When Gauri Lankesh was killed, all quarters of Indian society condemned the killing except for the prime minister himself. Lankesh was editor of the Kannada weekly Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a secular activist and, most importantly, a staunch critic of Hindutva, the predominant form of Hindu nationalism in India.
It has been widely speculated that she was murdered by right-wing activists because of her activism, and many in the country firmly believe this. The onus therefore, was on the prime minister, one of the custodians of Hindutva ideology, to categorically reject the notion that the ideology he preaches condones violence.
Despite being called out repeatedly, Modi not only kept mum but also appeared to follow some Twitter trolls that celebrated the murder with abusive and vile language. His silence triggered a widespread campaign to “block” him on Twitter.
However, it is barely an isolated case. Modi's refusal to condemn techniques adopted by Hindu nationalists to intimidate journalists led to a dangerous environment for media workers in India. This year, in terms of press freedom, India went down by three places to 136th in the list of 186 countries, according to a widely-recognised index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international media watchdog.
“With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of 'anti-national' thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media,” RSF wrote in its India section. “Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”
Senior journalist Ravish Kumar, of NDTV, is the latest prominent journalist to receive threatening and vile messages via WhatsApp. An investigation by Alt-News.in revealed that at least one of the perpetrators is in the prime minister's following list on Twitter. He was proven to be closely connected to one BJP leader while the admin of the WhatsApp group had tight ties to several. Subsequently, Ravish Kumar wrote an open letter to Narendra Modi, in which he wondered whether his life and job were under threat.
NDTV, India's oldest news channel known for its critical approach towards the Modi government, for instance, was recently targeted in a crude fashion. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) acted on a FIR filed against the channel's promoters who they accused of gaining INR 48 crores by wrongful means.
The CBI even raided the NDTV office and the residences of its founder Prannoy Roy. A statement by the investigators said that their actions were based upon a “complaint of a share holder of ICICI bank and NDTV.”
There is evidence to prove that it was a strategic step. The Indian Express reported that business tycoon Ajay Singh, a long-term BJP supporter and the man who coined Modi's “Aab ki bar Modi sarkar” slogan, bought the majority stakes of NDTV, gaining the editorial rights. That the reported exchange of ownership happened after the raids raises this question—was this a textbook case of intimidation by a pro-ruling party businessman?
NDTV later disputed the claim, but Indian Express has stood by its report. We hope that the report is untrue; but if it is true, it throws shade on a powerful and independent voice in India.
While the change in ownership does not necessarily mean that the media house will turn pro-BJP, there are previous examples of such a thing happening. The Caravan Magazine, in its December 2013 issue, cited an independent study to report that after Reliance group, the country's largest conglomerate, had invested in Network18, a group of several media outlets including two leading TV channels and multiple magazines and new portals, the group shifted its political coverage to the right. The relation between Reliance and the ruling party is so warm that the group used the PM's photo in its full front-page advertisement.
The ruling party does not mind having so much positive coverage. “Modi does not need either the party or PR agencies; television news media is doing the job for us,” confides a senior BJP leader to Open Magazine.
Modi's overreach with the media was not limited to NDTV. The Wire revealed that a personal meeting between the owner of Hindustan Times and Modi preceded the abrupt exit of Bobby Ghosh as the editor-in-chief of the age-old newspaper. Although the government firmly claimed in a statement that the meeting between Modi and HT Media Chairperson Shobhana Bhartia was limited to the planning of a flagship event, the timing of Ghosh's departure is very fishy.
This makes sense when put in context. While the paper remains one of the outspoken media outlets against Modi's regime, Bobby Ghosh during his tenure caused particular concern for the ruling BJP. He notably introduced “Hate Tracker” in HT that infuriated the ruling party.
There are rumours that to discredit Bobby Ghosh, his foreign citizenship, rather than his editorial decision, was brought forth as an excuse. Mr Ghosh, previously the editor of Time's international edition, had to leave subsequently. Previously, Siddharth Varadarajan, the first non-dynastic editor of The Hindu, was fired because the board felt that he was “underplaying of Narendra Modi”, as reported by a regional media watch-dog The Hoot.
Open Magazine removed its political editor for a report explaining how media outlets are turning pro-BJP and replaced him with a journalist deemed close to a government minister. Therefore, when Ravish Kumar asked whether his life and job was under threat, he couldn't have made more sense.
“There was a celebration on social media a few days back that I would be fired from my job now,” he wrote addressing Narendra Modi. “Recently, Bobby Ghosh—editor of the Hindustan Times—was fired because you didn't like him...They quote this and say that now it is my turn.”
Apart from this, a bunch of stories and commentaries that sharply criticised the government simply disappeared from digital platforms. For example, reports on the 300 percent increase in BJP chief Amit Shah's assets or the education minister's educational qualification vanished from the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) and Times of India (TOI) in July this year. Film critic Suprateek Chatterjee's body of work was removed from the website The Quint after he tweeted "Good to know that Modi is one year closer to retirement/death #IChooseOptimism." What is telling is that Chatterjee is primarily a film critic, and the website chose to judge him based on unrelated political views.
Modi, it appears, likes not only to punish critic journalists, but his party seems also to award obedient ones. In June, for example, a leaked WhatsApp message showed that editors from Times of India and other newspapers actively lobbied on behalf of an income tax official with finance minister Arun Jaitley. It later turned out, reported The Wire, that one of the editors involved in the WhatsApp scandal may have played a part in removing anti-BJP stories from TOI website.
In the wake of this scandal, The Wire wrote an editorial that raised an important question. “If editors from the Times of India and other newspapers have the ability to push for personnel changes with government ministers, do these ministers, in turn, have the ability to influence the editorial line in these newspapers—including what gets printed and what get's taken down?”
All that may not mean that Narendra Modi has become an authoritarian leader or that Indian press freedom has vanished. But when an environment hostile to the minorities has developed and jingoism is on the rise, attempts to weaken what is left of the independence of press would spell disaster for Indian secularism and democracy.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team, The Daily Star.