In Modi’s India, Press Freedom Is Curbed and Journalists Are under Threat for Doing Their Jobs

By: Kalpana Jain

August 14, 2023

India and Islamophobia

At a joint press conference with U.S. President Joe Biden on June 22, the White House correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, Sabrina Siddiqui, asked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about allegations of discrimination against religious minorities in India and what steps were being taken to address those.

Modi, who rarely takes questions from reporters, said he was “surprised” over the alleged claims. He then responded by saying, “In India’s democratic values, there is absolutely no discrimination, neither on the basis of caste, creed, or age or any kind of geographic location.” Speaking in Hindi, he further said, “Democracy is in our DNA; democracy is our spirit; democracy runs in our veins. We live democracy.

Back in New Delhi, mainstream Indian television news channels ran headlines such as “PM Modi's Fiery Response In White House After Reporter Raises 'Concerns' On 'Muslims In India” and “PM Modi Shuts Down WSJ Reporter,” while showering praises on Modi’s state visit to the United States, with one calling him “Sun in this new dawn” and another proclaiming that Modi “has emerged as a statesman who has the ears of both Washington DC and Moscow.

Under Modi, media freedom in India has come under serious threat, with journalists trolled, harassed, and even arrested for doing their jobs. Siddiqui too became the target of attacks on social media with the head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s information department, Amit Malviya, describing her question as “motivated.” The vitriol unleashed against her questioned her Muslim identity and prompted a statement from the White House calling the harassment “completely unacceptable” and “antithetical” to the principles of democracy.

Indeed, India’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has been consistently falling since the Modi government came into power in 2014. According to the 2023 report of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, India slipped to 161 out of 180 countries from 150 just a year ago. More recently, under the pretext of identifying fake news, the Modi government has proposed a fact-checking unit to monitor social media, which many journalists fear will widen the scope of censorship.

Journalism’s history in India goes back to the eighteenth century when British-owned newspapers catered to the interests of the colonial masters. During the movement for independence, however, Indian newspapers came to play an important role with Gandhi and other leaders of the freedom movement launching three publications—Young India, Navjivan, and Harijan—to take their message to the masses.

Indian media continued to exercise an important role in later years as well, though its dependence on government advertisement as a significant source of revenue made it susceptible to pressures and controls. Furthermore, as Kalyani Chadha, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School, wrote in the Routledge Companion to News and Journalism 2nd edition, press rights in India were framed as a rather “tenuous concept.Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian constitution, which came into force in 1950, conceptualized press rights as part of the constitutional protections accorded to free speech. Unlike the First Amendment in the United States, the framers of the Indian constitution did not provide any special privileges to the press.

This legal framing allowed successive governments to place curbs on the media from time to time. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who claimed that he would “rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed and regulated press,” nonetheless brought in an ordinance to restrict the freedom of the press when “he felt it was inadequately supportive of his administration’s initiatives and policies,” according to Chadha. The bleakest period came in 1975 when Indira Gandhi, the third prime minister (Nehru’s daughter) imposed “The Emergency,” suspending most civil liberties including freedom of the press.

Several Indian journalists agree that media freedom was never absolute and corporate owners often exercised influence based on the political patronage they were seeking. Back in the 1920s, argues journalist Akshaya Mukul in his recent book Geeta Press and the Making of Hindu India (2016), Hindu and Jain businessmen came together to set up a publishing house called the Gita Press to speak to the Hindu nationalist cause and define Hindu culture. Notably, some of the business groups involved in its early years became proprietors of some of today’s leading English daily newspapers.

Despite the constraints, for the large part mainstream Indian media exercised its independence and opposed efforts to suppress it. For example, there was widespread opposition when the Emergency was imposed and many media organizations, such as the Indian Express and the Statesman, put out empty spaces on their editorial pages to show dissent. Investigative reporting, exposing corrupt practices, has led to the resignation of politicians and policy changes.

In current times, however, not only is much of the media willing to toe the government line but it has been weaponized against opposing voices. Terms like “urban Naxal,” “anti national,” “fake media,” and “Lutyens Delhi media” are freely used on news channels to categorize and discredit intellectuals, liberals, and anyone disagreeing with government actions. The term “urban Naxal” is being used by Modi himself.

Under Modi, journalists have come under threat simply for doing their jobs. Anecdotally, reporters recount the harassment of colleagues, particularly if they are from minority communities. A female journalist recounts harassment of her colleagues who were reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 2020–2021 farmers’ protest, several senior Indian journalists were charged with colonial-era sedition laws over their reporting. Since Modi’s 2014 election, the number of sedition cases filed has increased by almost 30%.

On a recent reporting trip to New Delhi, I interviewed several journalists who highlighted issues on press freedom and said the government has made it very hard for them to do their jobs. “Access to journalists and news media that is critical of the government is next to impossible,” says one reporter with a digital website.

The message going to the public is highly controlled. Modi has not held a single press conference since he took office, preferring to deliver messages through a monthly radio show or on social media. “Most citizens sitting in a town of India are getting one view and that is the government’s view,” says Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor of the Caravan, an independent publication that has drawn the ire of the government for its fearless reporting. “That filtering [of information] is happening in such an effective way that is far more worrying than a totalitarian state because it’s supposedly happening with the consent of the people.”

The control of information extends beyond the news media. School books are being revised and scholars are hesitant to contest. For example, the Modi government removed chapters on the Mughals, an Islamic empire that ruled India from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Chapters on resistance movements such as Chipko, a tree-hugging forest conservation movement that happened in the 1970s, too have been removed, among others. “Past is available for you to fictionalize,” adds Bal.

What further facilitates media control is that many corporate media owners have close ties with Modi. Several journalists quit when Gautam Adani, India’s wealthiest businessman, recently acquired a majority share in the TV news network NDTV. Another billionaire, Mukesh Ambani who owns Network 18, which co-owns CNN-IBN with Warner Bros., and other channels, was part of Modi’s entourage at the White House, illustrating Modi’s close relationships with media owners.

Mainstream media has also cut down on their reporting budgets, and there are huge gaps in reportage. Reporting on rural health care, poverty, and other issues from around the country that was routinely done is hardly to be seen now. As Sandeep Bhushan, author of the book The Indian Newsroom (2019), asks, “Who is reporting on adivasi [indigenous] children?,” who often face exploitation of their resources and live in extreme poverty.

Indeed, there are some digital and independent media outlets that are pushing back against the government, but they don’t have the same reach or influence as the big media groups. “Fleeing writers are often the canaries in a coal mine” says Seema Chishti, editor of a prominent news website The Wire. What is happening in the press is a reflection of what is happening in the country.

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