On Wednesday, United States’ President Donald Trump had an angry exchange with CNN reporter Jim Acosta. At a news conference, Acosta questioned Trump’s claim that a caravan of migrants making its way through Mexico was akin to an “invasion” of the US. When Trump declined to address this directly, Acosta refused to surrender the microphone, all the while continuing to query the American president. In response, the Trump administration suspended Acosta’s press pass, preventing him from attending further press conferences.
The attitude of the White House is not new. As American journalist Ezra Klien has pointed out, “from day one, the American President wanted his villain to be the media” in order to “make continuing sense of Trump’s aggrieved, oppositional political style”. While the Trump phenomenon might have no direct parallels with India, it has been interesting for Indians to see the fesity way in which sections of the American media have asked Trump about his shortcomings, questioning power and calling out his evasions, as journalism ought reflexively to do. In India, few journalists would be likely to bring themselves stridently question the country’s prime minster. More importantly, Narendra Modi would never submit himself to energetic interactions of this sort in the first place.
Thus far, media encounters with Prime Minister Modi have been tightly controlled. In August, for example, three major English-language newspapers carried email interviews of the prime minister. With no scope for follow-up questions, Modi’s claims could not be challenged and the interviews read uncomfortably like a government press release. In April, Modi conducted what seemed like a closely choreographed public interaction in London. The questions were gentle lobs, bookended by gushing praise. The same format was followed in January, where in two interviews, journalists asked Modi questions that merely served as opportunities for the prime minister to praise his own administration.
To be sure, this is not a problem that began with Modi. While India is a robust democracy, its press could do with more freedom. In the World Press Freedom Index, India ranks 138th out of 180 countries. In many places outside the national capital, journalists face risks to their lives. This is compounded by a willingness on the part of media owners to sometimes accommodate the powerful. In June, one undercover reporter found that a number of leading media houses were allegedly prepared to spread Hindutva propaganda in return for payments.
Modi has done nothing to improve the situation. He is the first prime minister never to have held a press conference, preferring to convey his message to the public either via social media or pliant interviewees. Democracy is fundamentally weakened if a country’s media does not – or cannot – question power.