Press Freedom

Muzzling the media: How the Modi regime continues to undermine the news landscape

Print edition : February 26, 2021

At a protest against the beating up of three journalists by the police in Srinagar, on December 18, 2019. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Mandeep Punia. Photo: Youtube

The recent arrests of several journalists mark yet another shameful chapter in the Modi regime’s relentless undermining of the fourth estate by harassing those who speak truth to power and rewarding pliant individuals and institutions, with the goal of turning India’s vibrant media into a durbar of yes-men.

The recent arrest in New Delhi of a young freelance journalist and the registration of multiple first information reports (FIRs) against several senior scribes from many States are representative of the perils of being a journalist committed to the pursuit of truth in contemporary India. Simultaneously, it is telling evidence of a steep decline in the quality of democracy in India, especially on its vital parameters ranging from freedom, the rule of law, vertical and horizontal accountability, responsiveness, equality, participation and competition. While portents of these developments have been evident for several years, disparity in the treatment of different sections of the media has become particularly sharp in recent years, especially during the period beginning with the imposition of a lockdown in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unmistakably, the government reserves preferential treatment for those journalists and media organisations willing to blindly put out official handouts and accept official claims as the gospel truth. In contrast, those who do not take briefings at face value but go independently into the field to investigate matters, even when it entails professional and personal risks, are depicted as a lot that should be despised. They are painted as people and institutions who are hand in glove with enemies of the nation. They are branded as co-conspirators of a diabolical plot aimed at undermining the country and ensuring that efforts to build a ‘New India’ come to naught.

Above all, the toughest challenge that journalists on the ‘other’ side have to overcome is, of course, access.

Controlling access

Asking tough questions of the government, being unwilling to agree with its preposterous claims and refusing to endorse its each undemocratic action are now anathema to the powers that be. As a result, few within the establishment are willing to meet or speak and share information with journalists, even information that is routinely put out. Denial of access to specific journalists or media organisations who are either contrarians or do not endorse every official decision, policy or rule, stands in stark contrast, for instance, to the information that Arnab Goswami of Republic TV was privy to in the aftermath of the terrorist strike in Pulwama. The background to this saga is, of course, the fact that the editor of this vituperative right-wing channel is a well-known peddler of vitriol. Arnab Goswami’s alleged promise to Partho Dasgupta, former Chief Executive Officer of Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), that he would arrange contacts in the Prime Minister’s Office in return for Dasgupta rigging BARC’s findings for Arnab’s benefit, makes the government open to charges of promoting cronyism.

Also read: Arnab Goswami: Our man in the media

But, more importantly, Arnab Goswami’s claims of being in the know of a significant offensive against Pakistan and terrorist groups operating from within that country raise deeper issues. Till date, no inquiry has been ordered to scrutinise if state secrets were revealed to a ‘friendly’ journalist.

Furthermore, the leaked WhatsApp chats featuring Arnab Goswami showed that there was a casual nexus between the establishment and what has been infamously labelled as ‘lapdog’ media (as against media expected to act as watchdogs in a democracy), even on a matter pertaining to national security.

Arnab Goswami’s assertion, days before the surgical strike in Balakot, that “something big will happen…” was not human premonition but insider information available to select journalists. Unfortunately, Arnab Goswami is not the only one who has toed the official line to curry favour with the establishment and benefit in numerous ways.

This sordid episode established the extent to which the government has gone to enable a ‘friendly’ TV channel ‘score’ over its rivals.

Lapdog media

Academics Bob Franklin, Martin Hamer, Marie Kinsey and their colleagues formulated the lapdog theory of journalism. They argued that as against the self-proclamation of most journalists of acting as ‘watchdogs’— for which they are universally applauded—the ‘lapdog media’ model backs the agenda of the sociopolitical elite and perpetuates exploitation and social inequalities.

The three principal assumptions of this theory are: One, news media is excessively dependent on government, corporates and power elites for news and information. Two, lapdog journalists neither understand nor display any inclination to try to understand the viewpoint of groups that are not part of the elite. Three, news media are more argumentative than being based on reportage and have an inherent political bias that benefits the political and corporate elite for whom they are prepared to act as a trained pooch.

Also read: Peddling myths

The power, economic clout and access of lapdog media come from the shift they have made in their moral compass. The term ‘godi media’, popularised by the NDTV India anchor Ravish Kumar, has become part of the Indian political vocabulary and slogans against it were raised by agitating farmers recently and other protesters previously.

