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National Politics

Media In Free India: Hardly Independent

The focus has shifted sadly, with the help of the media, from the voters to the leaders. Well, in this case, one leader and his battery of supporters.

The gagging of the media in the current disposition continues, as the Jammu and Kashmir government sealed the office of Kashmir Times, a leading English newspaper. Critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government said this was yet another attempt to muzzle press freedom in a region that saw the longest shutdown of internet services and deprivation of human rights. In fact, journalists have offered their professional services free of cost, to keep the paper up and running.

Witch-hunt

This is not the first time that the Indian government has made attempts to silence the media, the independent media, to be specific. The government has been trying to pressurise online media, questioning the funding, slapping of cases or carrying out income-tax raids. In September, the parent company of HW News Network, Theo Connect Private Limited, was subjected to a 50-hour long raid in September, for which the authorities gave no reason.

Two years ago, the IT also conducted raids on the offices of Raghav Behl, the founder of Quint.com, which went on for 22 hours. At that time, there were also raids on Green Peace India and Direct Dialogue Initiatives. Recently, Amnesty International shut its offices in India following reprisals from the government. Its bank accounts were frozen, leaving no money to pay staff salaries.

A few years ago, when scroll.in made it public that one of their source of funds was Pierre Omidyar, who has supported many independent media organisations, the right-wingers launched a campaign against the online portal and through Change.org, petitioned the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, asking for action against the undisclosed funding of Scroll.in.

The problem does not stop with petitioning and trolling on social media. In fact, one of the co-founders of Alt News, a fact-checking site, Mohammed Zubair was falsely accused of allegedly harassing and torturing a minor girl online while responding to a tweet. Two FIRs have been filed against Zubair, first, under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and the second, under the Information Technology Act in Delhi and Raipur.

No free media

It should come as no surprise that the current government under Narendra Modi’s leadership has no space for any sort of healthy criticism. The ‘watchdog’ role played by the media, especially the independent media, is not appreciated by the government. It would prefer taming the free voice, something that is proving tough to do. Then it resorts to pressure tactics like getting its supporters to threaten reporters, restrict funds and conduct pointless raids, just to intimidate. The incidents of attacks on journalists too have increased in the last six years.  And if these tactics prove non-deterrents, it unleashes its IT cell, that sends threats including sexual violence, physical assault and shutting down their premises.

In the current atmosphere, it is cool to tag politicians and wish them personally, which is not something expected of journalists. In the ripe old days of professional journalism, a police officer or politician calling out to a particular journalist in conferences or in public was not taken well in the profession. Yes, the line has been crossed by editors and journalists, especially in India. Firstly, we now have an environment, where only those known to be close to the BJP ideology are allowed an audience. The large media houses have their own interests and the proprietors have their understandings with the establishment. Media outlets are commercial outlets with business interests and no doubt, paid media, in the name of being ‘objective’, not taking a strong stand, with the accompanying inescapable business aspect above all, has done more harm than good to Indian journalism.

The fact that proprietors have buckled under pressure has slowly eroded the freedom of the press. Today, India is ranked 142 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, 2020. No surprise, the Nordic countries top the list for this freedom of the press, with Norway leading, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Netherlands. It bodes no good for a country that takes no pride in having a free press. In fact, there have been attacks on the media, journalists and the worst is the ‘anti-national’ label for certain sections of the media that have questioned certain actions of Modi. The fact is there have been constant violations of press freedom in India. The problem is, not only does this government not trust the media, they have garnered public outrage against them and there is evidently a growing distrust of Indian media. People now watch prime time news on television for entertainment: what could be a bigger blot on the free press?

After the Galwan clash, the leading news agency, Press Trust of India (PTI) had featured an interview with the Chinese ambassador, Sun Weidonger, wherein he spoke of conciliation and said differences could be resolved. But this was not taken well by the Prasar Bharati. Just a week ago, the Prasar Bharti terminated its subscription with news agency PTI and United News of India (UNI), and pushed for fresh contracts, saying they had not made fresh bids for the subscription.

But if leading newspapers and television channels face a crisis of credibility, it is no secret the government has a role to play in promoting this crisis. With the slow erosion of freedom of the press, we are seeing for the first time an Indian Prime Minister not addressing press conferences, completely ignoring the press. Instead, he has chosen to communicate directly through social media and programmes like Mann Ki Baat, making the media completely redundant. He calls on those media people who represent organisations that he does not consider threatening. Just before the outbreak of the Coronavirus, Modi had met top news executives and urged them to publish “inspiring and positive stories” of his government’s efforts. Along with this comes the diktat of only reporting the official version. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen how the mainstream media has spared Modi for deliberately ignoring controversial issues and the shortfalls of his decisions.

Unlike in America, where the media is still free and protected by the First Amendment and can criticise the government, India has readily allowed the curbing of press freedom. Somewhere in public discourse in the last decade, we have been hearing more and more say India is a failed democracy. The BJP blamed the Congress government for all excesses and blamed it for molly-coddling the media. But the fact is, the media was constantly calling out the excesses of Congress governments and exposing corruption.

BJP propaganda

Early this year, a study conducted by a social media user, ‘/u/onosmosis’ -claimed to have studied thousands of Twitter accounts and said for every one person from the Congress spreading fake news, there were 120 from the BJP doing so. In fact, in 2019, it was reported, the NaMo app was downloaded 10 million times, mainly by the BJP workers and their supporters.

If this is not enough, since the Indian para-military convoy was attacked in Pulwama, the Indian media is seen to have become the voice of the government. Without verifying any claim, the Indian media carried the government propaganda, which is a breach of the basic fundamental ethic of journalism – verifying information before putting it out – that Pakistan officially denied these claims showing the area was deserted. Worse, Modi too did not address the nation after such a big incident. The fact is, till the end, the Indian public never got any information on this incident and there was no media that raised basic questions. Later, the Washington Post said in analysis after two weeks, it had found that no media sites had rectified the errors and left misleading facts as a matter of public record.

The pro-government stand by the corporate-owned Indian media is not only on record but a matter of grave concern. As one critic stated, the way the re-election of Modi was portrayed by the Indian media, a regular once-in-five year exercise was painted as a battle. The focus has shifted sadly, with the help of the media, from the voters to the leaders. Well, in this case, one leader and his battery of supporters. This visible shift of overlooking the voters by the media is as dangerous to the democracy as is the media becoming an integral tool of government’s propaganda.

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