With raids, arrests and hostile takeovers, India press freedom continues to decline
NEW DELHI — "I have resigned," the journalist declared in a YouTube video last November. "You won't hear me on NDTV anymore saying, 'Hello, I'm Ravish Kumar.'" And with that, the longtime face of New Delhi Television, one of India's oldest news broadcasting channels, stepped down.
Ravish, 48, had been with NDTV for 26 years. At the time of his resignation, he was senior executive editor at the news outlet, known for its fierce and critical coverage of government policies and citizens' voices.
But since last August, when Gautam Adani, a controversial magnate, announced his move to acquire the channel in a hostile takeover, anxiety in the newsroom grew — as did the departures of network leaders like Ravish.
Adani, who is closely associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is the founder of the Ahmedabad-based Adani Group, India's largest port operator and largest coal trader. After a recent report by Hindenburg Research accused Adani Group companies of decades of stock manipulation and accounting fraud, the prime minister has tried to distance himself from the tycoon's controversies. (Adani has denied wrongdoing).
Adani has said that NDTV would remain independent under his ownership and would call out the government when it has "done something wrong."
But his critics are not convinced.
"Much of Adani's wealth has been a direct result of this problematic relationship [with the prime minister]. ... So, it's only expected that an Adani-owned channel would work to keep up the Modi-Adani ties," says Somdeep Sen, a political scientist at Roskilde University in Denmark.
Press freedoms are among other rights being squeezed in India
Conglomerates' takeovers of media outlets are not unique to India. But New Delhi-based historian Mukul Kesavan, who is also an independent journalist, says Indian media takeovers by Modi government allies are "symptomatic of a larger malaise" posing threats to rights.
"It would be a mistake to look at the takeover of NDTV as a thing in itself. I think it's part of a much larger battering down on basic, fundamental, democratic rights — the right to organize, the right to protest, the right to march, the right to speak and the right to publish," says Kesavan.
According to Amnesty International, Indian authorities are increasingly imposing unlawful and politically motivated restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. (Amnesty International was itself targeted by Modi's government, and was forced to shut its India operations in 2020).
The rights organization has repeatedly flagged authorities' targeting of journalists, coupled with a broader crackdown on dissent that "has emboldened Hindu nationalists to threaten, harass and abuse journalists critical of the Indian government."
The latest journalist to be arrested was Irfan Mehraj, a reporter from Jammu and Kashmir, who was picked up on March 20 in connection with a "terror funding case."
Amnesty termed Mehraj's arrest "a travesty and yet another instance of the long-drawn repression of human rights." Kashmiri journalists have long been targeted by the Indian government.
Some major Indian digital outlets remain independent
Soon after Modi became prime minister in 2014, NDTV's biggest competitor, Network 18, was acquired by Mukesh Ambani, another of Modi's billionaire allies. Since then, Ambani has become the boss of more than 70 outlets across the country, with a combined weekly audience of at least 800 million viewers.
Kesavan says that most Indian media houses have become defenders of the Hindu nationalist government, selling the majoritarian populist agenda.
"What's left," Sen says, "is a few major [digital] outlets that are independent. If this trend continues, the future is grim for Indian democracy."
In January, the government proposed new rules for digital media, which would ban content the government judges to be "fake or false."
The Indian government recently targeted the BBC
Worries intensified in February, when India's tax authorities raided the BBC's offices in Delhi and Mumbai and, after three days of search, accused the British broadcaster of evading taxes.
The raid took place less than a month after the BBC released a documentary critical of Modi and alleged his responsibility in anti-Muslim violence that left more than 1,000 dead and tens of thousands displaced in Gujarat in 2002, when he was serving as chief minister of the state. The Indian Supreme Court has cleared Modi of responsibility.
The government banned the BBC documentary from airing in India and used emergency laws to force Twitter and YouTube to take down clips.
Pro-government media outlets cast doubt on the BBC's credibility. A spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party called the BBC "the most corrupt organization which has little regard for India's constitution while it works from here," while other officials called the documentary "hostile propaganda" and "anti-India garbage" with a "colonial mindset."
India's foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, questioned the timing of the documentary release — a year before India's next national elections — and alleged that the documentary was part of an attempt to "shape a very extremist image" of India and its prime minister.
A government adviser denied that the tax search was related to the documentary.
The Press Club of India said the raid was a "clear cut case of vendetta."
Jyoti Malhotra, a Delhi-based media critic, says everyone in India knows what a tax search means. "What they're saying is that you better fall in line," she explains. "This is not the first time that a media organization has been raided. What's surprising is that they went after a foreign organization, BBC, which is a household name in India and has a reputation for fairness and objectivity."
India's press freedom rankings have dropped
Since Modi became prime minister in 2014, India has slipped in rank from 140 to 150 in the World Press Freedom Index of 180 countries compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
But Sen says the Indian public seems largely unmoved by the weakening of the fourth pillar of democracy — a result of what he calls Modi's "overbearing, cult-like presence in everyday India."
"It is the cult of personality that has been the potent political tool of the government that has allowed it to weather a string of controversies and large-scale political and governance failures," he says. "So, I am not surprised that Modi has been so proactive in suppressing dissent as a way of maintaining this cult of personality."
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