Journalism in chains: Under Modi regime, 36 journalists arrested; many slapped with sedition charges

Indian journalism is well over 200 years old and has endured challenges such as punitive restrictions during the British Raj

By Ashraf Engineer  Published on  20 May 2024 6:33 AM GMT
Siddiqui Kappan, Avani Dias and Bobby Ghosh

Hyderabad: I think of journalism as a public good. Therefore, as a public good essential for India’s democracy, journalism needs to survive, be sustainable, and be free from political manipulation.

Indian journalism is well over 200 years old and has endured challenges such as punitive restrictions during the British Raj. Ironically, it faces its greatest challenge today, 76 years after Independence. This comes in the form of an assault on news media that have fought to stay independent as well as – in the case of many media corporations – a self-imposed nature servile to the Narendra Modi government.

Reams have been written about the state of the Indian news media and there’s nothing new to be said there. I’d rather ask what comes next for Indian journalism.

For us to do that, it’s important to recognize the fundamental transformation it has undergone over the past couple of decades – from journalism to media business. Therefore, we must distinguish between those claiming to be media houses and those doing actual journalism.

The battlefronts

What is good or real journalism? This has been answered in various ways: speaking truth to power, getting people to care about what you communicate, reporting exactly what you witness, etc. These have been the approaches adopted by pioneers, from Raja Rammohan Roy to Dr BR Ambedkar – who wrote extensively and believed deeply in the power of the press. Some of the battles they fought continue today. But, perhaps, the fight has now been given up or is facing severe challenges.

On TV, prime time is often used to block or spin the truth. The Modi government, meanwhile, has cracked down on journalists trying to do their job. At least 36 were arrested between 2014 and 2023, many of them slapped with charges such as sedition and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Independent media organizations, such as NewsClick, were raided and their staff arrested. Even the BBC was targeted by tax authorities after it aired a damning documentary on Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Avani Dias, of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, had to leave the country after the government said her reporting had “crossed a line”.

Bobby Ghosh, editor-in-chief of The Hindustan Times, was forced out when the newspaper’s management came under pressure after he started theHate Tracker – a crowd-sourced listing of hate crimes across India. The Hate Tracker project, meanwhile, died a silent death.

Journalist Siddique Kappan was incarcerated for two years for trying to cover the Hathras gangrape case.

The well-known Media One news channel in Kerala was yanked off the air for nearly a year for reporting the Shaheen Bagh and farmer protests. The ban was later lifted by the Supreme Court.

All this time the likes of Sudarshan TV spouted hate –unchecked –against Muslims, alleging even that their success in public service exams such as the UPSC was a form of jihad.

There has been no other instance in India of such a large section of the media openly supporting the government or spreading hate.

There’s more.

In 2019, the Modi regime cut out the media groups Times, ABP, and Hindu from government advertising, seemingly for publishing stories critical of it. Government advertising forms a large chunk of media revenues and without it, most news organizations would struggle.

Even the denial of licences to TV channels is mystifying. BloombergQuint scrapped plans for a channel after being denied a licence for three years. Republic TV, widely considered a Modi “ally”, received one within months.

Government regulations have formed the second line of attack against the news media.

The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media EthicsCode) Rules (2021)empower a government-appointed Grievance Appellate Committee to have the final say on content moderation by intermediaries such as Facebook and X. The Press Information Bureau, which comes under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, was empowered to ‘fact-check’ information and rule on what must be withdrawn from the media.

In April this year, YouTube channels Bolta Hindustan, and National Dastak, and Article 19 were served closure notices under the IT Rules (2021) and IT Act (2000). National Dastak acted as the voice of Dalits and minorities – sections typically ignored by mainstream media.

It’s no wonder then that India slid 11 positions in a year on the World Press Freedom Index, ranking a dismal 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. Security as a parameter showed the worst decline, making India “one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world”.

Toeing the line

Modi plans to allow only one kind of journalism— wildly supportive of him and the Hindu right-wing agenda. The message is obvious: the government isn’t asking you to bend but crawl, and you better fall in line.

The change in media ownership has mirrored that demand.

The all-powerful Reliance Group, led by Mukesh Ambani, owns Network18 – which means it controls a bouquet of channels and other media assets. Gautam Adani, considered very close to Modi and who’s flourished after the change of regime in 2014, has taken control of NDTV – one of the few channels that had been clinging to its journalistic integrity.

Republic TV and the Times stable needed no convincing to comply with the government’s wishes.

So, while the government fails on various fronts, most notably employment, the image projected is one of effectiveness. Massive failures such as the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and demonetization are ignored. Most notably, the Chinese aggression on India’s borders – the loss of territory and jawans is a major failure of the Modi regime – is being papered over.

Journalists have even turned into foot soldiers of the government when its relationship with Adani came under scrutiny. The Hindenburg Research allegations that Adani manipulated stock prices did not lead to a hunt for facts. Instead, prime-time anchors questioned whether this was a conspiracy against Modi.

The disillusionment starts early

It’s no wonder then that many journalists think they can no longer practice their profession in India. Some have chosen to move abroad or work for foreign publications while staying in India. This is the sort of brain drain that can only result in a further hollowing out of Indian journalism.

The way things are going, few young people would think of it as a fulfilling career. Talent, which is badly needed if journalism is to survive, would turn elsewhere – especially because the long working hours and low pay were deterrents even at the best of times. Why brave state assaults for doing journalism when nothing else is working for you either?

It is estimated that India has about 900 media schools, but students see even before they graduate that the situation is dispiriting. Even a fundamental right such as free speech is elusive. For instance, there were reports that a highly regarded professor was prevented from teaching for a year at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication because of her political leanings. The concept of freedom in general and journalism in particular is waning.

There are other challenges, not related to government pressure–from a broken revenue model to audiences shifting to new platforms and technological disruption in the form of generative artificial intelligence. Also, it seems increasingly unlikely that you can do real journalism in media houses owned by big businesses. They simply have too much at stake to allow it. However, there are some great independent media houses journalism hopefuls can choose to be in.

As things stand, there is little reason to believe that things will improve – especially if Modi wins a third term. In fact, that could lead to a complete decimation of the few media houses that are pushing back.

Ashraf Engineer has been a journalist for almost three decades, leading newsrooms and initiatives across print, digital, and audio. He is the founder of the All Indians Matter platform, a home for conversations with and about India on issues that matter, and the host of the podcast by the same name.

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