By Dr William Crawley – Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies
The national elections in India in 2019 were marked by a keen focus on every aspect of government by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi since it came to power five years ago. With his return to power and an increased majority, the party’s record in government has become a clear test of how Indian policy and practice will develop in the next five years. There is no suggestion that the party or prime minister acknowledges any reason to change a course that has brought it such electoral dividends. In no area is the trend more significant than the future of the media, and its constitutional and democratic foundations in rights of information and freedom of expression. An informed analysis of the record of the past five years is no longer part of a bitterly fought election campaign, with all the distortions that may have given rise to, but a pointer to how far fundamental changes in India’s media systems and media technologies, and the BJP’s use of them to advance its own political agenda, will change the political landscape over the next five years.
The writers body PEN International held its 84th international conference in Pune in September 2018. Every year the organisation prepares “a freedom of expression report” on the country in which its Congress is being held. Its report on India was highly critical of the Modi government, arguing that India has witnessed “a rising tide of violence, impunity, extended pre-trial detentions, and surveillance”. The report illustrated the varied ways in which critical voices had been targeted and silenced, headlining the case of the editor and activist Gauri Lankesh, a prominent critic of right wing and Hindutva politics, who was killed outside her home in Bangalore in September 2017. The murder was condemned both by the BJP and the Indian National Congress and by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the standard-bearer of Hindu right wing ideology. But her published fears that people were being targeted because of their criticism of that ideology were seen as prophetic. Aside from this extreme sanction, the PEN report highlighted attacks directed at journalists online and offline and what it identified as the systematic stifling of academic research and freedom. The report predicted that “future generations will likely look back at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) win in 2014 elections” as “the beginning of a drastically different era in independent India”.
The criticisms voiced in the PEN report may not have significantly affected the outcome of the election. But the perception of growing restrictions on media freedoms have not been removed by the reelection of the government and prime minister who are seen as most responsible. Observers of the media point out that restrictions on free speech are not unique to the Modi era. In the Emergency declared by Mrs Indira Gandhi as prime minister in 1975-76 full censorship was imposed on the media, while her political opponents including several journalists were imprisoned. Freedom of expression is a constitutional right under Article 19 of the Indian constitution, though one that is heavily qualified with permissible exceptions, particularly when it involves issues of national security. There are many laws which impose ‘reasonable restrictions’ on freedom of expression. One New Delhi-based political analyst says that in India “we have the right to free speech, but we don’t have the right to offend.” In a 2016 report the international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch characterised these as ‘prone to misuse’.
In a recent article Sevanti Ninan, founder-editor of the pioneering media watchdog website theHoot.org (now archived), analysed the changes that have taken place in the Indian media since 2014. She argues that the mainstream media has been ‘delegitimised’ over five years by the BJP government, while the huge growth of social media has proved a powerful weapon in elections. The widespread emergence of multiple media platforms, including social media, is redefining the role of the media in politics and government, and the relationship between the two. At the start of his term in office in 2014, Narendra Modi was reported to have asked senior bureaucrats and cabinet colleagues not to speak to journalists. Sources previously available to journalists covering cabinet and government decision and policy discussion were no longer accessible. Modi himself gave no press conferences. Interviews have been with hand-picked journalists, questions submitted in advance and often written answers were provided. Anticipating Donald Trump, the Indian prime minister took to his Twitter account to convey information on day to day developments to his 11 million followers. His regular slot on the state-run All India Radio became a scarce source of official information.
In this article, Ninan goes on to point out articles and interviews generated by journalistic research or non-official sources, if seen as controversial, disappeared from the media outlets – taken down apparently through pressure on their editors or owners. Self- censorship has increased. Private media houses have been co-opted by the government or the ruling party. On top of the threats of violence, Ninan argues that the prime minister and the BJP as the governing party have in five years changed the rules of media engagement at the cost of independent and responsible journalism. On a more positive note, the rise of politically inspired ‘fake news’ has been accompanied by the creation of more independent media sites which have aimed to fact-check manufactured stories –‘fakenewsbusters’. She suggests that if the BJP has been able to a large extent to create its own media, people need to recognise that a greatly enlarged media landscape offers its own antidote. Schools and colleges need to offer more media literacy to the mobile phone generation. One ambitious new venture – factmata.com – aims to create an automated fact-checking system for political communication, powered by Artificial Intelligence. Its founder Dhruv Ghulati argues that currently, ‘content is basically made to sell more products’. His vision is to create an automated system which does not just check facts but measure the quality of content on social media.
