It seems that there is an increasing acceptance of the prime minister’s ways. Perhaps this is why, just weeks after characterizing India as a country without religious discrimination to Newsweek, Modi could brazenly label Muslims as “infiltrators” in a public speech at an election rally.

The Manipur war, the India-China border standoff, and the electoral bonds, among other issues, could make or break national elections in a healthy democracy with a press that did its job. But without a majority of journalists holding truth to power, there is a slim chance such issues would be anywhere on voters’ minds.

source : foreignpolicy



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