Modi’s war on dissenting media in India

Aiming to control the national narratives by curtailing divergent voices, the government is brazenly and aggressively targeting the independent press and social media.

Increasingly, India is witnessing the targeting of dissident media and assaults on journalists under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, which critics say has amped up its attack on the country’s free press. The recent raids on the office of independent news portal NewsClick are seen not only as politically motivated to obstruct the work of the last bastion of independent media, but also signals a swift slide into authoritarianism. 

Ever since Modi took power in 2014, his ultra-right-wing government has either taken full control of the public media or pushed major private outlets into the arms of his close corporate allies, stifling their voices. Alternatively, it has stifled their voices through punitive actions. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has employed legal or quasi-legal mechanisms such as criminal, anti-terror and seditious laws, overt censorship and financial threats to intimidate journalists and media outlets that are perceived to be critical of the state’s policies.

Press freedom advocates and rights groups agree that journalists in India face serious risks in retaliation for their reporting, including physical assaults, online harassment, legal cases, imprisonment and even murder. The lack of judicial independence has only encouraged the government’s crackdown on the press.

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On 9 January, authorities conducted a raid at the Delhi office of NewsClick and led searches at the homes of several journalists associated with the digital news portal. Many regard these raids as a vindictive action against NewsClick for its extensive reportage of the ongoing farmers’ protests, which have shaken the government.

“This [raid] is part of the attempt to gag voices of protest against the government’s anti-people policies,” NewsClick noted in its editorial statement published after the raids.

Underscoring that the entire panoply of legal instruments available to the government was being deployed for “such politically motivated coercive actions”, NewsClick said the raids appeared to be part of a trend of deploying state agencies against those who refuse to toe the establishment’s line. 

The editor-in-chief and founder of NewsClick, Prabir Purkayastha, told Caravan magazine that the news portal had raised critical issues pertaining to workers and farmers in the country, and because of that it is “disliked” by those in power.

Shallow criticism

This view is echoed by journalist Shalini Nair, whose reportage over a decade has covered issues pertaining to gender-based violence, caste discrimination and unequal development.

Nair notes that most of the mainstream media in India have followed a statist line on the farm protests, and those who did critique the government’s handling of the protests did not extend their analysis to the devastating impact of the farm laws themselves but endorsed the need for such “reforms” in their editorials.

21 April 2020: Photojournalist Masrat Zahra works near a temporary checkpoint in Srinagar, Kashmir. She was booked for her ‘anti-national’ posts on Facebook. (Photograph by Faisal Khan/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“Such a structural analysis has been evident in the reportage of very few media outlets … NewsClick … has consistently critiqued not just the farm laws but across-the-board social sector policies of this government,” she said. 

Indian authorities purportedly carried out the searches to investigate an alleged money laundering case pertaining to foreign remittances that NewsClick received from abroad. Purkayastha, however, stated that his news organisation was unaware that it was being investigated and did not know there was a case registered against it.

“This lack of clarity around the raids on NewsClick only adds to the environment of fear and will have a chilling effect as the media fraternity draws a line between the outlet’s critical reporting and the raid,” said Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists, a United States-based organisation advocating for press freedom.

Intimidation through laws

NewsClick’s story of intimidation is not an isolated one. In recent years, silencing journalists through the use of anti-terror and anti-sedition legislation has proliferated under Modi’s rule. The raid came just days after numerous cases alleging sedition and the creation of “communal disharmony” were filed against six journalists over their “misleading” tweets on the violence during the farmers’ rally in Delhi on 26 January. The police in Uttar Pradesh also opened a case against two journalists from The Wire over their report about the alleged killing of a farmer during the rally.

“These are absolutely fear tactics. The notion that news reporting or tweeting is ‘seditious’ is beyond ridiculous,” said Iftikhar, adding that the attacks on journalists have become more “brazen in nature” under Modi. 

The assault on the media has echoed the muzzling of the press under former prime minister Indira Gandhi during the emergency years in the mid 1970s. But unlike in those days, a mostly pliant mainstream media has willingly accepted the government line, often serving the role of amplifying its propaganda. 

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“The one thing that sets apart this government’s handling of dissenting voices in the media, both at the centre and in the states, is its use of colonial-era sedition laws and the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act on journalists,” said Nair.

A Gujarat-based editor, Dhaval Patel, was charged with sedition for an article speculating that the BJP might replace the chief minister of the state. And veteran journalist Vinod Dua was accused of sedition for his shows on YouTube criticising the BJP. 

Road to autocracy  

Apra Vaidya, an assistant professor in political science at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, said that what separates the current attacks on the press from those of previous governments is the scale of the repression. “What is different is that earlier, the [public] outrage it generated sometimes necessitated corrective measures or relief from the government of that day. That aspect is completely missing these days from the public perception, so under this government’s rule [repressive] acts come with an added sense of impunity,” she noted.   

It doesn’t come as a surprise that there has been an exponential increase in the judicial or administrative harassment of dissenters, including spurious and politically motivated legal threats. This is because India has expansive definitions of terrorism and sedition, which allow authorities to arrest and detain anyone who voices political dissent or opposition, including journalists. Moreover, the lack of legal protections for journalists has bolstered authorities and far-right-wing actors linked to the BJP to silence the critics.

Global media watchdogs and rights advocates have underlined that those actors espousing Hindutva – the ideology that gave rise to Hindu nationalism – are trying to purge everything they deem to be “anti-national thoughts” from the national debate. Since Modi has been in power, there has been an increase in coordinated hate campaigns on social networks against journalists who dare to speak out or write about subjects that annoy Hindutva followers or Modi supporters. Iftikhar said Modi’s unwillingness to voice support for press freedom and condemn attacks against the media sends a message to the perpetrators that their actions are okay and they will not face consequences.

Sweden’s V-Dem Institute now lists India among the top 10 countries most quickly becoming autocracies, adding that it is “on the verge of losing its status as a democracy due to the severe shrinking of space for the media, civil society and the opposition”. India slipped to 53rd position in the 2020 Democracy Index’s global ranking owing to “democratic backsliding” and “crackdowns” on civil liberties. 

Closing the virtual space

The attack on NewsClick should be seen in the light of the growing space for online news platforms, which often operate more independently and report on issues seldom visible in the mainstream press. The Modi regime has sought to regulate their content and funding. It issued an order in November bringing online news portals and entertainment content providers under the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry.

The government is also looking to rein in social media platforms and is currently in a stand-off with Twitter over the issue of free speech and its legal limits in the country. Following the farmers’ agitation, the government had asked Twitter to block more than 1 300 accounts for allegedly “spreading misinformation and provocative content”, which included those of some journalists, activists and politicians. Twitter refused to comply, saying that these demands are inconsistent with Indian law.

25 February 2021: Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad addresses a press conference in New Delhi, India, on guidelines for social media and streaming services. (Photograph by Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The Indian authorities released the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules on 25 February, according to which social media platforms must remove any content within 36 hours after an administrative or legal order has been issued. Social media platforms are also required to provide information, including verified identities, to authorities within 72 hours.

Nair said the Modi government recognises that it cannot control dissent entirely, unless it extends its policing of thought and speech to social media. “The social media has emerged as a critical counter-space for marginalised groups and discourses that are excluded by the mainstream media,” she said, adding that the increased surveillance of – and self-censorship by – online platforms will shrink the already diminishing space for exchanging critical speech and ideas in the country.

Disclosure: New Frame collaborates with a number of progressive publications in South Africa and abroad, including NewsClick.

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