From a high-profile public spat between two leading television journalists to a media clampdown in a troubled region and the sacking of a top editor known for his disdain for the ruling dispensation, one of Asia’s most vibrant media sectors is facing scrutiny over the degree of freedom it really enjoys.
“Bring them to trial! Shut them up!” India’s most-watched anchor Arnab Goswami, told his audience on a recent show. Goswami is the editor-in-chief of English-language news channel Times Now, modelled after Fox News, and is both widely watched and ridiculed for his outbursts on his nightly talk shows. Targets of his self-righteous rage range from politicians to diplomats, but this time he was training his gun on an unlikely species – fellow journalists.
Goswami’s ire was directed at a section of the media reporting both on the heavy state response to mass protests in India’s trouble-torn Jammu as well as the despair and agony of the local people caught in the crossfire between an unyielding state and alienated and angry youth. For Goswami, anybody siding with the protesters in Kashmir is “anti-national”. For decades, Kashmir has been in the throes of an insurgency, which India blames Pakistan for fanning.
“An unprecedented moment in India’s media history…a leading journalist has actually called upon the government to put other journalists on trial,” fired back Barkha Dutt, anchor of rival channel NDTV, in a blog post tearing into Goswami.
At the heart of the bitter exchange lay the tension between a historically left-leaning liberal English-language media and the conservative right, which is witnessing a rare upsurge in India alongside the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. The controversy over Kashmir reportage has only brought out this widening fault line in India’s mediascape.
The latest mass unrest erupted in Kashmir in July when protesters took to the streets after the security forces killed a popular young militant fighting for secession from India. The authorities retaliated with a heavy hand, declaring curfew and using pellet guns to disperse mobs, leaving scores of protesters blind and disfigured.
Parts of Kashmir were made off-limits for the media, making it impossible to report from the ground. The curfew is now being lifted slowly after nearly two months but while it was on, midnight raids on media outlets and seizure of printed copies of newspapers were commonplace. Social media wasn’t exempt either, with posts about the protests routinely deleted.
“This crude muzzling of the press doesn’t even begin to take into account the constraints that editors and proprietors themselves impose for reporters to be ‘nationalist’ rather than objective,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of online news website, The Wire.
Naseer Ahmed, a Kashmir-based senior journalist, recently resigned from a leading national news channel, alleging pressure from his bosses to ignore stories about human suffering.
“There is greater space for right of centre narrative in the media, which is not surprising when you have India’s first majority right-wing government in power. I have no problems with a news media representing alternative viewpoints, my issue is with the coarsening of the public discourse, the name calling and the demonisation of those who dissent with the official narrative. There is a jingoism which passes off as journalism and has seeped into newsrooms,” said Rajdeep Sardesai, an editor at the India Today Group.
One of the most respected television journalists in India, Sardesai was forced to exit CNN IBN, a news channel he had helped build from scratch. With business interests aligning themselves with pro-market Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, the space for journalists like Sardesai who have been critical of the new prime minister in the past is fast shrinking. Several editors have met with similar fates since Modi came to power in 2014.
The latest victim is Krishna Prasad, editor of influential news magazine Outlook, who was abruptly removed after an investigative report critical of the BJP’s ideological parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
The tendency to twist the arms of media houses is hardly unique to the Modi government. Previous governments led by the Congress party would do the same by various degrees, say veteran journalists, who complain the current dispensation has taken it to a whole new level.
“While the Congress [party] was more than willing to coerce editors to ensure friendly coverage, it was not as ideologically driven. This government has systemically attempted to silence dissenters in the media and liberal voices are either being coerced through pressure on media owners or are being crowded out even in spaces such as Twitter by organised ideology-driven trolling,” said Hartosh Bal, political editor of English-language news magazine The Caravan.
India ranks a lowly 133 among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2016 of Reporters Without Borders. Freedom House has put India on its watch list of regions where censorship is on the rise, along with China, which ranks 176.
“Journalists and bloggers are attacked and anathematised by various religious groups that are quick to take offence. At the same time, it is hard for journalists to cover regions such as Kashmir that are regarded as sensitive by the government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems indifferent to these threats and problems, and there is no mechanism for protecting journalists,” noted Reporters Without Borders in its report, which classifies Indian media as partly free.
The sense of insecurity among journalists is part of a wider ecosystem of intolerance for dissenting views. Earlier this year, the government arrested a leftist student leader in New Delhi, on charges of sedition. Several rationalists fighting superstition, religious demagoguery and discrimination have been killed in the past two years, allegedly by Hindu zealots, who have also been attacking beef eaters and cattle traders. The cow is revered as a god by Hindus.
According to Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a media scholar and editor of the left-wing Economic and Political Weekly, there has been an unprecedented polarisation in the media as a result of “the right-wing, Hindu nationalist, majoritarian ideology of the BJP”.
As those perceived to be critical of the government or the ruling party are denied access to politicians and officials, cutting them off from the news cycle, big media houses have been trying to minimise friction and fall into line. A direct fallout has been the mushrooming of alternative online platforms, where much of the critical journalism is migrating.
And this is where Varadarajan sees hope. “There is greater independent writing online than in print, where the business stakes tend to be higher. But it is way too early to write off the Indian print industry. There is lots of great, fearless journalism still going on there,” he said.
A former television journalist in India, Swati Maheshwari is a doctoral candidate at Hong Kong Baptist University researching censorship in Indian media