Modi’s message to the media
The prime minister exacts an increasingly higher price on freedom of the press.
Is media freedom in India under threat? A government investigative agency’s raids earlier this month on the founders of New Delhi Television, a prominent private broadcaster, have triggered a fierce debate in the country over this perennial question.
Critics accuse the government of Narendra Modi of fostering an environment that makes ordinary journalists afraid or unable to do their jobs. Many in the media cannot remember a time when they had to watch their step so carefully.
To the prime minister’s vocal fans, especially on social media, this is hogwash. They view much of the elite English-language media as ethically challenged and unremittingly hostile to the government.
While some of the more excitable crusaders for press freedom may exaggerate the problem—India is in no danger of becoming another Russia or Turkey any time soon—on the whole they are more right than wrong. On Mr. Modi’s watch, the space to criticize the government or the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party without fear of retaliation has indeed shrunk. If the action against NDTV is a portent, then in the run-up to the 2019 elections this space may shrink even more.
The government argues that its tussle with NDTV founders Radhika and Prannoy Roy has nothing do with media freedom. According to investigators, the Roys violated the law by obtaining a partial waiver of interest on a 2008 loan worth about 3.5 billion rupees (about $70 million at the time) from private bank ICICI.
In anonymous leaks to sympathetic media outlets, alleged government officials suggest they may also pursue more serious charges, including money laundering and concealment of income. NDTV denies any wrongdoing, and accuses the government of “an unsubstantiated, politically motivated and vindictive campaign” against it.
The government’s argument appears shaky. In India, large borrowers owe government-owned banks many billions of dollars. That the Central Bureau of Investigation’s case hinges on a nine-year-old loan repaid to a private bank seems to suggest, at the very least, an odd set of priorities.
The move against NDTV comes against the backdrop of a media landscape that has tilted noticeably toward the government. Prominent news channels now spend more time attacking the enfeebled opposition than scrutinizing the government. The front pages of several major newspapers increasingly read like official press releases. The burden of holding the government accountable for its missteps has largely shifted to opinion writers and a clutch of online publications with far less reach than TV or newspapers.
For the most part, Mr. Modi eschews interviews and press conferences, preferring to communicate directly through Facebook ,Twitter and a regular radio address. His junior foreign minister, V.K. Singh, has helped popularize the pejorative term “presstitute” to describe journalists.
The BJP pays lip service to the idea of a free press, but one that knows its place. In party President Amit Shah’s formulation, criticizing the government remains permissible but criticizing the nation is out of bounds.
Earlier this year, the party appointed as its spokesperson Tajinder Bagga, notorious for a televised 2011 assault on a left-wing lawyer and anticorruption activist he deemed too sympathetic to Kashmiri separatists. “He try to break my Nation, i try to break his head,” Mr. Bagga tweeted at the time.
Mr. Modi’s supporters tend to dismiss concerns voiced by journalists as much ado about nothing. And it’s certainly true that, unlike many developing countries, India remains a place where you can call the prime minister an imbecile without facing a lawsuit or a midnight knock on the door from a thug. Government critics are feted at literary festivals and regularly published in the most prestigious op-ed pages. They may lose access to top officials, but they aren’t queuing up for asylum in Sweden or languishing in prison.
Moreover, most of the Indian media’s problems predate Mr. Modi’s 2014 election. The owners of most major TV channels and newspapers juggle other business interests as well. They must negotiate a plethora of opaque laws and regulations that would make them vulnerable to government pressure. Many outlets also rely on government advertising to stay afloat. All this ensures that Indian journalism maintains a long tradition of kissing up to power rather than questioning it.
Things have nonetheless deteriorated on Mr. Modi’s watch. This government is particularly ruthless about cutting off access to reporters it deems unfriendly. The BJP also appears to at least tacitly encourage social-media lynch mobs that go after any journalist seen to be stepping out of line. No other major political party appoints trolls to responsible positions.
It may still be easier to practice journalism in Mr. Modi’s India than in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. But for a country that prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, that isn’t saying much.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.