Analysis

India’s Press Under Siege

The following editorial appeared in New York Times on 27 July, 2014. LK Advani famously had said that the Indian media during Emergecny was merely asked to bend but it chose to crawl. Today under Modi, this media is in complete prostration. Under-hand dealings and paid news played havoc with the mainstream media in recent years, now entry of big business into media has made matters worse.

When Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, declared a state of emergency on June 25, 1975, she immediately imposed strict censorship of the press. With defiant exceptions, much of the press caved in quickly to the new rules, prompting L.K. Advani, one of the founders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who was jailed during the emergency, to comment later: “You were merely asked to bend, but you chose to crawl.”

Press censorship seems to be back with a vengeance in India, this time imposed not by direct government fiat but by powerful private owners and politicians. First, there were the phone calls recorded by tax investigators in 2009 between Niira Radia, a lobbyist for some of India’s most powerful corporations, and members of the media elite that revealed a dismayingly cozy relationship between the two. Last year, the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology issued its report on the scandal of “paid news,” in which political parties buy coverage.

More recently, media owners are bringing direct pressure on journalists to curb reporting or change editorial direction. Several prominent journalists have been pushed out of their jobs or have resigned in protest because they refused to go along. In October, Siddharth Varadarajan left The Hindu after the newspaper’s owner took over editorial direction. Hartosh Singh Bal was fired by Open magazine in November over the protests of his editor, Manu Joseph, who himself resigned in January.

The newspaper DNA pulled an article off its website this month by Rana Ayyub that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appointment of Amit Shah to head the Bharatiya Janata Party, citing the charges of murder, among other crimes, for which Mr. Shah is still technically on trial.

The world of Indian television was shaken by the resignations this month of Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose after their employer, TV18 Broadcast Ltd., was purchased in May by Reliance Industries Ltd., headed by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. TV18 has partnerships with the global media operations CNN, CNBC, Viacom, A&E Networks and Forbes magazine.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is promising that it will release recommendations on regulating media cross-ownership next month. The aim should be to make ownership of media companies in India transparent to the public, which is not the case now.

In February, Reporters Without Borders ranked India as one of the most restrictive countries in the world for press freedom. India’s government has a responsibility to act to protect the free press before corporate consolidation and private censorship further erode citizens’ right to know. (nytimes.com)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 October 2014 on page no. 11

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