How Narendra Modi has almost killed the Indian media

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The long-simmering crisis of credibility in the Indian news media reached a boiling point in the weeks following the deadly terrorist attack in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir last month.

India’s television stations dispensed with even basic journalistic rules, as seasoned reporters declared unequivocal allegiances and experienced editors parroted exaggerated claims. Theatrics abounded, with toy-gun totting warrior anchors in army fatigues drumming up an atmosphere of hate and violent jingoism.

Accuracy, corroboration, and neutrality pipped editorial discretion.

Yet, Pulwama, in some sense, only capped what have been five profoundly disquieting years for Indian media under the Narendra Modi regime—a period in which its capacity to chase stories of consequence has greatly diminished.

So how did things get to this point?

A looming disquiet

Unless things change in the next few weeks, it would be the first time in the history of independent India that a prime minister will have spent an entire tenure without addressing a single press conference.

Modi has effectively cut off all communication with the media after coming to power in 2014, choosing instead to direct his messaging through tweets, radio programmes like Mann Ki Baat and fluffy staged interviews with pliant journalists.

This was ironic given the “silent PM” jibes he took at former prime minister Manmohan Singh during the national election campaign in 2014. But this is also a shrewd strategy that allowed him to build an image of an effective communicator, while only delivering a one-way series of monologues.

Restrictions on access aside, the disenfranchisement of India’s press is a consequence of other important structural shifts in technology and press ownership over the past five years.

Structural shifts

The Modi era coincided with an exponential rise in the use of social media in India, a medium that this government exploited to the hilt to target critics, mobilise public opinion, and use tags like “anti-national,” to discredit anyone showing a hint of circumspection with the state narrative.

It is estimated that between 2016 and 2018 alone, the number of Indians using social networks grew from 168 million to 326 million, making it a handy tool for the ruling party to spread half-truths and fake news through a cobweb of unofficial accounts and unleash trolls to attack journalists who tried to counter them.

As a result, reporters in India have over the past five years regularly had their mobile numbers circulated on WhatsApp groups, and have been subjected to a deluge of sexually explicit messages, death and rape threats, and other forms of online intimidation.

“The pattern of trolling has led many to speculate whether there is an organising hand at work. There is. The BJP has a wide network of volunteers and paid workers scattered across the country and in their offices in Delhi’s Ashoka Road which sends daily instructions on WhatsApp. Each troll has a contact point in the Ashoka Road central cell,” Swati Chaturvedi, journalist and author of I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Unwillingness to toe the line has often led to high-profile editorial sackings. Army, wrote in the Gulf News.

But the government hasn’t always hidden behind the smokescreen of social media. There have been more blatant attempts to arm-twist media proprietors.

Raiding news channels, boycotting prime-time debates, and stopping government advertising—a significant source of revenue for the industry—have been among the common tactics used by the Modi regime.

Unwillingness to toe the line has often led to high-profile editorial sackings.

Diminishing dissent

Last August, ABP News anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai wrote an exposé for The Wire’s Hindi website, detailing the grave degree to which the situation deteriorated in India’s newsrooms.

Writing about the circumstances of his ouster from the channel, Bajpai said he was asked not to make any mention of Modi on his programmes. He also revealed that the government had employed 200 staff to monitor the media and send directions to editors on how they must report on the prime minister’s activities.

A year earlier, Bobby Ghosh, editor of the Hindustan Times, resigned from the newspaper as the government was purportedly unhappy with a tracker that was launched under his leadership to chronicle hate crimes in India.

Since his exit, that tracker has been pulled down.

The BJP has also been brazenly selective in handing out TV licences to new applicants, controlling who enters the fray.

So, Republic TV, partly owned by its own parliamentarian Rajeev Chandrasekhar and helmed by Arnab Goswami, a popular, pro-establishment anchor known for his filibustering style, was given immediate permission last year. At the same time, Bloomberg Quint, a collaboration between Bloomberg LP and media entrepreneur Raghav Bahl, known to be critical of the government, has been waiting for over two years to go on air.

Bahl, who sold his news empire to Mukesh Ambani in 2014, now runs Bloomberg Quint as a digital live-streaming service. Meanwhile, Ambani himself has emerged as one of India’s most prominent media barons, owning large swathes of news space across TV, print, and online media.

With varied business interests straddling oil & gas to telecom, he or several others like him, who now hold big stakes in the country’s news business, can ill-afford to rub the government on the wrong side.

While the use of proxy businessmen and online intimidation tactics has allowed the government to closely control the narrative, what’s even more worrying is the willingness India’s top media houses have shown in these years to do the government’s bidding.

But that’s not to say that we’ve reached a point of no return. Last May, a sting operation by an outfit called Cobrapost showed that some 25 of India’s leading media organisations, including giants like The Times of India, The New Indian Express, and the India Today Group were willing to participate in propaganda for the BJP. Other outlets recorded in the sting, even agreed to spread communal hate in return for cash from the ruling party.

The sting was in some sense reflective of the extent to which the institutional nexus between mainstream media and the government had strengthened under this regime and possibly a harbinger of what was to come post-Pulwama.

But that’s not to say that we’ve reached a point of no return.

A glimmer of hope

Within the mainstream, there continue to be honourable exceptions such as New Delhi Television (NDTV) or The Hindu that soldier on despite the pressures.

Over the past few years, there has also been the rise of several small, but fiercely independent, online portals, fact-checking websites, and investigative outlets in the country: The Wire, Scroll*, BOOM Live, and Alt News to name a few.

Despite facing defamation suits and court cases, they have been responsible for some of the most important news breaks that have kept this government in check—and India’s democracy alive.

With no viable financial model yet emerging for online media portals, though, the question is how long can they keep going?

*Disclosure: Scroll is a sister publication of Quartz India.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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