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Friday June 21, 2024

Modi and the media

Dozens of interviews he gave in the run up to and during the election process only reveal the extent of the Indian media’s complete surrender before Modi

By Amanat Ali Chaudhry
June 10, 2024
Indias Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, June 9, 2024. — Reuters
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, June 9, 2024. — Reuters

For someone who never held a single press conference in his two terms in prime ministerial office and did not present himself for an interview with any bona fide journalist, Narendra Modi’s ‘interview’ with Newsweek on April 30 this year was a rarity.

However, a cursory glance at the published text makes one realize that what passed for an interview was actually an exercise in public relations. The rather longish interview that covered several topics reads more like a propaganda piece than a formal interview. Modi was not asked any question or counter-questions. He kept speaking and the editorial board of Newsweek listened to him with rapt attention.

It was odd, nay insulting, for a global publication that stature to fall in line but then this behaviour by an otherwise respected publication was in line with the broader pattern of how Modi has treated the media on his own terms.

The dozens of interviews he gave in the run up to and during the election process only reveal the extent of the Indian media’s complete surrender before Modi. To say that the Indian media, a few exception apart, has been reduced to being a mouthpiece of the ruling BJP in general and Modi in particular will not be wide off the mark.

Over the years, several media platforms have become mouthpieces for the right-wing Modi government and have been ‘leveraged’ as a source of spreading false information and biased narratives, particularly targeting Indian Muslims, Dalits, and other dissenters. Contentious issues that the media has misrepresented include Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the treatment of minority communities, especially Muslims.

Since Modi’s rise to power, certain media channels, notably those with affiliations or sympathies towards the BJP have faced serious accusations of promoting conspiracies and narratives that target Muslims.

These outlets have often been criticized for prioritizing sensationalism over factual reporting, with news stories frequently framed to align with the ruling party’s political agenda.

According to a 2022 report by the German think tank Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 45 per cent of news consumers, both Hindu and Muslim, found mainstream Indian news biased in favour of the Modi government. This selective reporting has marginalized or excluded dissenting voices, opposition parties, and alternative perspectives, effectively stifling meaningful public discourse and contributing to the polarization of Indian society.

This raises concerns about the erosion of journalistic integrity and independence in Modi’s India. Amidst this backdrop, Muslims experienced heightened demonization and marginalization as instances of bigotry and Islamophobia resurfaced in public discourse.

In the run-up to the elections, the Hindutva Watch website, which documents Hindutva hate speeches and events, was no longer accessible in India by January 2024. According to Hindutva Watch’s 2023 reports, 80 per cent of the 255 documented cases of anti-Muslim hate speeches occurred in BJP-ruled states.

Similarly, during the opening ceremony of the Ayodhya temple on the site of the former Babri Masjid, the Indian mainstream media celebrated the inauguration without considering its historical context and freely indulged in spreading disinformation about the masjid.

Right-wing news channels stoked disharmony and focused coverage on Muslim hatred. A channel’s chairperson even advocated for an economic boycott of Muslims and breaking all ties with the community. According to ‘The New York Times’, this chairperson was present at the Ayodhya temple inauguration.

The BJP harnessed machine learning technology to bolster its propaganda efforts, marking a significant shift towards AI-driven strategies. Despite major overhauls within tech companies, the regulatory framework struggles to keep pace with the evolving technological landscape.

A notable incident of dissent suppression occurred when the Indian tax department raided the BBC office in New Delhi following the release of the documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’, which focused on Modi’s alleged involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots. In response to the raids, the BBC office in India restructured its operations due to new legislation on foreign investments, requiring news organizations in India to be primarily owned by Indian citizens.

Amidst a politically charged environment, mainstream news outlets often exacerbate tensions, while critics and journalists face severe repercussions for challenging government policies. The misuse of counter-terrorism laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) further stifles dissent, leading to prolonged detentions without convictions.

According to a Human Rights Watch 2023 report, the New Delhi police arrested the editor and an employee of NewsClick, known for its critical stance against the BJP, and raided the homes of 46 journalists associated with the outlet, alleging illegal foreign funding. Author Arundhati Roy and a Kashmiri academic also faced prosecution for purported offences dating back to 2010, including charges under the UAPA.

The misuse of counterterrorism charges extended beyond mainland India. Fahad Shah, editor of ‘The Kashmir Walla’, and Kashmiri reporter Sajad Gul, detained since early 2022, faced re-arrest under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act post-bail. Shah also faced trial in a separate UAPA case linked to a 2011 article, finally securing release in November 2023 after prolonged detention.

In 2023, the Indian government invoked the UAPA to detain 16 activists advocating for marginalized communities, alleging involvement in inciting violence during a January 2018 Dalit meeting. According to Human Rights Watch, the government resorted to planting malware on activists’ phones for monitoring.

Despite a surge in UAPA implementation, Amnesty International’s analysis of recent crime data revealed minimal convictions under this law. Only 2.2 per cent of cases between 2016 and 2019 resulted in court verdicts, with nearly 10 per cent closed due to insufficient evidence, highlighting the widespread misuse of counter-terrorism laws to suppress media dissent.

The plight of Rana Ayyub, a prominent journalist critical of the BJP, underscores the systematic suppression of journalism and press freedom in India. Ayyub gained recognition through investigative reporting on the 2002 Gujarat communal riots, exposing governmental negligence that led to over 1,000 deaths, primarily among Muslims. However, her efforts to hold those in power accountable were met with severe backlash, including the dissemination of a fake pornographic video and numerous threats on social media.

The resilience of journalists like Fahad Shah in Kashmir underscores the risks faced by those who dare to speak truth to power. Following the revocation of Kashmir’s statehood in 2019, critical journalists like Shah have routinely endured extensive interrogations and solitary confinements in carrying out their work.

In 2021, the EU DisinfoLab exposed a sophisticated disinformation network operated by India since 2005. This network included fake newspapers, think tanks, NGOs, and the newswire service ANI, all aimed at advancing Indian interests and undermining Pakistan globally. The Srivastava Group was identified as the orchestrator of these activities, targeting institutions like the EU and the UN.

The EU DisinfoLab also noted the broader implications of India’s disinformation campaign, including its role in promoting Modi’s Hindutva ideology domestically.

The media landscape in India illustrates a complex interplay between political power, journalistic integrity, and minority rights. Incidents such as the tax raid on the BBC office in New Delhi, the misuse of counterterrorism laws, and the spread of disinformation about Indian Muslims highlight the challenges faced by journalists and media outlets striving to uphold freedom of expression and hold those in power accountable.

Modi has distinguished himself by using the media as a mouthpiece to project his Hindutva-inspired political ideology as well as an instrument to demonize and marginalize minority communities. This presents a present and real danger to freedom of expression, inter-communal harmony and regional peace whose full implications have yet to be grasped.

The writer is an alumnus of the University of Sussex and has a degree in international journalism. He tweets/posts @Amanat222