Issue of ‘identity’

The arrest of Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist, raises an additional worry. As a primary accusation against him demonstrates (that he did not carry a press identity card), life has become tougher for independent journalists who are not in regular employment of any media organisation by choice or owing to circumstances, but who are credible professionals and by no means unaccomplished. He was eventually granted bail after a couple of days in custody by a judge who correctly remarked that it was a “well settled legal principle of law that bail is a rule and jail is an exception.”

The police claim that Punia was arrested because he did not carry any press card cannot be grounds in any way for arresting a person, especially as another journalist detained alongside was let off. The journalist was reporting on a public event and was not intruding into or trespassing on a venue where entry was restricted. Furthermore, in today’s technologically connected world, verifying a person’s claim of being a journalist is just a tap away on any smartphone.

This tendency of the police is indeed worrying because the number of independent journalists not possessing identity cards has swelled in recent months after numerous media organisations ‘retrenched’ them in a post-pandemic economic downsizing of the industry. Can these journalists no longer carry on with their profession simply because they no longer carry papers? After all, questions regarding proof of identity are not asked of people from other professions, say a trader or a teacher.

Such actions against scribes are symbolic of a deep-seated disdain embedded within the current regime towards that section of the media which believes in the century-old aphorism that “whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising (or public relations); whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news.” Although this aphorism has evolved with time and each version is attributed to diverse prominent people associated with the business of news, its essence remains the same. However, the current government is not the first in independent India that has wished the media away.

Also read: Journalists condemn move in U.P. to muzzle the media

The dark chapter during the Emergency has been well-documented as has been the efforts of the Rajiv Gandhi regime through the ill-advised Defamation Bill. Erosion of democracy and casting of the media as a social evil happened over a long time, and every wing of the state played a role in tightening the reins on the fourth estate. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become central to a severe curbing of the freedom of expression and freedom of press through several means, including fostering the practice of self-censorship among media organisations and individual journalists. More importantly, this is the first time after the Emergency that journalists figuratively look over their shoulder before speaking their mind. Circumspection also has become the standard operating procedure.

The arrest of several journalists and the decision to lodge multiple cases against them in the aftermath of some unfortunate events on Republic Day are intended to serve as a warning to others. The message is unambiguous: a similar fate awaits those who do not fall in line and become collaborators of the state, like Arnab Goswami and several others. The government seems unperturbed by the fact that it is essentially suggesting that the journalists betray the underlying principle of the fourth estate of serving as a watchdog. ‘Fall in line’ is the instructive missive from the government. Those unwilling to do so must be prepared to put personal liberty and professional careers at stake. Journalists refusing to align themselves with the government have to be prepared to face time-consuming and resource-sapping legal cases that demand regular appearances during hearings in cities, often remote from their place of work. They also have to ward off personal threats and intimidation, besides police action.

These journalists and media organisations are also targeted on social media by an army of trolls who also harass them by publishing their phone numbers and other personal information. The trolls’ aim is to erode the journalists’ conviction in sticking to a principled stance and professional conduct.

Modi’s lip service to media

Ironically, the systemic bid to make every section of the media pliable stands in sharp contrast to periodic lip service to freedom of press by the highest-ranking members of this government. In November 2020, during his address at an event to launch two books penned by the chairman of the Rajasthan Patrika group of publications, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen saying on a video link that Indian “newspapers and magazines should have global reputation. We should reach digitally across the world in this digital age.” He added that a critical media made democracy stronger.

Further, on National Press Day in November 2020, Modi said that the media had been continuously adding strength to India’s democratic ethos. Paradoxically, a month prior to his assertion, which has been reiterated time and again by his ministerial colleagues including Home Minister Amit Shah, the International Press Institute and Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of using the pandemic as a ruse to stifle criticism. They were unhesitant in declaring that in no situation could journalistic work be equated with sedition or undermining security.

Also read: Hindutva’s drumbeaters

At another event in Chennai in November 2017, to mark the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Dina Thanthi, a Tamil daily newspaper, the Prime Minister rightly said: “Even though media may be owned by private individuals, it serves a public purpose.” The point of contestation, however, is whether, in the words of Modi, the media should to be lauded when it is “spreading awareness on the COVID-19 pandemic…. the government’s campaign to build toilets or ‘Swachh Bharat’ mission or the ‘Ujjwala’ scheme”, and not when it holds the mirror to the government, either for its blindness towards the misery of migrant workers fleeing the ruthless lockdown or for apathy towards farmers braving a biting winter.

