The Media Today

Small signs of hope—but a long way to go—for Indian media independence

June 7, 2024
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pictured in 2015. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

Over the past few months, nine hundred million Indians have voted over seven phases to elect 543 members of the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has ruled India with increasingly authoritarian tendencies since 2014, is set to return to power, but with a chastening cut in the number of seats for his ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. 

Part of why the election result was so surprising: Modi has spent much of his time in charge building a tightly controlled propaganda machine, with the message that the opposition was too fragmented and weak to pose much of a challenge. During the election, mainstream outlets aligned aggressively with the government’s narrative, while independent media struggled to report amid government attacks. 

So it is no shock the election has been seen as a partial victory for democracy and independent media. But even if Modi’s mandate is diminished by his need to enter into complex alliances, his stranglehold over Indian media won’t be undone by a single election.

India ranked 161st out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in 2023, down twenty-one positions since Modi came to power. Newsrooms, including the BBC, have been raided. Stories the government doesn’t like have been suppressed. And that is just the tip of the iceberg—the real scandal lies under the surface. Modi, according to Indian journalists and media-watchers interviewed for this story, has systematically exploited a long-standing structural weakness in India’s media ecosystem in order to undermine critical reporting. 

The ownership of major Indian television channels and newspapers, said Hartosh Singh Bal, an executive editor at Caravan, an independent magazine critical of the regime, is held by businessmen and corporations reliant on government support for their media and other business interests. 

“Modi came and realized that this is a system already institutionally very weak, and any centralized authority putting pressure on them can make this entire mainstream media bend to their will,” Bal said. “And they did this. It’s true of print and television…very quickly, all of them fell in line.” 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The turning point came on December 29, 2022, when the country first learned of a hostile takeover bid for New Delhi Television (NDTV), India’s last major independent TV broadcaster, known for its critical coverage.

The Adani Group, led by billionaire Gautam Adani, known for close ties with Modi, announced it would control nearly 65 percent of the company. NDTV itself said that the buyout “was executed without any input from, conversation with, or consent of the NDTV founders.” 

Reporters Without Borders expressed concern over the acquisition of India’s last major independent TV network by a billionaire businessman “who openly supports Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” It noted: “Media acquisitions by oligarchs are clearly endangering pluralistic public debate in India.”

The outlet’s star anchors Ravish Kumar, Sreenivasan Jain, and Nidhi Razdan left, along with several other journalists. “It completely changed the management of the organization and the editorial line of the organization,” Razdan told CJR. “It was really the only television news channel in India, which was still doing what it was supposed to do, which was to hold power to account, to ask difficult questions of the government.

“When the Adani takeover happened, it was quite clear early on that despite assurances that they would not alter the editorial policy dramatically…that was not going to be the case.” And so, she said, “the last bastion of independent television journalism fell.”

The field was clear for an American cable news model to take over, all shrill debate and high-volume polarization. One news anchor, Suresh Chavhanke, editor in chief of Sudarshan TV, urged Muslim women to marry Hindu men and convert to Hinduism—in accordance with the government’s nationalist “Hindutva” ideology, which advocates for establishing Hindu hegemony in India. Many of these media owners toed the government line happily. “It was not simply a question of push—there was a pull of Modi’s ideology for these business leaders also,” said Bal.

More critical journalists have moved online. Kumar now runs a YouTube channel with over 10.3 million subscribers. But new laws, which are unlikely to be repealed anytime soon, are targeting them there too. 

In April, as they covered the general election, independent YouTube channels such as Bolta Hindustan and National Dastak, two popular Hindi-language news shows, were notified that they were being blocked under directions from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. YouTube also restricted videos by digital journalists Meghnad and Sohit Mishra questioning whether electronic voting machines were tamper-proof.

Domestically, it’s easier than ever for the government to censor under new rules that give the information and broadcasting ministry emergency powers to summarily remove content from digital platforms, including news websites, without giving notice or holding a hearing with the publisher. The law has been challenged in court by media houses including The Wire, one of India’s most prominent critical news outlets.

In February, the Indian government ordered Caravan to take down an article on the alleged torture and murder of civilians by the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir. “They did not point out any errors in the story, they just issued a blanket order to pull it down,” Bal said. 

“This is the same law they will invoke against a Twitter account or a Facebook post or a YouTube video,” Bal added. “Basically, now they have arbitrary powers of censorship.…I think the next step will be the digital media, the small media that is independent, will be forced into positions where if the government is uncomfortable with the story, they can just get it removed.”

But Abhinandan Sekhri, the chief executive of Newslaundry, an independent news website known for critiquing the media, says that even with the government’s pushback, independent media is still getting more visibility. “I see the audience getting fatigued with the kind of hate that they see on TV media,” Sekhri said. “The attacks will also increase, but I do see a pushback.…I do believe that indeed the public will pay more digital media outfits and back independent media.”

The election result tentatively supports his optimism. 

Other notable stories:

  • Facing legal pressure, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones finally agreed to liquidate his personal assets—a “seismic move” that “paves the way for a future in which Jones no longer owns Infowars, the influential conspiracy empire he founded in the late 1990s,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports. Jones declared personal bankruptcy after he was ordered to pay more than a billion dollars in damages to relatives of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting, which Jones repeatedly declared was a hoax, but he has to this point failed to pay up and resisted liquidation; on a broadcast last weekend, Jones even threatened—with an assist from Steve Bannon, no less—to barricade himself in his studio. Jones will now have to sell his ownership of Infowars (though Darcy notes that he hasn’t controlled the business since it, too, entered bankruptcy.)
  • The LA Times published “Our Queerest Century,” a package of essays, art, and polling marking a hundred years since the first US gay-rights organization was founded. In one of the essays, LZ Granderson, a Times columnist, paid tribute to Bobbi Campbell, the first person in America to disclose that he was HIV-positive—and shared publicly, for the first time, that he, too, is HIV-positive. “I didn’t want to be viewed as a gay stereotype, including at ESPN, where I worked for years,” Granderson writes. “The disease is no longer on the news, but tens of thousands are still being infected every year.” 
  • And The New Yorker’s Kyle Chayka reflected on the significance of the “Doge” meme—a delightful photo of a Shiba Inu that came to be associated with nonsense captions like “so amaze” and “much wow”—after the real-life dog in the photo died, aged eighteen. The meme, Chayka writes, “projected a sense of hopeful naïveté about the Internet which has lately disappeared from digital culture, as we have been increasingly confronted with the darker consequences of social media on a global scale.”

ICYMI: A new documentary tells the story of India’s news crisis

Anisha Dutta is a freelance journalist with recent work in Al Jazeera and The Guardian. A recipient of the 2023 Association of Foreign Press Correspondents in the United States (AFPC) foreign correspondents award, she previously worked for the Indian Express and the Hindustan Times as a political correspondent in New Delhi.