Against this background, we need to ask where in the evolving media landscape is there a role for a successor to the idea of public service or public interest broadcasting? The objectives of public interest broadcasting were formulated and recognised over the decades since broadcasting began. Under the government monopoly conditions of British colonial rule in south Asia, and the inherited broadcasting technologies (initially exclusively radio), of the early years of India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and later Bangladesh, these objectives were projected in south Asia as a potential national model. They were seen as a template for the state-run national broadcasters both in radio and TV. Under a state controlled regulatory system some of them apply, in principle with a lighter touch, to private commercial ventures. Each of them may be subject to qualifications or interpretation, which has been pointed out, does not necessarily enhance the freedom of expression protected in Article 19 of the Indian constitution. They may be said to include the following: 1) the promotion of national unity and cohesion; 2) the dissemination of information in the national interest; 3) the dissemination of accurate and authoritative news and information on social practices, and public and private health issues; 4) the prevention and control of social and civil conflict; 5) the monitoring and promotion of objectivity and fairness and equality of access in news broadcasting; 6) the promotion of education; 7) the protection of minority rights and individual human rights; 8) ensuring socially beneficial uses of the broadcasting spectrum in the interest of the public; 9) distribution of the uses of the spectrum as a finite technical resource for diverse local and national audiences; and 10) the promotion of technical and editorial quality standards in the making of programmes.
In India the development of broadcasting had been shaped by formal state control of broadcasting institutions. The establishment of an autonomous national broadcasting institution was seen as potentially the most effective means of implementing a public service agenda. The creation of the nominally independent Prasar Bharati in 1990 went some way to meeting that aspiration, but the media landscape was soon transformed by the proliferation of TV channels targeted to India from outside the country. Doordarshan, the state TV service, was no longer intended to be financed principally by state subsidy and at the same time lost much of its advertising revenue to commercial channels. Prasar Bharati controls the national broadcasters Doordarshan TV and Akashvani or All India Radio but the government and the ruling party has effective oversight of the broadcast output. of the state TV channels, and despite the existence of many private FM channels a statutory monopoly of Radio news broadcasting. In comparing news coverage by Doordarshan and the private TV news channels the impression of media observers is that there was little difference between then in the political balance of their election coverage With exception of NDTV, most of the private channels were seen as favouring the BJP. Raids were conducted on NDTV premises and the homes of the promoters Dr Prannoy and Radhika Roy. The Editor of, the Hindi channel of NDTV, – NDTV India- Ravish Kumar, known for being critical of the politics of the BJP and RSS has received death threats on Twitter. Prasar Bharti is widely seen as having lost even its notional freedom in the last five years.
However in one respect at least the national broadcaster Doordarshan came under the scrutiny of the Election Commission, whose independence of government is backed by the Constitution. Following a complaint during the 2019 election campaign, the Election Commission directed Doordarshan to “desist from extending any preferential or disproportionate airtime coverage in favour of any party”. Prasar Bharati responded by setting up a weekly report of political coverage. But the Election Commission apparently had little success in enforcing election coverage regulations in private channels which were openly biased in favour of the BJP.3
Through a licensing system and appropriate regulation it is possible in principle to combine a commercial financed institution with public interest obligations. Both are dependent on financial viability, while commercial broadcasting has its own ideological priorities, increasingly in an age of globalisation. Finance is the major constraint. State and national broadcasters are in competition with the commercial sector for advertising revenue. For years Doordarshan ran at a loss; a situation that has only changed in the past year under the media management regime of the BJP government.
With the development and dissemination of digital technology and means of distribution the broadcasting spectrum is no longer the only technical resource for broadcasting. Transnational TV removed the government monopoly of news broadcasting, but real diversity has not been achieved. Competition lessened the demand for autonomy for the state broadcaster, while governments stress the need to have their ‘own voice’. Commercial ownership of broadcasting and other media institutions has increased the potential of control of information by private interests, at the expense of the public interest. Regulation on cross media ownership is one means of limiting this, but the greater risk is that governments become the arbiters of what is permissible.
Uplinking requirements remain a restriction on transnational TV, and in times of international conflict commercial stations have tended to take a strong line in support of their national loyalties and the official policies of their national governments. Right to information laws have greatly expanded the possibilities of investigative journalism. Broadcast journalism, including investigative journalism, has opened up for both commercial and to a lesser extent national TV, subject in India to the constraints noted. In many countries long-standing laws on criminal defamation have been abolished (in Sri Lanka, for example, though not yet in India) or modified, but other laws against hate speech and protecting privacy have imposed new limitations on freedom of expression, arguably in the public interest.
The concept of ‘infotainment’ is a challenge to more traditional concepts of objective news journalism practised in the public interest rather than as a branch of the entertainment industry. The invention and success of TV ‘reality ‘programmes has added a new and controversial dimension to what may be considered to be in the public interest. In India they have good ratings though as yet not as high as the most popular soap operas. In search of the audience they are ‘becoming more provocative and outrageous’, with little sign of the backlash that has recently hit Britain, with the cancellation of one long running show following the suicide of a participant.
Twenty years ago the Indian government had reason to believe that it was losing its ability to control of the means of mass communication. The ability of governments to control digital access and digitally transmitted information has created new realities in the past 20 years and has considerable future potential, with wide and often adverse implications for Freedom of Expression. There are as yet few international safeguards, and in India the BJP and Narendra Modi’s attitude to the media has demonstrated little willingness to protect this core element of democratic practice. Government management of information flows looks likely to grow, with ominous implications for democracy, transparency and accountability.