Journalists’ safety and media freedom both endangered in Indian election, panel warns

For video highlights from the India Media debate go to

By Raymond Whitaker

The traditional freedom and diversity of the media in India is under threat as never before from Hindu extremists who support the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP.

This was the conclusion of a panel of leading commentators on modern-day India who addressed a meeting organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS). at London University on February 18, 2019. The meeting, chaired by CJA-UK head Rita Payne, was told that intimidation was increasing with the approach of national elections.

James Manor “a war on the media”.

Professor James Manor, former Director of the ICwS, described the situation as “a war on the media”, with vigilantes characterising criticism of Hindutva, Hindu nationalism, as “anti-national thought”. Pressures included concerted campaigns of threats and character assassination on social media, defamation suits, arrests on sedition charges and physical attacks, even murder, most notably the shooting of the editor, Gauri Lankesh, in Bangalore.

Modi had not held an open press conference in five years, according to members of the panel. “He just picks his favourites,” said Nupur Basu, an India-based TV journalist and documentary maker. Salil Tripathi, an Indian-born journalist now based in London, where he chairs PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said the Prime Minister believed he could communicate directly with the public, bypassing traditional media.

Salil Tripathi “oppressive laws being revived”.

Tripathi recalled the restrictions imposed on the media during the state of emergency declared by the late Indira Gandhi. However bad they were, he said, she at least stepped aside when she lost the ensuring election. “There were certain norms of democracy,” Tripathi added. “What is happening today is that the norms are being attacked.”

Oppressive laws, many of them dating from the colonial era, such as the sedition law, had always been on the statute book, but now they were being used without restraint. The “most dangerous aspect” was that the state, instead of upholding the right of the person who spoke, tended to look the other way when the person who claimed offence went after the journalist or writer. In the worst cases this meant violent retaliation.

Basu pointed out that the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked India 14th in its latest global impunity index, with 18 unsolved murders of journalists. Women formed an increasing proportion of those murdered. She had started out in journalism with Gauri Lankesh, never imagining that one day her friend would be killed with seven bullets fired into her, and that even after her death, she would be the target of torrents of abuse on social media.

Nupur Basu “regional journalists particularly vulnerable”.

The ruling party had set up what Basu called a “war room” to monitor the media, described in more detail by Manor. He said over 250 BJP monitors tracked journalists, editors and participants in televised debates, dividing them into supporters and critics, with some monitoring the number of times Modi’s name was mentioned.

The information ministry also had some 200 people scrutinising TV channels and compiling dossiers on how, and how much, Modi and his leading associate, Amit Shah, were covered. Proprietors and editors were pressed to improve their coverage, even to the point of telling them which of Modi’s statements should be re-broadcast. The threat of advertising being withdrawn by interests linked to the BJP was another means of forcing the media into line, and self-censorship was growing.

While journalists in the main centres had some protection from attack, Basu said “smaller fish” at the regional level who sought to report on corruption, pollution and illegal exploitation of resources were particularly vulnerable. Manor, who spends much of each year in India, recounted numerous instances of intimidation in BJP-run states. In one, police often arrested reporters critical of the local authorities, and telephoned journalists to threaten them. In another, journalists and academics were arrested on dubious charges of “taking money from Maoists”. A BJP leader in a third state, warning journalists to “mind what they wrote”, reminded them of the murder of a journalist in that state.

Tripathi conceded that public sympathy for journalists was weakened by the media’s own failings. Low standards of accuracy and impartiality had eroded public trust, giving “fake news” greater currency. Manor pointed out that despite pressure on the media to fall into line, the BJP faced an uphill task to retain office – historically, Indian governments failed to win re-election 70 per cent of the time.

But even if the BJP was defeated, Tripathi concluded, the norms had shifted when it came to the treatment of journalists: “I am not optimistic.”

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