In Context: Indian media no longer free under Modi’s regime

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

This morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to address the media fraternity on the occasion of National Press Day. On this day fifty one years ago, November 16, 1966, the Press Council of India assumed it’s role of being a watchdog for the Indian media.

Expressing his views on the media, PM said that “A free press is the cornerstone of a vibrant democracy. We are fully committed to upholding freedom of press and expression in all forms.” The rest of his statement can be read in the following Tweets:

Just over a week ago, on November 6, speaking at the 75th anniversary of a newspaper, the PM addressed the press in more critical tones. He said that the freedom to write, and to decide what is to be written, does not include the freedom to be “less than accurate”, or “factually incorrect.” He even quoted Mahatma Gandhi, saying that “The press is called the Fourth Estate. It is definitely a power, but to misuse that power is criminal.” He also said, “Even though media may be owned by private individuals, it serves a public purpose. As scholars say, it is an instrument to produce reform through peace, rather than by force. Hence, it has as much social accountability as the elected government or the judiciary.”

The Indian press, however, seems to be in a state of crisis. As per the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, India dropped three places and is ranked at 136, in the “situation difficult” category. “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media. Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals,” the report said. Additionally, the 2017 India Freedom Report, which was published in May by media watchdog The Hoot, observed “an overall sense of shrinking liberty not experienced in recent years”.

US-based Freedom House, in its Freedom of the Press 2017 report, slots India under the “Partly Free” category. In last year’s report, the present regime was criticised for the state of Indian media: “Media workers continued to face obstacles under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Journalists reported difficulty gaining access to government officials, and expressed concern over heavy-handed government censorship during the year. Journalists and writers reported receiving threats in connection with their work amid a national debate on whether there was rising intolerance in the country.”

Source: Reporters Sans Frontières

Several journalists have come under fire for their work recently, especially those who are seen as propagating opinions that might be damaging to the current dispensation. In September, the assassination of veteran journalist Gauri Lankesh, editor of the Kannada weekly Lankesh Patrike, sparked a huge debate on the situation of press freedom in India. In the same week, 28 year old Santanu Bhowmik, of Tripura’s Din Raat news channel was murdered while covering a violent clash between the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and the ruling CPI(M)’s tribal wing, Tripura Rajaer Upajati Ganamukti Parishad (TRUGP), in the Mandai area of Tripura, 25 km from the state capital Agartala.

The stifling of press can also be seen in the media silence that followed The Wire’s investigative piece on the finances of Jay Shah, son of Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah. Modi loyalists have called the article a hit-job, while others have praised it as a work of strong adversarial journalism. Outfits such as Youth ki Awaaz, The Wire, Janta Ka Reporter and Scroll are seen as an important, albeit niche, arm of the Indian media, providing a foil to the Centre and mainstream news channels.

Earlier, in August, following unrest in Punjab’s Panchkula district over the Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh verdict, Union I&B Minister Smriti Irani posted the following, warning the press to exercise restraint.

A recent feature in Al Jazeera, Is free speech under threat in Modi’s India?, is more telling in this regard.