Narrative management

The BJP moves India towards a controlled press

According to the research methodology used by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) for compiling the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI), “Press freedom is the ability of journalists to select, produce, and disseminate news in the public interest independent of political, economic, legal, and social interference, and in the absence of threats.” The press plays an important role in safeguarding the rights of the citizenry by reporting on governmental shortcomings and excesses. A free and independent press can be an efficient tool for keeping an eye on the misuse of authority and abuse of power, making it the proverbial “fourth pillar” of the state, the other three being the executive, the judiciary and the legislature.

India, the world’s largest democracy, has been ranked at 161st out of 180 countries in WPFI 2023. It is a 21-point slip since Narendra Modi’s coming into power as Prime Minister in 2014. The index highlights the challenges faced by press and news media in India and underscores issues such as “violence against journalists, frequent internet shutdowns, and legal harassment” as contributing factors to the deteriorating state of press freedom in India.

The Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government’s crackdown against journalists and mediapersons has raised serious concerns about the state of press freedom in India. The International Press Institute, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, had urged President Joe Biden to address concerns pertaining to press freedom in India during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official state visit to the USA in June last year. The IPI had highlighted that “the misuse of legal measures against journalists critical of Narendra Modi and his BJP-led government had become more prevalent under his leadership.”

Similarly, according to a 2022 news story published in The Times of India, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US-based NGO, had called on the European Union “to hold India accountable for press freedom violations.”

Karan Thapar, a distinguished Indian journalist and television commentator, has opined that “Modi-led BJP government seems to assert its ability to shape the narrative through media control. This concerning pattern poses a threat to the fundamental principles of democracy.” Thapar’s words underscore a growing sentiment within the Indian journalism fraternity that the Modi government’s attempts to shape the narrative are compromising Indian media’s ability to act as “an effective watchdog.”

One of the glaring examples of BJP government’s narrative management is the suppression of criticism by labelling dissidents as “anti-national forces” by Prime Minister Modi. The journalists, media personalities, civil and political activists who are critical of the Modi government’s policies and actions often find themselves at the receiving end of harassment, intimidation and legal actions. According to Meenakshi Ganguly, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), “activists have been held in preventive detention to stop them from organising protests, while critics of the government are accused of sedition, criminal defamation, or terrorism.”

The Modi government’s approach to shaping public perception also involves influencing the information accessible to the public. A clear example of this is the gradual undermining of Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005, which grants citizens the right to request information from public authorities, with the view to foster transparency and accountability. However, the amendments made to it by the Modi government have weakened its effectiveness, creating obstacles for both citizens and journalists in obtaining vital information.

The deterioration of press freedom in India during the BJP government exposes Modi’s authoritarian style of politics, which is contrary to Article 19(1a) of the Indian Constitution. The Article clearly grants a right to freedom of speech and expression to Indian citizens. Thus, failure on the part of the Indian state to guarantee to all its citizens the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression constitutes a violation of the Indian Constitution. It is for this reason that India was classified by the V-Dem Institute as an “electoral autocracy”

The Modi government’s authority to determine what qualifies as propaganda and fake news raises apprehensions about its possible misuse to selectively target inconvenient truths and dissenting voices. One of the most controversial legal frameworks in this context are the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules (ITR) 2021. Introduced by the Modi government, they give the government unprecedented powers to regulate digital news media and social media platforms. The Modi government contends that these regulations are “essential to combat the dissemination of fake news and misinformation.” However, independent observers perceive them as instruments for manipulating the narrative and suppressing dissent within the digital realm.

Since 2014, the BJP government has used various other legal frameworks such as counterterrorism laws, national security statutes, regulations governing foreign funding, and income tax laws to target its detractors. In February 2023, the offices of the BBC in New Delhi and Mumbai were raided by Indian tax officials in an apparent reprisal for a documentary titled ‘India: The Modi Question.’ The two-part documentary highlighted Modi’s dismal track record as regards to protecting the Muslim community during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The documentary was instantly blocked across India by the BJP government using ITR 2021.

The Editor-in-Chief of News Click Prabir Purkayastha, an independent digital news platform, along with its HR Manager Amit Chakravarty, were booked on 3 October 2023 by the Delhi Police under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) 1967 on the fabricated charges. The houses of 46 journalists belonging to the same organization were also raided.

The BJP government employs different types of pressure techniques and tools in an effort to make independent Indian journalists fall in line. According to a joint investigation report published by Amnesty International and The Washington Post on 28 December 2023, “India’s government has recently targeted high-profile journalists with Pegasus spyware,” to snoop on them.

A police case was registered under UAPA on 10 October 2023 against Arundhati Roy, a renowned Indian author and social activist, and former Kashmiri professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain, using a 13-year-old complaint for allegedly delivering “provocative speeches” at a conference organized by the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners under the banner of “Azadi – The Only Way” on 21 October 2010 in Delhi. In that speech, Arundhati Roy had underscored that “democracy entails more than just the act of voting; it encompasses the rights to question and dissent.” The police case filed against them in October 2023 on the basis of the 2010 complaint accused both Arundhati Roy and Sheikh Showkat Hussain of disrupting social harmony and acting in “public mischief,” but more seriously, of sedition. Ilavenil Meena Kandasamy, a well-known Indian poet and fiction writer, underscored in her opinion piece published in The Guardian on 20 October 2023 that this police case was “absurd and a deadly threat to freedom of expression” in India.

The assault on press freedom, carried out through strategies of narrative management, has not only lowered the morale of the journalistic community in India, but also jeopardized their lives, properties and careers.

The deterioration of press freedom in India during the BJP government exposes Modi’s authoritarian style of politics, which is contrary to Article 19(1a) of the Indian Constitution. The Article clearly grants a right to freedom of speech and expression to Indian citizens. Thus, failure on the part of the Indian state to guarantee to all its citizens the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression constitutes a violation of the Indian Constitution. It is for this reason that India was classified by the V-Dem Institute as an “electoral autocracy,” in its 2023 report titled Defiance in the Face of Autocratization.

Tarique Ahmed Abro
Tarique Ahmed Abro
The writer is Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies Sindh

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