“Don’t ever mention Modi’s name in a bulletin.”
“Modi’s image cannot be used if the content of the news is negative.”
Put down baldly in English, in language lacking drama, these directives look ludicrous. But don’t laugh and look away – this is the state of the free press in what we like to fondly call the world’s largest democracy: India.
The Narendra Modi government is injurious to the media. This is evident in the way the private channel NDTV, which is disliked by Modi, was raided by the income tax authorities this year and a slew of cases filed by all the investigative agencies that the government commands. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has officially carried out a boycott of the channel.
This is the backdrop of events that unfolded at ABP news, a private Hindi channel, which enjoys a mass viewership. The entire senior editorial team was axed in one fell swoop.
The channel’s editor, Milind Khandekar, put in his paper’s after the management tried to stop a live bulletin because the anchor, senior journalist Abhisar Sharma, while reporting a murder in Uttar Pradesh, had the temerity to say that the murder exposed the hollow claims of Modi and Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, who had two days before claimed the state was a beacon of law and order.
Sharma was suspended for 15 days for his “crime of mentioning Modi’s name in negative news”. The management wanted him yanked off air even as the live bulletin was on. After Sharma’s crime, he was warned on the ear piece while the bulletin was on that he should stick to the teleprompter.
Sharma was called back in the evening and told he was off air for 15 days and that he should never ever use Modi’s name again. Sharma, a respected journalist, had earlier been asked to stop using social media to criticise the Modi government and even told not to do his video blogs.
While Sharma was suspended, another senior journalist, Punya Prasoon Vajpayee, who anchored ABP’s prime time programme “Masterstroke,” which exposed the tutored reply of a woman to Modi about her income doubling, faced the government’s wrath.
Senior ministers, including Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, Information and Broadcasting Minister, R. Rathore, tweeted against the programme calling it “unfortunate journalism.” The biggest advertisers of the channel, which included two powerful groups perceived as being close to Modi, withdrew advertisements. The channel’s signals were mysteriously disrupted for the duration of the telecast. All this was miraculously solved when Vajpayee resigned.
Vajpayee, in an expose, wrote that he had been warned by a government official tasked with monitoring “that anything could happen”. Incredibly, the Modi government has created a 200-member strong monitoring team. Around 150 members are involved only in monitoring channels, 25 members give news the shape the government wants and the remaining 25 review the final content. Modi’s Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), in turn, sends directives about what is to be done and how.
If this is reminiscent of Emergency that was imposed in India, then it is actually worse as this is an undeclared emergency with the free press being manipulated by the Modi government. Stories on three billionaires close to Modi are forbidden.
Ever since Narendra Modi, who BJP founder, L.K. Advani, described scathingly as an “event manager” occupied the Prime Minister’s chair four-and-a-half years ago, the space for the free press is being squeezed.
I don’t say this lightly having personally felt the “chilling” Modi effect on the media even before I wrote my investigative book “I am a troll” - Inside the BJP’s Digital Army. This is a government, which describes the press as “presstitutes” and uses “sickular” as a pejorative alluding to “secularism” enshrined in the Constitution of India.
Modi loves publicity, but only if the coverage is positive. To ensure that, he has created a media in his image. The “embedded panna pramukhs” in the media fancy themselves as “mini Modi’s” and ensure fawning and adoring coverage.
Modi has now become the first prime minister in India’s history never to have held an open press conference to avoid scrutiny that is the norm in a democracy.
In this, he has gone a step ahead of even US President Donald Trump, who, perhaps, can take lessons from Modi on how to take away the respectability of the media considered the fourth pillar in a democracy.
Modi prefers to give interviews to a select band of cheerleaders who gaze at him adoringly when he holds forth for even five minutes in his answers and sometimes, helpfully, even provides the cheerleader with the next question.
This is a ridiculous, choreographed “event” where no inconvenient questions on the demonetisation disaster, increasing incidents of cow lynching, assisted by government escape of absconding billionaires such as Vijay Mallaya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi, lack of jobs, Rafale deal and ever-growing agrarian crisis are ever raised.
Modi is mute on all the controversial questions that bedevil his government. Instead, the “strong leader” ensures that the media massages and spins his image through thorough headline management. Unlike the US, where Trump is routinely called out by the media, which has banded together, the majority of the Indian media prefers to interrogate the opposition. It does not question the government.
Modi prefers one-way communication perfected in his radio monologue called “Mann ki Baat”. Increasingly, his interviews also resemble a monologue.
If the official clampdown witnessed in the cases of Rajasthan Patrika and NDTV, which saw all government advertisements being withdraw is not enough, corporates are called by senior ministers and told to stop advertising in publications and channels on the “hit list”.
To intimidate journalists General Modi has his own troll Army attack relentlessly. The BJP’s troll army is only accountable to Modi and party president Amit Shah. They even attack ministers who they see deviating from the Modi’s minority baiting line.
External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj (pictured above), and Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, have both been attacked. As I revealed in my book the BJP’s IT cell has “hate lists” of journalists who are trolled 24/7. Modi is still to unfollow a man who celebrated the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh.
The press scenario is grim with the government deciding on even journalists’ employment.
One of those purged by ABP news told me “which channel will employ me now that the Modi government has painted a target on my back. How do I support my family? What was my crime? Doing my job?”
Swati Chaturvedi is an award winning print and broadcast journalist. Her book “I am a Troll - Inside the BJP’s secret digital army” has received international acclaim. Her twitter handle is @Bainjal.