Press is free, only if you sup­port the state

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

EVER since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi has had a frosty re­la­tion­ship with the coun­try’s in­flu­en­tial English me­dia. Modi and his party boss, Amit Shah, have not con­cealed their aver­sion to­wards its most cred­i­ble English news chan­nel, NDTV, for its ag­gres­sive re­port­ing of 2002 Gu­jarat anti-Mus­lim ri­ots.

Last week, dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion on the beef ban that has been im­posed via the back door by cen­tral gov­ern­ment, the chan­nel’s an­chor asked a rul­ing party rep­re­sen­ta­tive to leave the pro­gramme for be­ing boor­ish. A cou­ple of days later, the cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion agency, the Cen­tral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion (CBI), knocked on the door of its ed­i­tor and pro­moter, Dr Pran­noy Roy, os­ten­si­bly to probe a loan de­fault.

A raid at NDTV was ru­moured for a while, but no one re­ally thought the BJP gov­ern­ment would dare to do it. Af­ter all, the party wore its ag­gres­sive op­po­si­tion to the in­ter­nal emer­gency that the Congress gov­ern­ment had im­posed in 1975 as a badge of hon­our. Now it seems it was a dif­fer­ent party. The man­ner in which the Modi gov­ern­ment has gone about con­trol­ling the me­dia through dis­crete threats and blan­dish­ments made it clear that it would not en­ter­tain any dis­sent or crit­i­cism against the prime min­is­ter.

Many com­men­ta­tors have writ­ten about how fear hangs over the na­tional cap­i­tal with jour­nal­ists and bu­reau­crats look­ing over their shoul­der be­fore they speak. Me­thod­i­cally, the op­po­si­tion voices were drowned out in the din cre­ated by the faith­ful about who is a na­tion­al­ist and who is not. Who­ever de­murred was branded as “anti-na­tional” and asked to mi­grate to Pak­istan.

NDTV, like many other lib­eral me­dia voices, was not hys­ter­i­cal ev­ery time there was a ter­ror at­tack in Kash­mir or Pun­jab. For this dis­play of “weak­ness” they were called “anti na­tional and pro-Pak­istani”. On other is­sues where the gov­ern­ment claimed suc­cess – the de­mon­eti­sa­tion of high cur­rency notes and the “Clean In­dia” cam­paign, or the ques­tion­able gross do­mes­tic prod­uct growth – the chan­nel dis­played scep­ti­cism and gaps in the gov­ern­ment ver­sion.

NDTV au­di­ence rat­ings or TRP are con­sid­ered to be lower than the mar­ket leader, Times Now, but they helped in build­ing a lib­eral non-pop­ulist nar­ra­tive. If it was not so in­flu­en­tial the gov­ern­ment would have ig­nored it as it is more con­cerned about man­ag­ing Hindi and re­gional lan­guage me­dia, which has ex­tra­or­di­nary reach, more than English. Clearly, the gov­ern­ment thought oth­er­wise.

There is still some con­fu­sion about the tim­ing of the raid at NDTV. There are ru­mours that some peo­ple in the gov­ern­ment are keen for Roy to be com­pelled to sell the chan­nel and move to South Africa where he re­port­edly has some busi­ness in­ter­ests. These un­sub­stan­ti­ated re­ports sug­gest that Yoga en­tre­pre­neur, Baba Ramdev, who has built a bil­lion dol­lar busi­ness due to his prox­im­ity to the in­cum­bent gov­ern­ment, is keen to take over this chan­nel.

Mar­ket in­for­ma­tion sug­gests that the Gup­tas of South Africa are back­ing Ramdev. A few years ago, he had vis­ited South Africa – chore­ographed by the Gup­tas. In one of the videos the Yogi gush­ingly in­vites the Gup­tas on the dais and tells the au­di­ence how god-fear­ing and pi­ous the busi­ness­men are. The Gup­tas, in turn, com­mit to sup­port Ramdev. It is not clear whether this com­mit­ment has trans­lated into a bid to take over NDTV. Though sources close to Yogi are deny­ing this, the ru­mours are not stop­ping.

There are other busi­ness­men who want to take over this chan­nel if Roy is not able to han­dle the heat of the gov­ern­ment probe. An NDTV state­ment has crit­i­cised the CBI raid for not fol­low­ing pro­ce­dure and sug­gest­ing a vendetta. The chan­nel claims the CBI ac­tion is based on de­fault­ing on re­pay­ment of a loan and caus­ing a loss of around $9 mil­lion. The news chan­nel has posted a doc­u­ment from the bank to prove that the loan had been re­paid.

Closer in­spec­tion of NDTV’s fi­nances, post-2008 eco­nomic slow­down, show some fi­nan­cial jug­gling, but clearly Roy wanted to keep the com­pany afloat un­der all cir­cum­stances. What is in­ter­est­ing is that the bank, which has a for­eign own­er­ship, is not com­plain­ing. Ob­vi­ously, the rea­son for go­ing af­ter Roy lies else­where.

A few months ago a book was put to­gether by some sup­port­ers of the BJP on the cor­rupt ways of NDTV man­age­ment and how they had laun­dered money. The grava­men of the book was that the chan­nel, for all its du­bi­ous money mak­ing ways, had no right to pass judge­ment on oth­ers. It was ap­par­ent the au­thors, and their in­ter­ests, were un­com­fort­able with the cred­i­bil­ity of the me­dia, and wanted to show to a vast le­gion of sup­port­ers that NDTV had feet of clay.

To be fair to Modi, who has not ad­dressed a sin­gle press con­fer­ence in the three years he has been in power, the anger of his sup­port­ers is not con­fined to this chan­nel. Most of the lib­eral English lan­guage jour­nal­ists are called “pressti­tutes” and “sick­u­lars” (for be­ing sec­u­lar). It is not that the BJP gov­ern­ment does not like the me­dia. It is fond of those who do not ques­tion the gov­ern­ment and also help build their nar­ra­tive.

A jour­nal­ist – in gov­ern­ment’s view – is a Hindu na­tion­al­ist, who loves the PM, the army, and re­ports what is in the “na­tional in­ter­est”. In the past three years, the Modi gov­ern­ment has spent bil­lions of dol­lars in ad­ver­tis­ing its claims in news­pa­pers and on TV. The gov­ern­ment’s gen­eros­ity is good for all kinds of me­dia, but not for its free­dom.

English lan­guage jour­nal­ists are called “pressti­tutes”

San­jay Kapoor is In­de­pen­dent Me­dia’s stringer based in Delhi, In­dia. He is also the ed­i­tor of the pub­li­ca­tion Hard News in In­dia.

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