Skip to main content

Press is much more controlled under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration than previous ones

By Aliya Iftikhar*
The media is in the worst state India has ever seen. That is how several journalists described the current climate in dozens of conversations with CPJ during a trip to Mumbai, Bangalore, and Delhi earlier this year. While the threats they outlined--political pressure, self-censorship, defamation suits, and attacks--are not a new phenomenon in India, many agreed that the environment has changed.
Nearly all of them described journalism as a solitary battle they were fighting and said that a shrinking respect for press freedom across society has left them with few places to turn for support.
In recent years, CPJ has documented how journalists have faced harassment, threats of legal action, imprisonment, or even been killed in retaliation for their reporting. But the current level of harassment and intimidation is unprecedented, Sagarika Ghose, a senior journalist, told CPJ in Delhi.
Ghose is one of several journalists who received death threats after the murder last year of Gauri Lankesh, a prominent left-wing journalist in Bangalore. Ghose said she believed the current state is "an undeclared emergency," and likened the situation to a period in the 1970s when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi censored newspapers in an effort to consolidate power.
The press is much more controlled under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration than previous ones, through media owners and cases filed, a Delhi-based journalist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly on the topic, said, referring to reports of party loyalists harassing journalists and cases of business owners or police filing legal complaints against the press.
This isn't a new tactic, but the flavor is different, Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the independent Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, told CPJ at his office in Delhi. Hazarika, who has reported for several Indian outlets and The New York Times, said that while members of government have always made phone calls to the press to try to stop coverage, he has heard journalists say the calls are becoming more frequent.
Part of what has opened media corporations up to vulnerability is a focus by some large news groups on creating revenue by hosting events and summits. There's a tacit understanding with sponsors that if you get politicians to attend, the value of the event increases, Indrajit Gupta, director of the digital media platform Founding Fuel and former editor of Forbes India, said over lunch in Mumbai. The government has used it successfully to get softer coverage, Gupta said, adding, "I find it very disconcerting." He said publishers and editors were under pressure and not willing to take on the powers in Delhi and state governments.
India's Press Information Bureau did not immediately respond to CPJ's email requesting comment.
Several journalists at legacy institutions told CPJ they did not feel their institutions would stand by them if they came under fire.
"There's a climate of fear and self-censorship in the media that I don't remember ever having experienced before...perhaps not even during the emergency in the 70s...and certainly no journalists were being killed with impunity then as they are being now," a senior journalist, who requested anonymity, said.
Local journalists also raised the issue of high-profile reporters and editors who cover sensitive issues being fired. While the employers in these cases deny the dismissals are connected to coverage, it has created the impression among local journalists that they could be fired for not toeing the line.
Laxmi Murthy, a senior journalist based in Bangalore, said many dismissals appeared to be because of political reasons or pressure on business owners, and she believes the press should cover the cases more closely. "These internal issues in India are clearly linked because noisy reporters are fired," and "corporate control is dictating content," she said. "Independence is a moot question for everyone."
Ghose said while there wasn't a specific incident she could point to, she has noticed a small chipping away of freedoms. "What you think is normal journalistic work--telling the truth--has become abnormal and self-sacrifice," she said. Ghose added, "We feel isolated and it's hard to see how we can challenge this."
A major contributor to self-censorship is the threat of defamation lawsuits.
Last year, when news website The Wire reported on a sudden rise in revenues in a company owned by Jay Shah, the son of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president, after Modi became president, Jay Shah filed a criminal defamation lawsuit and the judiciary imposed a gag order, according to reports.
Naresh Fernandes, editor of the independent news website Scroll, who said he is threatened with a lawsuit "every month," told CPJ The Wire case created a chilling effect, but when a court later ruled that the outlet could continue reporting on the case, the media realized "we can say these things." (A higher court later restored the gag order and the case is ongoing).
Any investigative work on the criminality of politicians or data that busts government claims is unacceptable [to authorities], Vinod Jose, executive editor of news magazine The Caravan, told CPJ in his office in Delhi. He added that fighting defamation suits is "a long, slow, lonely battle...You lose friends, the government is watching everyone, and you have funding and job worries."
A member of a media foundation, who asked that their name be withheld so they could speak candidly, told CPJ that with criminal defamation cases, there's little opportunity for legal redress. The suits are strategic--by filing defamation suits, the subject matter immediately becomes sub judice, meaning that outlets are not allowed to continue reporting and the story becomes buried, he said
Defamation cases have made some media houses more careful, Dhanya Rajendran, editor-in-chief at The News Minute, told CPJ during a visit to the outlet's newsroom in Bangalore. They may not stop reporting, she said, but they become too cautious. Rajendran did not cite specific examples but her view was echoed by other reporters and editors with whom CPJ met, who said they had either toned down coverage or been pressured from editors to do so.
Sidharth Bhatia, a founding editor of The Wire, struggled to recall how many defamation cases the outlet is fighting. "I think at least seven different defamation cases...I don't even know," he said. But, he said, very few journalists or media organizations had called or written in support of The Wire. "We're not heroes, we're not crusaders, we're not martyrs, we are journalists doing our job," Bhatia said. "Everyone says we're brave--we're not. It's hard, cumbersome, and stressful."
Neha Dixit, a reporter in Delhi, said that as well as the financial cost of weathering a criminal complaint filed against her for a 2016 investigative report, she has also faced abuse over her coverage on social media, including having personal information exposed.
Journalists with whom CPJ talked said there were potential ways to help improve conditions, including setting up an organization in India to document threats and harassment of the press, or creating a legal defense fund.
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor at The Caravan, described the threats India's journalists are facing as "insidious," but said the press needed to carry on. He added, "Media plays a vital role in this country and has huge impact and can't be allowed to disappear."
---
*CPJ's Asia Research Associate, former research assistant at the Middle East Institute and interned at the U.S. Department of State, also worked with Amnesty International and written for Vice News
This article was originally published in the Committee to Protect Journalists site cpj.org

