Journalism is under attack in India. So is the truth

A woman walks by a wall in Ahmadabad, India, with portraits of President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday. ahead of Trump's planned visit to the country. (Ajit Solanki/AP)
A woman walks by a wall in Ahmadabad, India, with portraits of President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday. ahead of Trump's planned visit to the country. (Ajit Solanki/AP)

“Jihadi”. “Presstitute”.

Those are some of the insults the government of India routinely deploys against critical journalists. I’ve been at the receiving end of both. A few weeks ago, the Twitter account of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party called me a “jihadi” for my criticism of its polarizing tweets against Muslims in India.

But I’m far from alone. Journalists are facing enormous pressures and intimidation in India.

President Trump, who is visiting the country next week, will surely feel right at home with a government that also dismisses critical news stories as fake and casts aspersions on journalistic integrity everyday.

Fabrication, hyper-nationalism and self-censorship are on the rise as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi tightens its grip on the country’s political and economic life. High-profile journalists have been pushed aside for not toeing the line. As a result, many of India’s finest journalist and editors can’t find supportive newsrooms.

One of the country’s most popular news anchors, Faye D’Souza, resigned under pressure after she aired an episode in August questioning the government’s decision to revoke the special status accorded to Kashmir, which led to a crackdown on local politicians, a total Internet blockade and a tight curfew. The channel pushed her out because it decided to stand with Modi’s Kashmir decision.

This climate of intimidation is not new. In June 2017, the Central Bureau of Investigation raided the residence of Prannoy Roy, the proprietor of one of India’s oldest and most credible news networks, NDTV. In his response, Roy said “they are trying to tell us that we can suppress you even if we haven’t done nothing wrong". Then he added: "It is a signal to the entire free press of India”.

But the tactics have become more brazen and are not even restricted to journalists based in India. After the New York-based writer Aatish Taseer wrote a cover story for Time critical of Modi, Taseer found his Overseas Citizen of India card revoked, which will now make it difficult for him to visit his home country.

The attacks and intimidation help clear the way for what award-winning journalist Ravish Kumar has termed the lapdog media, or “godi media”. It’s this partisan media that has been tasked with dehumanizing and demonizing students — who are protesting India’s discriminatory policies, including its controversial citizenship laws — minorities and activists, who are routinely labeled as anti-nationals on prime-time shows.

When you have a “lapdog media”, the prime minister doesn’t have to answer tough questions: Modi has yet to hold a news conference since he took office, but he has sat down for scripted interviews with selected news anchors.

These pliable anchors also generously amplify fake-news videos generated and circulated by the ruling party’s social media and then refuse to course-correct despite being called out by fact-checkers.

This week, many journalists, including Stephen Sackur, host of the BBC’s “Hard Talk”, took a dig at the presenters of a Hindi news channel for heckling a student on a show, calling him an anti-national. And earlier this month, when a fact-checking news site in India, Alt News, clarified that a student had not thrown a rock at a police officer, it was too late: The nationalist mainstream media had already ran with the story to say student protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi were pelting cops with stones. In reality, police and thugs were the ones who entered the university’s library and mercilessly attacked students, injuring many and sparking international condemnation.

Even a popular stand-up comedian decided to do something to break this cycle. When Kunal Kamra found himself on a flight in January with Arnab Goswami, the anchor of a repugnant show on the channel Republic, he decided to question him and film the exchange. He asked Arnab if he was a coward or a nationalist since the anchor awarded these tags every night on his news show. But instead of being applauded, Kamra was banned from flying on almost all commercial airlines, including the national carrier Air India.

As India heads down the path of authoritarianism and hyper-nationalism, the price for speaking up is rising. Minorities are being stifled and intimidated. Protesters speaking against tyranny and discrimination are demonized. Never has journalism in India been in more urgent need of resolute moral clarity.

Our public institutions are being tested; the Indian journalists who are upholding the truth must remember that history will be kind for taking that position, especially when it was unpopular and the response brutal.

Rana Ayyub is an Indian journalist and author of “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up”.

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