Alert the Media: India’s Freedom of the Press under Threat by Anagha Kadambi @ American University
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under pressure from the news media, opposition parties, and others, recently withdrew a proposed bill to punish purveyors of so-called “fake news” by stripping them of accreditation. This accreditation allows journalists and media organizations access to the Indian government. A prominent Indian journalist, Shekhar Gupta, had called the bill a “breathtaking assault on mainstream media” and advocated resistance. While Modi’s actions in the wake of mass outcry hint at his amenability under pressure, the impulse behind his government’s efforts to censor media coverage suggest that democratic erosion may still be at play in the world’s largest democracy.
A key component of democracy is the freedom of the press; that freedom encompasses diverse views of government activities, ranging from positive to extremely negative. In the United States, the media is often referred to as the fourth branch of government, and press freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. The ability of news organizations to freely cover the activities of politicians, businesses, and civil society is a key measure of democratic health, and imposed restrictions on this ability often indicate a decline in democracy. The political and civil rights watchdog Freedom House, reputed for its measures of freedom around the world, ranks India’s press as only Partly Free, citing challenges faced by journalists in their efforts to cover current events in the country. This “ array of obstacles” includes political interference in the publishing of content and limited access granted by Modi’s government to the press. They do note that India’s media is, by their calculations, the freest in South Asia, suggesting that press restrictions are common in the region. Additionally, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders, has ranked India as 136 out of 180 countries. Their main point for ranking India so poorly is the “self-censorship…in the mainstream media” with Hindu nationalists attempting to muzzle supposed “anti-national” thought from public debate. They also note the death of three journalists in the first four months of 2018.
Political interference in the ability of media to freely conduct its business is not new in India. Section 124a of the penal code punishes sedition with life imprisonment, which compels journalists to self-censor in order to avoid prosecutors who attempt to “gag journalists who are overly critical of the government.” Additionally, numerous laws dealing with defamation and inciting hatred are often used to punish accused offenders. From 1975 to 1977, during the authoritarian Emergency period of Indira Gandhi’s rule, the government curbed domestic criticism of its actions by effectively banning the publication of critical information about the government. This information included the publishing of both rumors and reproduction of foreign newspaper coverage. Journalists were jailed in the initial crackdown on media; later tactics included cutting electricity to news outlets deemed critical of Gandhi’s government, which led to an overall increase in positive coverage of the government.
In 1988, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira, proposed a Defamation Bill motivated by media coverage of corruption scandals that implicated the Congress Party to which he belonged. The bill was similar to the one proposed by Modi; it would have punished “criminal imputation” and “scurrilous writings,” with the government determining what constituted those violations. Like Modi, Rajiv Gandhi was met by a torrent of opposition from groups ranging from media organizations to trade unions to opposition parties. The opposition parties argued that the bill represented the Congress Party’s inherently corrupt nature and their desire to “muzzle the press to pre-empt publicising [sic] of further scandals.”
The Modi government has received sustained attention for its actions against critical media views. Most notably, in June 2017, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided the offices of the country’s oldest English-language network, NDTV, and the properties of its founders, Prannoy and Radhika Roy. They cited criminal financial activity on the part of the couple and registered a criminal case against them. NDTV reporters, along with other journalists, cited this as a sign of growing press restrictions on media organizations, especially those deemed critical of the Prime Minister and his nationalist ideology. NDTV is generally characterized as one of the more liberal networks in the Indian media landscape, which now includes more pro-Modi voices than critical or neutral views, so journalists saw the raid as a sign that Modi was following the path of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi in a quest to restrict the freedom of the press in India. The current status of the NDTV case is unclear, as India’s court system is notoriously slow, but the network does not appear to have altered its coverage.
With the growing influence of social media and alternate ways of disseminating news, the Modi government has also taken efforts to monitor the online activities and communications of citizens through the creation of a Central Monitoring System, which allows authorities to “intercept any digital communication in real time without judicial oversight.” This tool could be used by the government as part of its attempted crackdown on “fake news” spread online. Some have noted that Modi’s efforts to fight “fake news” are ironic, given the close relationship many in his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have with people like Mahesh Hegde, the owner of an online news portal known for propagating false stories about Muslims in India.
Press freedom remains vital to democratic society. Journalists provide a crucial link between the activities of politicians and citizen awareness. Severing this link through the manipulation of media coverage threatens to weaken Indian democracy by making it harder for citizens to hold their representatives accountable for their actions. Modi’s decision to withdraw his proposed reforms may have momentarily delayed the further erosion of press freedom, but based on historical patterns, media freedom in India remains far from guaranteed.
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*Photo by Darshak Pandya (Pexels), Creative Commons Zero license