The protests in India against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which grants a fast track to citizenship for certain religious-minority immigrants, have underlined the importance of not just the democratic process, which includes the right to peaceful protest, but also the role of the media in covering the government’s response to the protesters.
I work as a journalist in India and am happy and proud to be part of what I regard as a free press in the country. The website I helped found four years ago, The Wire, shines a critical light – a pretty harsh one – on the government, on politics and on big business. And there are others like us.
Sure, the politicians and ministers and captains of industry do not like what we do and have made their displeasure known in various ways; but show me a democracy where the government loves the media and chances are the media is not doing its job. So why is it then that India – a country with a free press and an independent judiciary – does so badly on global indices measuring media freedom? In 2019, the country slipped two places down to 140 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. How do we reconcile the fact that there is a constitution, laws guaranteeing press freedom, and media platforms fiercely doing their job, with India’s falling rank?
What has happened over the past few years is that a major section of the media has crossed over to the dark side. Without being formally censored or compelled by other means to comply with official diktats, these media houses have simply stopped doing their job. They have stopped asking difficult questions about the government and its policies. They are in awe of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his senior ministers and are reluctant to be critical of them.
Many, sadly, have become mouthpieces of official propaganda. Some do not think twice about promoting religious polarisation and even hatred in pursuit of the political agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
There is also a major section of the media which is reluctant to be seen rocking the boat mainly because their proprietors have business interests that could be jeopardised. It is commonplace for governments at the central and state level to use official advertising as a lever of influence on the media. But there is also a darker side: With most investigative agencies functioning at the beck and call of ruling politicians, proprietors fear becoming the target of a vendetta if their reporters are seen as taking on the establishment.
For those of us still willing to do our job, there are indirect financial pressures, of course, but also legal tactics aimed at silencing critical coverage. Defamation laws are misused to embroil editors and reporters in frivolous cases that can take us years to shake off. At one time, The Wire was facing 14 defamation suits filed by governing party politicians and their family members, businessmen and even a godman – a high-profile guru – known to be close to the establishment. Total damages currently being sought in these bogus cases against us run to over one billion dollars.
In the past few months, the government has sought new ways to get a grip on the country’s scrappy digital media. It has announced new restrictions on foreign investment in digital media, including approval on a case-by-case basis, and is also proposing to introduce a compulsory registration process for news and current affairs websites.
A new tactic, which affects not just media freedom but the freedom of speech and communication of ordinary citizens, is the imposition of bans on the usage of the internet and social media. In Jammu and Kashmir, a “temporary” ban on social media has lasted more than 200 days now.
Broadband internet remains banned and limited data internet access was permitted after a two-month hiatus but only for low-speed access to “whitelisted” sites.
The latest assault on freedom of speech is the government’s decision to charge Kashmiris who access the internet via VPNs under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Given the growing interface between social media and news media, this clampdown can only have a further chilling effect on press freedom.
While the media in India has always had to contend with unfriendly politicians in the past, they could, with the exception of the 1975-1977 Emergency, at least count on the support of the country’s judges if the going got tough. What makes the current phase so dangerous is both the Modi government’s level of intolerance and the reluctance of the courts to defend free speech and press freedom.
The press freedom we have in India should no longer be taken for granted. And it is only if we use our freedom – fiercely and fearlessly – that we can stave off future assaults on it.