In just over five years, India’s place in the World Press Freedom Index has dropped. There are reports of Indian journalists being beaten, arrested, and forced to resign for reporting unfavorable news about the government. How would you characterize changes in media practices and coverage since Prime Minister Modi came into office in 2015?
The relationship between the news media and the government in India has often been characterized by tension. For instance, during the Emergency in 1975 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government actively censored the news and imprisoned journalists. That phase ended when she lost the election in 1977. Under Prime Minister Modi the media has once again come under sustained attack. In Kashmir in particular, the government has been very aggressive in trying to control the press, shutting down the internet for months, detaining journalists and charging them for simply doing their job. In the rest of the country, the main emphasis of the government has been to undermine and de-legitimize the press, especially the English-language news media who arguably play an agenda-setting role in the country. Firstly, Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have tried to bypass the media through Modi’s social media presence especially on Twitter and party media platforms, like Yuvai TV. Through these channels, Modi and many members of his party seek to speak directly to the public. In fact, Modi has rarely spoken to the press, except during the run up to the 2019 election. Secondly, Modi’s supporters frequently attack the media, especially outlets that they consider “liberal,” or “left-wing,” referring to them as “presstitutes” or “sickular.” Meanwhile, attacks have also resulted in greater self-censorship by news outlets who fear government retaliation. Moreover, many media owners have other non-media business interests and as a result are reluctant to annoy the government. Collectively, thus media outlets tend to very cautious about their coverage of the Modi administration. In fact, during Modi’s tenure, Indian media have either muted their criticism or, demonstrating a kind of “Foxification,” have tended to skew right in terms of coverage. This trend is clearly manifest in the rise of outlets like Times Now and Republic TV are overtly nationalist in coverage. So overall, the Modi administration and its attitude toward the news media has resulted in significant shifts in the relationship between the press and the government.
In May, Media One’s uplink went dead and the government blocked the channel for 48 hours allegedly because it covered February’s biggest news story, the anti-CAA and NRC protests, in a way that seemed critical towards Delhi’s police. How far reaching is Modi’s control of the media? What is the relationship between the Modi government and certain media outlets?
Media owners have to decide whether and to what extent they want to tick off or challenge the government. The Indian media market is a market at the end of the day, where a structural reliance on revenue and profit play a role in determining how outlets behave. For instance, many media outlets are heavily reliant on government advertisements for revenue. The government spent approximately $800 million dollars on advertisements in the media between 2014-2019, making it the largest buyer of media advertisement. In a crowded landscape, where survival for media outlets is challenging, government advertisement money is crucial. The government has thus been able to indirectly control the media by purchasing, or not purchasing, advertisements in outlets. At one point, The Times of India and The Hindu were denied government advertisement money because both outlets published coverage critical of the government. In addition to self-censorship, we also have to look at who owns media outlets in India and how this potentially affects reporting. Reliance, the multi-billion-dollar company, owns TV-18, an outlet is believed to be pro-government since Mukesh Ambani, the head of Reliance, has close ties with Modi and his government Following Reliance’s purchase of TV-18, there was a major exodus of journalists from the channel. Moreover, there are also many media companies that are invested in non-media enterprises, and several industrial houses that are invested in media—all of which have to deal with the government in other contexts. This arguably affects the kind of journalism in which their outlets can engage.
The Modi administration may have urged business leaders to reduce support of independent media operations that criticize the Prime Minister. Is this the case? Do you think there is a way for Indian journalists to balance the interests of their investors and the facts of a news story?
The occupational ideology of journalists is one rooted in autonomy and independence. But this is increasingly challenging in the Indian context. There are a large number of editors in recent times who have been forced to resign by media owners. Journalists can also quit their jobs and leave, but that is not an option that is easily available to many people. Journalists do not have an easy way out there. Power lies with the owners and sometimes with editors, but rarely with individual journalists. Owners are also nervous because the government can set up its institutions against them. For instance, there have been cases launched by the state against NDTV for tax evasion and money laundering. The threat of such action gives media owners, editors, and journalists very few options to live out their occupational ideology.
Modi did not hold a single press conference during his first term on his own. When he has held press conferences, it has been with Home Minister Amit Shah, who answers most questions. Why do you think Prime Minister Modi avoids press conferences?