This government has been very particular in reminding citizens about their duties and responsibilities as against just raising issues related to their rights. At the function in March 2018 to mark, paradoxically, the inauguration of the new building premises of the Central Information Commission (CIC) at New Delhi, Modi strongly pitched the argument that claiming rights without performing duties was against our constitutional values. Asking the CIC to mount a campaign for people to ‘Act Rightly’, Modi argued that the “wrong practice of misusing rights of people and powers for self-interest or vested interests should end”.

This argument certainly holds water, but not in a society where the government wants the citizens to be a subservient and obedient lot and sees empowered and information-seeking citizens as natural adversaries.

Selective reading of Mahatma Gandhi

At the Chennai event, Modi also quoted Mahatma Gandhi, who figures at the top of the list of nationalist icons the government has appropriated since 2014. He quoted Gandhi as saying: “The press is called the fourth estate. It is definitely a power, but to misuse that power is criminal.” There certainly is no denying these words written in the issue of Harijan in April 1947, nor can one endorse misuse of exalted position by journalists. But it cannot be ignored that on another occasion Gandhi asked: “What should an editor do when something he has published displeases the government or is held to violate some law, but is certainly true? Should he apologise? We would say, certainly not.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. X, pages 226-27.)

In another instance, he deliberated on the style of writing in a country “where there are laws like Seditious Writing Act and the Defence of India Act to restrict its freedom”. He noted that the writing style in some newspapers was evolved by journalists with an aim to circumvent these laws. In Mahatma Gandhi’s opinion, “This causes harm to our country. People develop a tendency to equivocate and fail to cultivate the courage to speak the truth. It changes the form of the language which, instead of being an instrument for expressing one’s thoughts, becomes a mask for concealing them. I am convinced that this is not the way to educate our people.” (Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol VI, page 312.) As several coercive laws continue to prevail in India, the choice before conscientious and professionally committed journalists is simple: Should they abide by selective reading of Mahatma Gandhi regarding their duties or be guided by the totality of his vision? The young journalist and veterans who had cases slapped against them paid for being guided by Mahatma Gandhi’s complete message.

Cases against them range from sedition and harming national integrity to promoting communal disharmony. The government’s action smacks of complete ignorance of how journalism proceeds, especially in developing situations, when fresh information often overturns earlier accounts.

Also read: Kashmir Times: Where the mind is without fear…

Furthermore, there is sufficient evidence to doubt the police version of the death of 25-year-old Navreet Singh, the farmer who died on Delhi’s streets on Republic Day. His family members’ claim that the deceased was shot in police firing could not have been ignored and needed to be reported. Moreover, after careful examination of the video and the post-mortem, experts said that the police’s theory that Singh died from injuries sustained after his tractor overturned merited further scrutiny.

The decision of Television Today to take Rajdeep Sardesai off air for a fortnight is the company’s internal matter. But cases against other journalists and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor are yet another instance of the state acting as muzzler-in-chief. The action against Sardesai is indicative of the pressure on the management of TV channels to remain, within reasonable limits, on the ‘right’ side of the government.

This episode is not the first instance of the management coming down on an individual journalist for being critical of the government. Several prominent journalists were given marching orders in recent years by prominent news organisations that displayed no spine. In a Cobrapost sting operation, several media executives committed themselves to business deals to promote the Hindutva agenda and help polarise voters in the run-up to the 2019 general election.

In 2020, evading the raging coronavirus and finding means to stay financially afloat and meet their basic needs were the central preoccupations of the majority of citizens. Besides attending to matters of priority that required its attention—the border clash with China in Ladakh and the continued national security crisis in Jammu and Kashmir, for instance—the state also spent considerable energy in keeping journalists on a tight leash by resorting to action against those who scrutinised the government’s shortcomings in handling the situation arising out of the pandemic.

The Rights & Risks Analysis Group, an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, listed as many as 55 cases of journalists who were either arrested or had FIRs slapped against them; received summons or show-cause notices; physically assaulted; or even had their properties destroyed between March 25 and May 31.

