Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur on Friday criticised The New York Times for an opinion piece on the shrinking media freedom in India under the Narendra Modi government, saying that the organisation’s sole motive is to spread propaganda about the country.

The opinion piece, headlined “Modi’s final assault on India’s press freedom has begun”, was written by Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of The Kashmir Times, and published on Wednesday.

In her piece, Bhasin wrote that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “repressive media policies are destroying Kashmiri journalism, intimidating media outlets into serving as government mouthpieces and creating an information vacuum in our region of about 13 million people”.

She said the prime minister is now working to replicate this “disturbing model” across India.

In a series of tweets on Friday, Thakur asserted that press freedom in India is as sacrosanct as other fundamental rights.

However, contrary to Thakur’s assertion, since Modi came to power in 2014, India has fallen from 140th spot in World Press Freedom Index, compiled by non-profit Reporters Without Borders, to 150th last year its lowest ever.

Thakur described Bhasin’s “so-called opinion piece” about restrictions on information flow in Kashmir as mischievous and fictitious. “[The] New York Times had long back dropped all pretensions of neutrality while publishing anything about India,” he claimed.

The Bharatiya Janata Party leader also accused a “few other link-minded foreign media” organisations of spreading lies about India and Modi. According to him, these organisations harbour a grudge against India and the prime minister.

“Such lies can’t last long,” Thakur wrote. “Democracy in India and we the people are very matured and we don’t need to learn grammar of democracy from such agenda driven media. Blatant lies spread by NYT about press freedom in Kashmir is condemnable.”

The minister declared that the country will not allow “such mindsets to run their decisive agenda” on Indian soil.

His remarks came weeks after Union Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and the BJP government had objected to a two-part documentary released by the BBC that included an examination of Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in the riots. The first part of the documentary alleged that Modi, who was then the state’s chief minister, was “directly responsible for a climate of impunity” that led to the riots and that he had ordered senior police officers not to intervene.

Less than a month after the release of the documentary, Indian tax authorities in February searched the British broadcaster’s New Delhi and Mumbai offices. The Central Board of Direct Taxes claimed the inspection had revealed that the BBC’s income in India is not commensurate with the scale of operations in the country.

The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has maintained that there was no connection between the BBC documentary and the Income Tax searches.

However, defending the government’s action, the BJP had criticised the BBC, claiming that the broadcaster has a “tainted and black history of working with malice against India”. It had also accused the channel of supporting “anti-national forces”.

In her opinion piece for The New York Times, Bhasin, apart from writing about the action against the BBC, expressed concern that journalists in India are routinely summoned by the police, questioned and later threatened with charges such as income tax violations, terrorism or separatism.

She said that her own newspaper’s office was sealed by the Jammu and Kashmir administration in October 2020 as a “punishment for daring to question the policies” of the prime minister.

“Today, few Kashmir news outlets dare to question official policy, and many have become blatant government mouthpieces just to stay in business,” Bhasin wrote. “An information vacuum hangs over Kashmir, with the public under-informed or misinformed about what’s going on in the region. Important news is suppressed, downplayed or twisted to suit government ends.”

She said the media is one of the last surviving institutions that can stop India’s descent into authoritarianism. Ignorant citizens and a government free of scrutiny, she wrote, are threats to democracy.

“But if Mr Modi succeeds in introducing the Kashmir model of information control to the rest of the country, it won’t be just press freedom that is at risk, but Indian democracy itself,” the opinion piece concluded.

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