Comments

TRENDING

North Gujarat gram panchayat bars villagers from dealing with Muslim hawkers, traders

By Our Representative  A gram panchayat in North Gujarat has barred its residents not to buy anything from Muslim traders and hawkers. An order of the Waghasan group gram panchayat of Tharad taluka of Banaskantha district dated June 30 states that the decision has been taken in the wake of beheading of a Hindu tailor after he posted a derogatory writeup on Prophet Mohammad in Udaipur. The gram panchayat resolution says, anyone seen buying or selling any commodity from a Muslim hawker or trader would be fined Rs 5,100. Bringing this to light, Mujahid Nafees, convener, Minority Coordination Committee, in a letter to Gujarat chief minister Bhupendra Patel, says, the state government should take legal action against the panchayat chief who has signed the “unjust” order. The letter says, the act of the sarpanch and other signatories is a violation of rule of law of the state and threat to peace, pointing out, the move is in violation of Article 15 of the Constitution, which says that none

Technocratic globalism, tyranny? Health Ministry warned: bill to 'enslave' Indians

Sandeep Pandey, Tushar Gandhi By Rosamma Thomas*  Union of Concerned Citizens, a group comprising Magsaysay Award winner Prof Sandeep Pandey, human rights activist Tushar Gandhi, former judge of the Bombay High Court BG Kolse Patil, pediatrician Dr Jacob Puliyel and several renowned Indian citizens have written to the Union Health Minister cautioning him against tabling the draft Public Health Bill in the Monsoon Session of Parliament. “The Public Health (Prevention, Control And Management Of Epidemics, Bio-Terrorism And Disasters) Bill, 2017 and a Prospective Bill of 2022 as discussed in news articles, is straightforwardly violative of Fundamental Rights of the citizens of India and therefore, Ultra Vires of the Indian Constitution. It contravenes several International Treaties and Conventions including the Nuremberg Treaty of 1947 which was enacted to ensure that no country would repeat such inhuman medical atrocities on fellow human beings”, the 12-page letter reads. “Strangely, t

Unlike Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India: Ukrainian scholar tells 'Indian friends'

Counterview Desk In an open letter to "dear Indian friends", Anastasia Piliavsky, born in Odessa, Ukraine, studied at Boston and Oxford Universities (on a Rhodes Scholarship), and now teaches at King’s College, London, has said that she faces "deep moral dilemma", personally and professionally, over the "astonishingly unified Indian response to the war in Ukraine." Based on her interaction with a "number of thoughtful and caring Indian friends", in this letter, she says, she is "reeling at the ubiquitous silence at, justifications of or outright support for Putin’s terror, which now prevails in India, at the ubiquitous #IStandWithPutin and #istandwithrussia hashtags." She insists, India must understand, "Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India. Soviet leaders, beginning with (the Ukrainian) Nikita Khrushchev – who declared hindi rusi bhai bhai – built up deep political and cultural exchange with India." Text : I

PLFS data: Is rising employment good news? Deeper analysis suggests contrary results