Also read: Arnab’s Republic

This proves that taking news to the people was hazardous for personal and financial health. It must be recalled that six hours prior to imposition of lockdown, the Prime Minister personally asked over 20 owners and editors from the mainstream print media to publish positive stories about the COVID-19 pandemic. The government officially announced details of this interaction and stated that it wanted the media to “act as a link between government and people and provide continuous feedback”. Yet, the government frowned upon reports of or comments on the situation on the ground. This demonstrates that by ‘feedback’, the government means ‘endorsement’, and acting as link is nothing but a euphemism for being its public relations executives. Undeniably, the pandemic was an unprecedented crisis for everyone. Even foreign journalists had to navigate their share of professional woes as the government made securing and extending visas extremely difficult. A note prepared under the platform of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in June 2020 was self-explanatory: “In recent months, foreign journalists based in India have observed a growing number of restrictions on their working environment. Old rules tightened, new ones imposed, posture of several government agencies towards the foreign press hardened. The situation made foreign journalists more aware of the shrinking space of their freedom, that too under lockdown. In such trying circumstances, should the government have expected the media, foreign and Indian, to stop being vigilant and get angered if they flagged major lacunae in government action?”

Modi’s contempt for media

Modi’s contempt for the media is not a recently acquired trait. In the 1990s, Keshubhai Patel of the BJP, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, started a daily bus service for Ahmedabad-based journalists to travel to Gandhinagar and back. It departed on weekday mornings from a fixed place at an appointed hour and returned each evening. It enabled scribes to go Ministry-hopping and meet contacts, attend briefings and conduct interviews. If time permitted, they filed reports from the media facility at Gandhinagar.

One of Modi’s first decisions after becoming Gujarat Chief Minister was to terminate this service. Later, in 2014, after becoming Prime Minister, he post-haste dispensed with the practice of taking media delegations as part of his entourage on foreign visits. Inspired by him, Ministerial colleagues also took similar decisions. Nirmala Sitharaman, after assuming office as Finance Minister in 2019, ordered that pre-Budget entry restrictions into the Finance Ministry for accredited correspondents would continue on a permanent basis.

When Parliament convened for this year’s Budget Session, scribes who had reported on Parliament for decades discovered that the number of journalists permitted to cover the sessions was restricted to a bare minimum.

Also read: Government seeks to silence online voices by bringing digital media under I&B Ministry

The Central Hall, which served for decades as a meeting place for senior scribes, members of Parliament and ex-MPs, is now out of bounds for them, the only consolation being that even former members are barred. Lok Sabha passes for accredited correspondents in the “Long and Distinguished Service” category have not been renewed and this is part of the pattern in the Modi era of denying access to journalists.

The ever-dwindling media space post-2014 was accompanied by Modi’s decision to reach out directly to the public over the shoulders of journalists by using a combination of social media and official channels, Doordarshan, All India Radio and Associated News of India, the private print and broadcast agency that has unprecedented access. Modi’s radio show, Mann Ki Baat, and the government website, modelled on existing platforms in other countries, are part of this ‘direct-to-people’ media strategy.

Managing the media industry and dictating news flow continues to be a major preoccupation of the government. In December 2020, the government laid out plans for increasing its media outreach. It decided to publicise messages through the route of media engagement, outreach in States and districts, and by working with ‘positive influencers’ while keeping track of ‘negative influencers’. No prizes for guessing the identity of the two categories of persuaders.

Significantly, a Group of Ministers that made multi-pronged suggestions in this matter, also proposed that scribes laid off during the pandemic, who were either ‘supportive’ of government policies or ‘neutral’, be enlisted for the government’s media outreach programme. This is little but a programme to co-opt professional journalists by leveraging their current vulnerabilities and professional crisis. These new initiatives also show the lack of the government’s faith in the official policy publicist, the Press Information Bureau.

Signs of what was to come were amply clear in the course of the campaign for the 2014 election. Retired Army General V.K. Singh derisively called journalists ‘presstitutes’ and the term was used with abandon by party leaders and social media trolls. Of the innumerable cases that have been filed since then, countless linger in courts. The process has become a punishment, as Prannoy Roy, one of NDTV’s founders, once said. In these trying times it is incumbent on conscientious journalists to ensure that their credibility is not undermined and they are not proved to be untruthful.

In April 2019, the Pulitzer-winning historian Ron Chernow, while bemoaning that Americans had to “fight hard for basic truths that we once took for granted”, expressed confidence at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that former United States President Donald Trump, who stayed away for the third consecutive year, was “just one chapter of bad fiction in America’s history”. Until India’s history follows the same sequence, the challenge for journalists will become graver.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an author and journalist who wrote Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. His last book was The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right.

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