Friendly Media, Yet India Slipping in Freedom Index

Atul Cowshish

Even in the years just after Independence, the media in India was never such an ardent supporter of the ruling party and its leader as it is now. A handful of exceptions do not prove the rule. Criticism is rare and, in any case, it is more than ‘balanced’ with undiluted praise for the top leadership of the ruling party.

So, it is inexplicable why India should slip within a year from 136th to 138th position in the World Freedom Index released on April 25 by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders—just days ahead of the World Press Freedom Day on May 5. Where is the need for the government to use highhanded methods to browbeat and tame unfriendly sections of the media, both individuals and institution when the media is so benign?

Many observers, not active journalists, have recalled the famous quote by the BJP ‘Margdarshak’, L.K. Advani, who said after the Emergency was lifted in 1977 that during those dark days of Press censorship, journalists willingly ‘crawled’ when asked to ‘bend’. The difference today seems to be that while much of the ‘crawling’ appears to be voluntary the government still feels insecure and resorts to arm-twisting. Some believe that today journalists are ‘crawling’ because the proprietors do not want to annoy the government.

One does not know whether to take seriously a statement, made by the prime minister in London during  an  event called Bharat ki Baat Sab ke Saath, that he loves ‘criticism’ when the experience is just the opposite. He went on saying that there can be no democracy if there is no criticism!

But in the same breath he made a distinction between ‘criticism’ and ‘allegation’, suggesting that he had faced ‘allegations’, not criticism. That looks like a clever ploy to defend his dislike for ‘criticism’.

If the prime minister really meant what he said about ‘loving’ criticism, India would not have slipped on the freedom scale. When the compilation of the freedom index began in 2002, India was at the 80th position out of a list of 139 countries. Today, India’s low position places it below Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Myanmar. And to think that India has one of the largest number of ‘independent’ media outlets, both print and electronic!

A recent New Delhi datelined Reuters’ report, widely circulated abroad, speaks of journalists facing ‘intimidation’ and being ‘stopped’ from writing anything critical of Narendra Modi and his administration. The report also says that some reporters have received threats of ‘physical harm’, abuses on social media and been ‘ostracized’ by the administration.

These allegations cannot be dismissed as ‘baseless’. At the ruling party briefings, no inconvenient questions are entertained and the odd ‘unfriendly’ questioner is booed by the fellow scribes. There is instant counter attack from the social media warriors, many of whom suspected to be on party payrolls, should something appear in the ‘mainstream’ media or news portals that is unflattering to the prime minister and his administration.

Recently, editors of two prominent English language newspapers with large readership were forced to quit because the ruling dispensation thought they had transgressed the limit of its tolerance of criticism. The editor of the Hindustan Times quit in September last year soon after the proprietor had met the prime minister. The paper had invited the wrath of the administration because it had started to compile data on ‘hate crime’ relating to religion, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. The paper called off the campaign soon afterwards in October.

The editor of the Tribune, run by a trust, was in trouble after the paper exposed flaws in Aadhar, the national identity project that the ruling party has hugged tightly after denouncing it vehemently when it was an Opposition party. The Tribune editor was undoubtedly a trenchant critic of the prime minister, unlike most other prominent journalists writing in the ‘mainstream’ media. But his criticism could not be equated with ‘allegations’.

In the year gone by, three journalists were killed; each one of them was a critic of the ruling dispensation. Journalists writing critically of the prime minister or the administration have to face ‘vicious’ trolling with all kinds of threats and vulgar abuses.

A Hindi language TV anchor, a critic of the ruling dispensation, is surrounded by hostile mobs within minutes of his arrival for spot coverage. The ‘loyal’ forces use technology and social media to harass him. A well-known female commentator is perhaps the most harassed among the ‘unfriendly’ journalists. The ‘loyalists’ do not hesitate to gather menacingly outside the homes of scribes they do not like and have no hesitation in threatening family members.

Interestingly, the present NDA government has perhaps been spending more lavishly on government publicity and image-building than any other previous government. But advertisements have become another tool to silence criticism: unfriendly journals face the prospects of denial of government ads. It is a guess, but perhaps 1000 publications, not considered ‘friendly’, have closed down in recent years because the revenue from ads had dried up. It may not be an ideal state, but ads released by the government help sustain most newspapers in India.

India was perhaps never among the top countries where journalists were able to express their views or write all that they saw without any fear. But before the present dispensation came to power, criticism of the previous government and its leadership was relentless and ruthless. Not all that criticism was based on facts; they were more in the nature of ‘allegations’, something the current prime minister strongly disapproves.

No editor of eminence was forced to quit in the previous regime and though social media had begun to act on behalf of political parties. The then critics of the government were not coerced or bullied the way they are now.  Interestingly, many of the top commentators who were consistent in their criticism of the then administration have become occasional or reluctant critics today. (Syndicate Features)


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