By Ishwar Chandra Awasthi, Puneet Kumar Shrivastav*  Results of the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), 2020-21 , released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India (GoI) on June 14, 2022, show improvement in work force participation rate (WPR) and labour force participation rate (LFPR) and declining unemployment rate. Four rounds of data have been released from 2017-18 to 2020-21 based on PLFS. The general trend in the last four rounds clearly shows consistent increase in WPR and LFPR and falling unemployment rates by usual status (PS+SS). Though increase in WPR and LFPR is reported highest in 2019-20 over 2018-19, yet rising trend in these two key indicators continues throughout, and similarly fall in unemployment is registered highest in 2019-20 over 2018-19. Clearly, the recent results give some solace and relief after unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic that has entailed enormous loss of human lives and livelihoods and crippled economic activit

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

'Drop all falsed charges': 150 citizens demand early release of AltNews co-founder

Counterview Desk  About 150 concerned citizens have demanded the release of Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checkng newsportal AltNews, arrested over a 2018 tweet which allegedly hurt religious sentiments, even as booking for criminal conspiracy and having received foreign funds in violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). Denied bail last weekend and sent to 14-day judicial custody, the concerned citizens, in a statement, regretted that while the Delhi High Court issued notice to the Delhi police on a petition filed on behalf of Zubair challenging the legality and propriety of his police remand and the seizure of his electronic devices, the “frivolous case” continues. Excerpts: The illegal arrest of Mr. Mohammed Zubair happened on June 27, 2022, by the Delhi Police for allegedly hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity over a tweet from 2018. The IPC Sections included 153(a) (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race,

Chennai residents 'suffering': Faulty design, implementation of storm water project

By NS Venkataraman*  The Greater Chennai Corporation is now implementing storm water drainage project in 559 roads, covering a distance of 1033 kilometres, which cost around Rs 4,070 crore. For this massive project, which is targeted to be completed between April and September this year, huge loan has been availed from World Bank, Asian Development Bank and others. Several technocrats have pointed out that the project has been designed with outdated technology and quality of the implementation is so poor that the residents have been put to great hardships. As part of the project, digging of the road has been done to around 5 to 6 feet deep and width of around 4 to 5 feet. The drains are being constructed using steel reinforced cement concrete with two walls on either side with provisions for manhole, chute etc. This has been done in front of several houses leaving little space between the gate of the house and that of the drainage structure. As the work has been going on for mor

Prime Minister's 'affordable' housing policy fails to help Gujarat slum dwellers: Study

By Rajiv Shah  A new study on the implementation of one of the major policy initiatives for the urban poor by the Narendra Modi government after it came to power, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), has said that in Gujarat, which happens to be the Prime Minister’s home state, has quoted state officials as “confirming” that no progress towards tenure regularization, a key requirement for providing housing to the state’s slum dwellers. Stating that this particularly true of smaller town, the study, carried out by the non-profit Homes in the City (HIC), which is based in Bhuj, district headquarter of Kutch that saw a devastating earthquake in 2001, says, the failure to provide affordable housing is there despite the fact that there has been “significant demand” in all the 83 out of 153 Gujarat municipalities studied by experts involved in the study. According to the study, out f a total of 1.41 lakh demands for housing under the Beneficiary Led Construction (BLC) category, 94,232 (66.7%)

'Contractor-official nexus led to RTI activist's murder': Fact-finding team seeks probe

Courtyard inside of PWD office where Ranjeet Soni was killed Counterview Desk  A fact-finding team* visited Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh (MP) on June 19, 2022 to meet with the family of Ranjeet Soni, who was shot dead on June 2, 2022 inside the premises of the PWD office in Vidisha. The objective was to gather information about the circumstances surrounding the death of Ranjeet Soni and his work on exposing corruption through the use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. A report prepared by the team members says that Ranjeet had been extensively using the RTI Act to access information from the government, and upon receiving documents showing misuse of public funds or corruption, he was filing complaints to various authorities including the Lokyukta, Publi Works Department (PWD) and the Chief Minister’s Office. It notes, Ranjeet used to work as a contractor and often undertook government works in collaboration with other contractors, including those being investigated for his murder. A f

Electricity Bill: Centre's reform measures contain 'carrot and stick package' for states

Counterview Desk  The Peoples’ Commission on Public Sector and Public Services (PCPSPS), claiming to be a network of eminent academics, jurists, erstwhile administrators, trade unionists and social activists, seeking consultations with stakeholders with those who are against the government’s decision to monetise, disinvest and privatise public assets/enterprises, has said that the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill-2022 will have far-reaching impacts on the finances of states. Insisting that the proposed Bill would lead to “assault on India’s federal structure”, in a statement, it says, it would weaken the finances of states’ power distribution companies, have adverse impact on utility employees, cripple the states' finances, impose a heavy cost burden on the smaller subsidized consumers (especially farmers), and benefit only corporate business houses. “States cannot afford to ignore the far-reaching implications of the Bill on their economy, finances, agricultural and industria