The second term of BJP rule in India has exposed the fake Indian image of a free, democratic or secular country. The media is an exact mirror of what is going on. The print and other media is so much under the control of the Hindutva team that it has become dangerous for journalists to disagree with the new (or not-so-new) ideology. Journalists and/or TV channel reporters have been subjected to police violence, threats to family members and danger of losing the job. There are among the most striking characteristics of the current state of press freedom in India.
In 2017, the International Press Institute (IPI) recorded the targeted killings of 12 Indian journalists. Media freedom group ‘Reporters Without Borders’ says India was taking the fifth place on their list of countries where journalists were killed in 2018. The IPI report highlighted not just the alleged murders of journalists but also trolling and threats online, which it linked to the “Hindu nationalist right”, “Journalists live in fear in India. Six were murdered this year and many others were the targets of murder attempts, physical attacks, and threats. Hate campaigns against journalists, including incitement to murder, are common on social networks and are fed by troll armies linked to the Hindu nationalist right,” the report said. In this year’s media freedom ranking India took place 140 out of 180 two places down the lane from last year.
The harassment is continuing unabated in the social media. An alarming rate of coordinated hate campaigns waged against journalists who dare to speak or write about subjects that annoy Hindutva has been reported. The emergence of a #MeToo movement in the social media in 2018 has lifted the veil on many cases of harassment and sexual assault to which women reporters have been subjected. One of those killed was the activist Gauri Lankesh, who was gunned down in her driveway in September 2017. Known as a fearless advocate for the marginalised and leftist causes, her death sent shockwaves through the media. Leading women activists in India noted that at present it is Hindutva that is the main challenge to women’s assertion with their highly patriarchal understanding of what and where a woman’s place should be.
The coverage of regions that the authorities regard as sensitive, such as Kashmir, continues to be extremely difficult. This applies to anti-Indian movements in India’s North-eastern region and to the activities of the Naxalite insurgency that has been fighting against the Indian state for decades and has succeeded to wrench power from it in a number of districts. There is hardly any reporting done about this in official Indian media. With regard to Kashmir, where a conflict with Delhi has been raging for the last seventy years and has taken even more violent form since 2011, foreign reporters are barred from there with internet often disconnected. Since Delhi by a stroke of the pen erased the Kashmiri government and parliament by revoking Article 370 providing a special status of autonomy to Kashmir, the area has seen dramatic curbs on people’s movement and communication. This has also had an adverse impact on press freedom. Indian authorities have cut all communications, imposed a curfew and deployed thousands of additional troops to a region which is already one of the most militarized in the world. The suspension of communication services, including the internet and landline phones, has made it difficult for information to trickle out of Kashmir. The media blackout in Kashmir has lifted media un-freedom to a new level, this has for the first time attracted adverse reaction in the west.
The clampdown has made media reporting from Kashmir increasingly difficult. Many mainstream Indian media outlets have had to limit themselves to publishing reports and showing footage of Kashmiris praising the decision taken by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Some aired videos showing crowds lined up in front of banks and ATMs, and people going about their daily chores. The government also released videos and images to convey the message that the region remains calm and peaceful. “What is being shown is a picture of normalcy, to create an impression that life for Kashmiris was back on track, while downplaying the critical reports in some international outlets and a handful of Indian news portals about unrest in the region,” Hartosh Singh Bal, a senior journalist and media commentator, told German international TV channel Deutsche Welle. “This was bound to happen. Clearly, the government is controlling the narrative and a pliant, nationalistic mainstream press is happy to play along,” Bal said.
To defame Pakistan and attack its government and armed forces, media reporting is increasingly used in a war-like manner. Clashes along the LoC almost daily has resulted in deaths of many soldiers and civilians but is reported in a distorted way or not reported at all. Based on the ongoing media war the relationship between India and Pakistan has deteriorated to the lowest level in decades. New Delhi on Monday unwillingly had to admit that convicted spy Kulbhushan Jadhav’s statement to Indian senior diplomat during consular access supported Pakistan’s stand on his case, but claimed that the convicted spy was ‘under extreme pressure’.
India has had a vigorous media culture and free-speech laws in the past, press freedom has deteriorated over the past five years in particular, for a variety of reasons, the most important being the rule of right-wing Hindutva nationalists who try to refurbish India and Indians. With numerous journalists killed in recent years, the wider context points to a dangerous sign of how the world’s largest democracy is evolving. Besides the looming threat of being murdered, Indian journalists also face coordinated online harassment if they speak critically of the government. Many TV anchors have been removed from prime time debates and editors and correspondents who do not propagate the ruling party’s political views are either being disempowered in their editorial ranks or simply fired. In another form of assault on press freedom. Fake news or distorted news that suits the ruling party’s propaganda has been dominating the news cycle ever since Modi came into power.
It would be interesting to note how that segment of the Pakistani media who day in and day out regale us about media freedom in India react to this concerted assault on media freedom in India. It is high time they should be exposed to be the anti-Pakistan elements that they are!
(Ikram Sehgal is a Karachi-based defense and security analyst and Dr Bettina Robotka, formerly of Department of South Asian Studies Humboldt University, Berlin).