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Conservative US thinktank expert: Space to criticize govt till 2019 polls may further shrink under Modi watch

By Our Representative
In a strongly-worded opinion piece, a top American conservative thinktank expert, Sadanand Dhume, has warned that, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the “space to criticize the government or the ruling BJP without fear of retaliation… may shrink even more.”
Resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for America’s top business daily “Wall Street Journal” (wsj.com) , Dhume, who has been an ardent supporter of the Prime Minister’s economic reforms agenda unraveled in 2014, says, what is particularly disturbing is, this is happening on Narendra Modi’s “watch.”
Referring to the June 2 CBI raid on the residence of NDTV founders Radhika and Prannoy Roy, Dhume disagrees with the government version that this has nothing do with media freedom, adding, “In anonymous leaks to sympathetic media outlets, alleged government officials suggest they may also pursue more serious charges, including money laundering and concealment of income.”
Pointing out that the “government’s argument appears shaky”, Dhume says, “In India, large borrowers owe government-owned banks many billions of dollars. That the CBI’s case hinges on a nine-year-old loan repaid to a private bank seems to suggest, at the very least, an odd set of priorities.”
Dhume says, “The move against NDTV comes against the backdrop of a media landscape that has tilted noticeably toward the government. Prominent news channels now spend more time attacking the enfeebled opposition than scrutinizing the government.”
He adds, “The front pages of several major newspapers increasingly read like official press releases. The burden of holding the government accountable for its missteps has largely shifted to opinion writers and a clutch of online publications with far less reach than TV or newspapers.”
Noting that “for the most part, Modi eschews interviews and press conferences, preferring to communicate directly through Facebook ,Twitter and a regular radio address”, Dhume says, “His junior foreign minister, VK Singh, has helped popularize the pejorative term ‘presstitute’ to describe journalists.”
Sharply criticizing the BJP pays for paying “lip service to the idea of a free press”, Dhume underlines, “In party President Amit Shah’s formulation, criticizing the government remains permissible but criticizing the nation is out of bounds.”
Pointing out the type of persons the government has been appointing to gag media, Dhume says, “Earlier this year, the party appointed as its spokesperson Tajinder Bagga, notorious for a televised 2011 assault on a left-wing lawyer and anticorruption activist he deemed too sympathetic to Kashmiri separatists.” Bagga had tweeted, “He try to break my Nation, I try to break his head.”
Suggesting that corporate interests are the main reason why Indian media bends so much, Dhume says, “The owners of most major TV channels and newspapers juggle other business interests as well. They must negotiate a plethora of opaque laws and regulations that would make them vulnerable to government pressure.”
He adds, “Many outlets also rely on government advertising to stay afloat. All this ensures that Indian journalism maintains a long tradition of kissing up to power rather than questioning it.”
According to Dhume, “This government is particularly ruthless about cutting off access to reporters it deems unfriendly. The BJP also appears to at least tacitly encourage social-media lynch mobs that go after any journalist seen to be stepping out of line. No other major political party appoints trolls to responsible positions.”

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