In the Emergency, the Government openly imposed censorship, and several newspapers, when asked to bend, infamously chose to crawl. Today, the Modi Government does not declare Emergency – but the Government stranglehold on Indian media is even more complete and thorough than was witnessed during the Emergency. The blacking out of a popular primetime show ‘Masterstroke’ on ABP News, and the resignation of two senior journalists – editor-in-chief Milind Khandekar and anchor Punya Prasoon Bajpai – from ABP News, and the deafening silence of most leading print and electronic media outfits on this development are all testament to the craven surrender of corporate media to the Modi regime.
It must be emphasized that it is not just dissenting opinion which is being muzzled: even the reporting of facts and the assessment of the Government’s claims, which is the basic job description of anyone claiming to be a journalist, is prohibited. Take the events at ABP News. Punya Prasoon Bajpai was told that his show Masterstroke must neither take the PM Modi’s name nor show his image, while evaluating or critiquing Government claims and schemes. As Bajpai has pointed out, such a ban makes a mockery of journalism, since the Government has been rendered synonymous with Modi, and it is Modi who announces schemes and claims success for these schemes in his speeches! Modi seeks votes even in Assembly polls in his own name, in 2014, he said ‘Ab Ki Baar Modi Sarkar’ (This time vote for a Modi Government) – and yet criticisms of his Government in the media must not take his name or show his image?
When Masterstroke defied the pressure from ABP’s proprietor and the not-so-veiled directives in Ministerial tweets and aired an expose of a false claim made by Modi in his Mann Ki Baat radio programme, the axe fell on the popular show. The show had met and spoken to a woman farmer from Chhattisgarh who told Modi that her income had doubled. She and her fellow women farmers told the ABP journalists that they were actually facing very hard times, but had been instructed by local officials to falsely state that their income had doubled. After the show was telecast, the satellite transmission to the channel during the Masterstroke slot was disturbed, and advertisements – especially from the biggest advertiser, Baba Ramdev’s Pataljali company – withdrawn. The satellite link and the advertisements were restored only when Bajpai, the anchor presenting Masterstroke, resigned from ABP. The editor-in-chief Khandekar also resigned. Meanwhile, another anchor Abhisar Sharma was grounded for 15 days, when he defied the ban on naming Modi and, in his news bulletin on gruesome murders in Uttar Pradesh, questioned Modi’s recent claim in a Lucknow speech that the BJP Government had improved law and order in UP.
Bajpai has, subsequently, revealed that ever since Modi became PM in 2014, his Government has a 200-member team of professionals paid for round-the-clock surveillance of the media. This team ranks channels that show extensive propaganda of Modi and his Government highly, while action (warnings, threats, withdrawal of advertisements, refusal of leaders of the Government, BJP and RSS to appear on the channel etc) is initiated against any channel that runs a story critical of the Prime Minister and his Government. The ominous figure of Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man, fixer, and BJP President, reportedly told journalists he would teach ABP a lesson for its defiance. Sangh outfits have often issued death threats to journalists. Given the history of unfortunate accidents that happen to those (including inconvenient murder witnesses and even a High Court judge) who cross Amit Shah, and the outright murder of journalists like Gauri Lankesh, Shah’s disapproval and the Sangh’s threats are a very real deterrent to a free media.
The Modi Government is determined that the only media that will be allowed to survive is the ‘Godi media’ – media that is willing to sit in the lap of power, parrot adoring propaganda combined with poisonous and divisive narratives; media that is Of The Government, For The Government and By The Government. It is indeed unfortunate to see how, barring a handful of exceptions, the heads of most media institutions and even a body like the Editors’ Guild of India, have chosen the path of silence and capitulation.
In this stifling atmosphere where democracy struggles to breathe, there are, however, journalists who run considerable risks to do their job and speak truth to power in spite of all odds. These include the journalists who have braved defamation cases to investigate cases of corruption and cronyism involving Jay Amitbhai Shah and Modi’s Minister Piyush Goyal and those who have done painstaking investigative stories exposing the Encounter Raj in Uttar Pradesh. A courageous recent investigation caught lynch-mob killers boasting of their murders and of police and political patronage in UP and Rajasthan. Another exposed policemen in UP to be hit-men in uniform, using the threat of fake encounters to extort money, and using staged encounters to achieve promotions. A Bihar channel was the one to do the first story on the TISS report exposing the horror of sexual exploitation of girls in shelter homes in the state.
It is not enough to lament the disturbing state of the media in India. The task of defending democracy and freedom of expression cannot be ceded to corporate media. The people of India must – and will – reject propaganda and pursue and nurture real journalism. The propaganda and poison on the channels and in the papers is an echo chamber for the Modi and the Sangh-BJP – people are already defying them to voice the truth and say that the Emperor is without clothes!