Press is free, only if you support the state
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.