Prime Minister Modi and sections of the national media have had a rocky relationship going all the way back to the 2002 Godra riots. Modi was Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat at that time and his administration was accused of abetting violence against members of the minority Muslim community. Modi believed at that time that media coverage of his government’s response to the riots was negative and unfair. In 2012, he was acquitted for the 2002 crimes by the Supreme Court. Being acquitted reaffirmed Modi’s belief that he was treated unfairly by the media and further reinforced his opposition to the mainstream media. This opposition has motivated him to bypass the media as much as possible. For example, during his first national election in 2014, he sought to form direct relationships with citizens using social media. Modi also prefers directly speaking to the people, rather than through press conferences, because it gives him a lot more control over his message and to convey the narrative that he wants. In addition, Modi and his administration have significantly limited media access. During his first term, Modi did not hold a single press conference, he did not appoint a media advisor, nor did he allow journalists to accompany him on his foreign visits. Modi’s avoidance of press conferences and the limited access that the media that the media has had to him and members of his administration, have affected the news media’s ability to hold the government accountable, and in turn, prevented the press from being the watchdog it is supposed to be.
In June of this year, Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput committed suicide. The media has been in a frenzy ever since, painting his death as a government and Bollywood conspiracy. Has the media taken justice into their own hands and conducted a “media trial?”
The media coverage of Rajput’s murder was wholly unjustified, but not unprecedented. A similar pattern occurred ten years ago during the Aarushi Talwar case, when a young girl and her servant were murdered and her parents were the prime suspects. Her parents were tried and condemned on television. Such “infotainment” and “spectacularization” of events is common in India. Indian media love the three Cs: crime, cricket and cinema. The Rajput case involved two of these, crime and cinema. So, it is not surprising that they focused on the story because it is the kind of story that attracts viewers. The relentless media coverage that took place in this case highlights the economics of news in India where market forces determine what gets covered.
Major news outlets have been covering this suicide, while avoiding talking about Modi’s COVID-19 mismanagement. Why have media outlets prioritized this story over COVID-19 news? Was the government discouraging stories about the pandemic?
It is hard to say whether the government actually told news outlets to not report on the mismanaged response to the pandemic but even though there was no “formal” censorship apparatus, the government undoubtedly sought to manage how COVID-19 was covered. The Modi administration petitioned the Supreme Court to restrain news coverage and direct the media to base its coverage on government information. It made the case that the media was engaged in misreporting and that this could produce “panic” in the country. The Supreme Court did not go as far as the government wanted in terms of prior restraint, but it did say that news outlets have to be responsible and have to refer to official COVID-19 accounts. The Supreme Court’s response was a rather qualified defense of free speech. This also emboldened regional authorities, in both BJP and non-BJP-ruled states where a lot of basic reporting was criminalized. The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and the Disaster Management Act, 2005 came into play to restrain reporters from doing their job. Both of these acts provided journalists with prison time and fines for activity deemed illegal. A think tank in New Delhi, the Rights and Risks Analysis Group, reported that 55 journalists across 20 states were imprisoned for covering issues such as the lack of PPE at hospitals and the lack of assistance to migrant workers. There was essentially a lot of pushback from state and national governments, making it clear that the government wanted to control the narrative surrounding COVID-19, if not explicitly censor it.
The controversial news anchor Arnab Goswami was arrested for abetting a suicide for a 2018 case. Some saw this treatment of Goswami as an attack on India’s freedom of the press. Is this the correct way to frame the arrest? How is freedom of the press best protected in India?
Arnab Goswami is a complicated case. The kind of journalism that he practices makes one doubt if he is a journalist at all since he is actively engaged in the advocacy of nationalist ideas. At the same time, it is also likely that his arrest was motivated by political reasons.
Protecting freedom of the press in India is a challenge. I think India requires a stronger constitutionally protected guarantee of press freedom, on the lines of the US First Amendment, since the current provisions for freedom of expression provided by Article 19 of the Indian constitution offer inadequate protections. There also needs to be an independent watch-dog agency that can hold the government accountable, particularly its arbitrary actions such as the deployment of the Indian Penal Code against the news media and finally, in order to have a free press, there has to more funding for independent journalism.
Press Information Bureau, Government of India, GODL-India <https://data.gov.in/sites/default/files/Gazette_Notification_OGDL.pdf>, via Wikimedia Commons