Managing media

Print edition : June 24, 2016

As Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi interacting with mediapersons at his residence in Gandhinagar. A 2007 picture. Photo: PTI

The pressure on journalists to toe the government line is immense.

EVER since the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, the media have remained an Achilles’ heel for Narendra Modi. In his two years as Prime Minister, he has systematically tried to change that, with some success. But sections of the mainstream media which questioned state complicity in what was termed a “genocide” of Muslims or the “Gujarat pogrom” of 2002 under the watch of Modi, who was then the Chief Minister, continued to make him wary.

To counter the mainstream media, which he had often and publicly declared to be “hostile” to his interests, he embraced social media. With over 34 million Facebook likes and 20.4 million Twitter followers, Modi has positioned himself as an Internet-savvy Prime Minister next only to United States President Barack Obama. The hype created around this was so much that his critics said whether or not “achhe din” came to the people of India, #achhedin was sure to “trend” on Twitter. Whether schemes were taking off or not, they sure were trending on Twitter: #MakeInIndia, #MannKiBaat, #SwachhBharat, #SelfieWithDaughter, #MyCleanIndia, and #TransformingIndia, to name a few.

He even launched a governance tool called Twitter Seva, inviting citizens to lodge their grievances.

While Modi took to social media to bypass the mainstream media, his Ministers and other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders also became active on Twitter, especially to shower praises on Modi. Then there were the right-wing trolls, an invisible army on Twitter engaging in psychological warfare with any critic or neutral party through utterly vicious personal attacks. Women got the short end of the stick, with sexist abuses being hurled at them on a regular basis. It touched terrible lows when Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani got into a Twitter spat with Congress national spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi. The latter complained of getting “rape threats”.

WhatsApp groups have also not been immune from government interference. For instance, in Chhattisgarh, where the BJP government has been in power since 2003, journalists were arrested for allegedly posting an unfavourable WhatsApp message to a group, and veiled threats were made to journalists who wanted to report beyond the press release.

In contrast, in Gujarat, the government has had no need to get directly involved. The reporters on Gujarat Media Club, or GMC, a WhatsApp group, perfected obsequiousness long ago. Ever since Modi became Prime Minister, paying daily obeisance to him in absentia became a norm and posting slanderous messages against Muslims, opposition parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party or the Samajwadi Party, to name but two, went unopposed. A journalist on the group who squirms every time he sees such a message told Frontline on condition of anonymity that “there is no point in countering them, for they will create a big deal out of it and make it difficult for me to work here. As it is I have to meet them on the field on a daily basis.”

Messages about Modi working 18-20 hours a day, that he does not sleep for 36 hours because he wants to leave a lasting legacy in five years, mocking the Urdu language or Muslim cultural practices, and on cow worship have been routine in this group.

While Modi’s hold over social media is fairly established, he has not given up his zeal to “manage” mainstream media. The push for change actually began in the run-up to his election campaign in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Several journalists were reportedly “fixed” or “phased out” before and much after Modi became Prime Minister, but not many spoke about it publicly for fear of retribution. But when Hartosh Singh Bal, now political editor with The Caravan magazine, was sent a termination notice from Open magazine, he challenged its legality and the case is pending before the labour court. However, his was not the only exit that got written about in the press. After Lakshmi Chaudhry, co-founder and former executive editor of Firstpost, put in her papers, an article in The Caravan contextualised the incidents leading up to her resignation. Last year, in July, editor-in-chief R. Jagannathan’s piece titled “Land Bill on Hold: Modi May Have to Rethink Jaitley as Finance Minister” was pulled off the website. Right after that, according to the article, a diktat had been issued to Firstpost that no article or opinion piece that hurt the image of BJP president Amit Shah, Modi and Jaitley could be published.


This kind of self-censorship has been widespread across the industry over the past two years. While Lakshmi Chaudhry did not wish to speak about leaving Firstpost, she said that the Indian press has always been under a certain degree of control. “It would be difficult to make an argument that the Indian press had ever been fully free or that the owners had been willing to stick their necks out to fight the powers that be, with the exception of the Emergency,” she told Frontline. “The freedom of the press has been within a carefully demarcated lakshman rekha, drawn by the state within which the large media houses have been content to play. But whenever they have overstepped, retribution has been fairly quick and severe,” she said. “What has changed in the last two years is that censorship has become far more insidious. There has not been an open crackdown, which would come with its visibility and PR [public relations] penalty, but there is a quiet, hidden but very firm control on what can or cannot be said. There can be criticism but it would be carefully regulated, and it would be balanced with a lot of coverage for the government. So, there can be a critique in the editorial but at the same time there would be a greater amount of coverage for the PM and his prominent Ministers on the rest of the pages. There is a careful calibration of criticism. This is far more alarming than any diktat.

“Reporters and columnists practise self-censorship when they don’t write certain stories at all or don’t touch upon certain points. This does not even require a nudge but is done in advance, in anticipation, in fear of repercussions. See, it is in the nature of governments and power to not like to be discomfited; for instance, just look at the case of Julian Assange. But the haste and alacrity with which the mainstream media are looking to toe the line before it is even drawn is alarming.”

Firstpost may have run into trouble because it behaved like an independent digital start-up before reality hit home, which was that it was part of the Network18 group, wholly owned and promoted by Reliance Industries, one of the biggest corporate groups in India, which also has direct or indirect stakes in four other media houses: NDTV, News Nation, IndiaTV and News24. Incidentally, media owners who write about human rights and justice day in and day out are extremely thin-skinned when it comes to criticism levelled at them. In the past two years, media houses accusing rival media organisations and reporters of being anti-national, something that never happened before. “Never in my career have I seen this happen before,” said M.K. Venu, one of the founding editors of The Wire, a news website.

Times Now was recently referred to as “Fox News on steroids” by Oscar Rickett on Vice, a news website. The TV channel’s famous anchor has taken it upon himself to authenticate the “patriotism” of Indians, as was evident from his repeated accusations to guests on his show. In fact, he was the first one to call the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student Umar Khalid a terrorist and anti-national on his show. Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, wrote an article highlighting how certain channels had aired a reportedly doctored video of the events of February 9 in JNU and how all those who worked to ruin a young life, from fabricating a case to resorting to violence and peddling forged evidence, must be brought to account.

While e-governance is on the rise, access to bureaucrats has been brutally severed for journalists, who are now forced to rely more and more on press releases. There is an overwhelming feeling that bureaucrats who speak to journalists are being watched. Journalists who did critical stories on government policies have received calls from not just the Ministry but the Minister and have sometimes also been called in for meetings. The pressures on journalists willing to stick their necks out and write the truth are immense.

Divya Trivedi