Under Modi, India’s Press Is Not So Free Anymore

Ravish Kumar, managing editor of NDTV's Hindi news channel, anchoring an evening newscast at the studio’s headquarters in New Delhi in February.

India’s government has pressured advertisers and even shut down channels to shape the information that 1.3 billion Indians receive. It’s part of a wider assault on dissent.

Ravish Kumar, managing editor of NDTV’s Hindi news channel, anchoring an evening newscast at the studio’s headquarters in New Delhi in February.Credit…

By Vindu Goel and

The New York Times

Photographs by

NEW DELHI — The Media One anchorman Vinesh Kunhiraman went on air as usual on March 6, ready to tell the station’s five million viewers in India’s Kerala State about the death anniversary of a beloved comedian and the latest news on the coronavirus pandemic.

Just a few minutes into the broadcast, he saw the managing editor rush to the studio floor, gesturing wildly. “I realized something was not right,” Mr. Kunhiraman recalled.

The station’s uplink suddenly went dead. Mr. Kunhiraman’s image dissolved into a blue screen. A bland message told viewers there was no signal. “We regret the inconvenience,” it said.

But this was no technical difficulty. The station had been cut off by an order from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The government decided to block the channel for 48 hours because it had covered February’s biggest news story — the mob attacks on Muslims in New Delhi that flared into broader unrest — in a way that seemed “critical toward Delhi Police and R.S.S.,” the order said.

The R.S.S. is a Hindu-nationalist social movement with close ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

“It was shocking the central government took such a decision,” said R. Subhash, an editor at Media One. “It was an attack on the freedom of the press.”

India’s free press has played a crucial role in protecting this country’s democracy since its independence from Britain in 1947. But journalists here now feel under attack.

Since Mr. Modi came to power in 2014, they say, his government has tried to control the country’s news media, especially the airwaves, like no other prime minister in decades. Mr. Modi has shrewdly cultivated the media to build a cult of personality that portrays him as the nation’s selfless savior.

At the same time, senior government officials have pressed news outlets — berating editors, cutting off advertising, ordering tax investigations — to ignore the uglier side of his party’s campaign to transform India from a tolerant, religiously diverse country into an assertively Hindu one.

With the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Modi has gotten more blatant in his attempt to control coverage and, as with other difficult stories, some Indian news executives seem willing to go along.

News media covering antigovernment protests in New Delhi in February.

Right before he announced the world’s largest coronavirus lockdown, on 1.3 billion people, Mr. Modi met with top news executives and urged them to publish “inspiring and positive stories” about the government’s efforts. Then, after the lockdown stranded half a million migrant workers, with some dying along the highways, his lawyers persuaded the Supreme Court this week to order all media to “publish the official version” of coronavirus developments, although outlets are still allowed to carry independent reporting.

An association of leading broadcasters was quick to praise the court decision, which many intellectuals said was yet another attack on India’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.

Through an aide, India’s information and broadcasting minister, Prakash Javadekar, initially agreed to discuss the government’s media policies. But in the two weeks since then, Mr. Javadekar has declined to answer any questions, including a written list emailed to him. His aide cited the demands of the coronavirus crisis.

India’s media universe is vast, perhaps the biggest in the world: More than 17,000 newspapers, 100,000 magazines, 178 television news channels and countless websites in dozens of languages. Thousands of Facebook pages call themselves news publishers, and YouTube is filled with local bulletins on everything from real estate trends to police raids.

But Mr. Modi’s ministers have leaned on business leaders to cut off support to independent media, slowly strangling their operations. His government has pressured media owners to fire journalists who have criticized the prime minister and told them to stop running features like hate-crime trackers that have embarrassed Mr. Modi’s party.

Mr. Modi is backed up by an army of online allies who discredit and harass independent journalists; female journalists, in particular, have been besieged with abuse and rape threats. And the police say Hindu nationalists were behind the 2017 murder of Gauri Lankesh, a female newspaper editor hailed as one of India’s most crusading journalists.

Like other populist leaders, Mr. Modi and his ministers bristle at any public criticism, whether from business executives, foreign leaders, or even schoolchildren.

And for the most part, Indian news outlets have knuckled under, concluding that since much of the public supports the prime minister, they should, too. Even skeptical journalists censor themselves, afraid to be branded anti-national by a government that equates patriotism with support for Mr. Modi.

His government has also imposed the strictest restrictions on foreign journalists in decades, suddenly and without explanation. Visas have been tightened, and foreign journalists have been banned from hotbeds of unrest such as northeast India and Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority area that was stripped of its statehood in August and put under a severe crackdown.

India’s media landscape is vast. Satellite TV subscriptions are cheap, and Indians can tune in to 178 television news channels.

The Kashmir story was seismic, but many Indian journalists, looking back on it, feel that they toed the government line and overlooked grave human rights abuses.

“We didn’t do justice to the big story,’’ said Rajdeep Sardesai, one of the country’s leading news anchors. “We should have gone out there and reported the situation from the ground aggressively and independently.’

There were security restrictions on where Indian reporters could go, Mr. Sardesai said, but he admitted it was more than that.

“A large section of the Indian media,” he said, “has become a lap dog, not a watchdog.”

The business model in India doesn’t help. Well before Mr. Modi first became prime minister in 2014, newspapers and television stations have relied on government advertising, allowing politicians to reward friendly outlets and punish critics.

And media owners often run other businesses for which they need the government’s favor, making them reluctant to take on those in power.

With the coronavirus pandemic dampening advertising and restricting newspaper circulation, news organizations are now sliding into crisis. One of the most independent, The Indian Express, just decided to cut salaries.

Even as Mr. Modi constantly touts India as the world’s largest democracy, its ranking on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index is 140 out of 180.

“In the past six years, the Indian media has deteriorated,” said Shakuntala Banaji, a media professor at the London School of Economics. “There is no semblance of truth or responsibility left in the vast majority of media reports.”

Sukirti Dwivedi, a correspondent with NDTV, reporting from the areas hit by religious violence in New Delhi in February.