‘Presstitutes’ for truth

In the vast and polarised landscape of the Indian media, speaking out against the ruling BJP means the denial of government favour and tirades of online abuse

Features
Ramon Magsaysay awardee Ravish Kumar speaks during a press conference in Manila on September 6, 2019 (GEORGE CALVELO/AFP via Getty Images)

When Ravish Kumar, one of India’s foremost journalists, accepted the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award last September for his “unfaltering commitment to a professional, ethical journalism of the highest standards”, he was brutally honest about the media in his homeland: news organisations, he said, were forcing uncompromising journalists out of their jobs; on-the-ground reporting had given way to anchored slanging matches; and the hundreds of broadcast channels focused exclusively on the “national syllabus” of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) .

To those who, like me, are part of the Indian media diaspora, Kumar’s unforgiving take on our national journalism was on-target. Major issues like the economy, the job crisis or the lockdown in Kashmir are seldom seriously discussed, and when they are, it is to toe the government line. There has been a sharp deterioration in quality reportage and analysis over the past few years. Loyal owners, editors and anchors know which perceptions will curry favour with the government. Several big media houses are owned by big business and the nexus between corporate India and politics is well-known.

“There is now an overt attempt by many print journalists and news anchors to please the ruling dispensation in an openly sycophantic manner that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago,” says the journalist and author Ajoy Bose. Of greater concern is how a section of the media, mostly national TV channels, are using the stick of patriotism to provoke a vile communal atmosphere. As a result, newsrooms have become toxic and there is a tacit acceptance of communal politics. “Sections of the media have contributed greatly to the growing intolerance in India. These sections seek to portray minorities and Muslims as second-class citizens, which is in keeping with the ideology of many in the ruling regime,” says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an independent journalist.

The media landscape in India is vast, from mainstream to regional. Roughly 100,000 publications are registered with the Registrar of Newspapers of India. About 900 TV channels have uplinking and downlinking licences from the Information and Broadcasting ministry, of which over 300 call themselves news and current affairs channels. Indian media is controlled by three laws: the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1955 (television), the Press Council of India Act, 1978 (Print and digital) and the Information Technology Act, 2000 (Digital). The industry’s self-regulatory bodies, the News Broadcasters Association and the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, are expected to play the role of ombudsmen.

Despite all the regulatory acts, the media, over the last four or five years, has lost its credibility. The media—mostly the liberal element—bear the brunt of abusive trolls. Sevanthi Ninan, a journalist and co-founder of the media-watch website Hoot.org, explains that a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi won the 2014 elections, he had reportedly “asked both senior bureaucrats and cabinet colleagues to refrain from speaking with journalists”. When surveyed on whether the government had really clammed up, journalists covering government said cabinet notes and cabinet meeting agendas were no longer available, nor were inter-ministerial exchanges. Only official media could accompany the prime minister on his trips abroad. As government distances itself from journalists, social media attacks discrediting them have increased.

Even for journalists living in London, covering bilateral issues concerning India can mean receiving a silent nudge not to criticise the government. I find it difficult to believe, but a large chunk of the media has come to sound like a mouthpiece. They are unabashed about blurring the dividing line between journalism and public relations.

M.K. Venu, co-founder of TheWire.com, notes that: “The government does not need the media because it connects directly to media through the PM’s monthly radio discourse and hundreds of WhatsApp groups with thousands working for each group, run by the BJP’s IT cell.” Apart from manipulating social media for its own purposes, the government, is “tightening the media through government advertisement and micromanaging the media by putting their own people in the industry,” he said. During the general elections earlier this year, the government withdrew substantial amounts of advertising from newspapers like The Hindu, Times of India and Economic Times after they published articles critical of economic policies. This was a serious punishment, given that central and provincial governments, most of them run by BJP, control about $1 billion of government advertising. The result has been what Sevanthi Ninan calls “careful journalism”: a widespread self-censorship. Over the past five years, to speak out has been to lose out. Much of the media has accepted that it needs the government to survive, instead of the other way round. Ajoy Bose, who co-authored For Reasons of State: Delhi under Emergency, said that during that period, from 1975-77: “All dissenters including many opposition leaders and activists were jailed, the press censored, and the judiciary shackled under special Emergency laws. Today there are no such overt restrictions but there is a concerted and increasingly successful attempt to muffle the opposition and media and manipulate institutions including the judiciary. You can call this a covert Emergency.”

In the current atmosphere, many of my colleagues have opted to break away to join or start platforms outside traditional media, despite the lack of funding. Several news websites have sprung up. Some are gaining credibility for their factual and well-researched work; others are riddled with fake news. This has given rise to fact-checking sites like Altnews. “Digital platforms today are the most reliable vehicles of both information and analysis on Indian current affairs,” Bose argues. “It remains to be seen whether they can sustain themselves despite commercial challenges and government pressures.”

India’s polarised politics has made for a polarised media: on one side, the liberal journalists who are mocked as “presstitutes”, on the other the unashamedly pro-government media dismissed as “godi media” (lap media). In this battle between rationalism and nationalism, as in several democracies across the world, the victim is a robust media—and the truth.