Opinion

Media in the Modi era: How did India’s watchdog press become so docile?

The government does not need to impose any kind of direct curb on the media.

India is talking about the 1975 Emergency again even as its 42nd anniversary, on June 25, hovers around the corner. Some people believe that freedom of the press is endangered once again. Yet how many people are really bothered about the freedom of the press?

This is a question that was often asked during the Emergency. The answer then was: not many. It is possible that even today, if a survey were to be taken, that would be the answer. In the order of priorities in India, press freedom does not rank very high.

But the principal lesson from the Emergency was that while the absence of an inquiring and free press made no difference to the moneyed classes who were pleased that trains ran on time, for the poor, who are voiceless at the best of times, there was a void that swallowed up their tale of increased oppression. There were whispers about forced sterilisation, about ruthless slum demolitions, about increasing hunger and deprivation, but there were no reports on this in the media.

In the end, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose to believe the censored press that reported only the good news and what she wanted to hear. She called for elections in 1977 confident that the people, especially the poor, loved her. Yet ultimately it was the poor, in whose name she suspended fundamental rights, who turned against her. The full truth about their oppression during the Emergency only surfaced after press censorship was lifted.

Emergency vs undeclared Emergency

If there is any comparison between 1975-’77 and now, it is surely only in the fact that even without censorship, many stories of the way the poor are suffering do not find space in the mainstream media. The plight of the poor only becomes front-page news when they protest and are shot or beaten up.

It is also clear now, three years into Narendra Modi’s term as prime minister, that his government does not need to impose any kind of direct censorship on the media. The media, by and large, has already fallen in line. Even documentary films on subjects the government does not like are stopped from being screened at film festivals. However small the critical component of mainstream and other media, this government is not prepared to tolerate any of it. Shut it down, is the clear message.

Many of us in the media are hesitant to navel-gaze at this particular juncture when the government is targeting media that is critical. Yet, the Indian media must ask, how is it that within three years of the Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power, it has turned from being adversarial, even hostile at times to the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, to being pliant, even docile, under this government?

‘Clear shift from UPA rule’

After talking to several senior Delhi-based journalists who have covered both the BJP and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance for many years, an interesting picture has emerged.

Those who covered the two terms of the UPA recalled how critical even those who were generally supportive of the government were during that time. Every new scheme introduced by the government was looked at closely – the media discussed whether these schemes could work, reporters checked on rural employment guarantee programmes, on government efforts to end open defecation, on urban renewal programmes, and often exposed shortcomings.

In the three years since the Modi government came to power, such investigations are few and far between. Take for instance the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana, where families below the poverty line are given an LPG connection with the upfront payment waived. Hoardings around India, depicting Modi’s face, announce that his government has saved women from being slowly poisoned by smoke from wood-based stoves by this woman-friendly gesture.

Yet, where are the stories checking whether such a scheme is practical, or even working on the ground? Some business papers have uncritically carried reports based on a survey by a company called MicroSave Asia, which gave glowing accounts of how the scheme was benefitting women.

So far, I have only come across one story that tells it like it is – a report on this website by Dhirendra K Jha. After talking to the supposed beneficiaries of the scheme, Jha shows how impractical it is to expect families below the poverty line to have the money to pay Rs 650 or more for a gas cylinder even if the first one – as well as the stove – are given to them free of cost through a loan.

Far from the “healthier, happier women” depicted in the MicroSave survey, many women who signed up for the Ujjwala scheme are returning to using wood for fuel.

Access denied

While decisions about investigating the reality behind government schemes often rests with editors, what is happening to journalists whose job it is to report on the government and major political parties?

Like most capital cities around the world, Delhi is a city of patronage. Journalists work hard to build contacts. Newspaper editors and owners value journalists with important contacts. They prove useful not just in terms of getting stories, but also in helping owners gain access to the government at crucial junctures (remember the Niira Radia tapes?). Therefore cultivating these contacts is part of the game of journalism for journalists based in Delhi, or for that matter in any state capital. None of that has changed with the present government. What is different, however, say journalists, is that in the past, even if they belonged to a news organisation that was critical of the ruling party, ministers, bureaucrats and members of the ruling party would talk to them. Today these insiders are much more cautious.

One journalist pointed out that before the Uttar Pradesh elections earlier this year, it was still possible to find people within the ruling party who would express some critical views about the way the BJP functioned, even if it was off the record. But since the saffron party’s stunning electoral victory in India’s most populous state, such talk has virtually dried up.

One senior journalist pointed out that today to get any information, they have to work much harder. For instance, they have to haunt the BJP office even if important functionaries are not present in the hope that over time someone would talk. These journalists say that there was greater access in the past.

While press conferences conducted by the official BJP spokespersons are usually quite cordial, and even those asking difficult questions are given time, this is not so during media interactions with BJP president Amit Shah. Since the big Uttar Pradesh win earlier this year, he has become even ruder with those he considers to be critics, usually asking them to shut up instead of answering their questions. The rest of the media fraternity present shows little solidarity with the journalist so treated.

The bureaucracy is also much more guarded while meeting journalists. They can cover routine matters, but attempts to try and dig into what is actually going on, what gets discussed at cabinet meetings, how decisions are taken, who is in favour and who is not, possible cabinet reshuffles – basically the grist of much political reporting from Delhi – throws up precious little.

Those who have access are the ones clearly on the side of the government. They report the good news – all the schemes are working spectacularly, the economy is doing well, demonetisation has had no negative impact, and achhe din (good days) are just around the corner. The negatives are reserved for bashing the Opposition, or whatever little there is of it.

All is (not) well

So the ordinary media viewer or reader is led to believe that all is well barring a few stray incidents – a lynching here or there, a few protests, a passing communal incident.

This clever strategy has worked because the media too has played along. Individual journalists have bought into the government’s propaganda and owners of media houses have sent a message down the line that too much criticism of the government is unwarranted. So censorship? Who needs it?

Incidentally, most of my observations relate to print media. I am not even touching on the insanity that has taken over television news where the line between reality and hysteria has been erased.

To end, let me quote India’s wise and prescient Vice President Hamid Ansari. At the release of a special edition of the National Herald in Bengaluru on June 12, he said:

“In this age of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ where ‘advertorials’ and ‘response features’ edge out editorials, we would do well to recall Nehru’s vision of the press playing its role as a watchdog in a democracy.”

But when the executive has figured out a way not to be watched, can the media be a watchdog?

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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