Voters queue at a polling station during the state assembly election in New Delhi on December 4, 2013. A major election is due in May. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
Voters queue at a polling station during the state assembly election in New Delhi on December 4, 2013. A major election is due in May. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)

India’s independent journalism in doubt in election year

With the dawn of the new year, India is looking ahead to a national election in May. Recent developments raise questions about the quality and quantity of independent news coverage of the polls as local media come under greater political influence.

“Compared to many Asian countries, there is a great deal of freedom to report in India,” writer and lawyer Suhrith Parthasarathy told CPJ. “But there is the issue of political control of the Indian media which begs the question of how truly free are journalists.”

An analysis by The Hoot, a South Asian media watchdog, found that although it is difficult to trace the complex paths of media ownership in India, political parties and individuals with political affiliations own and control increasing sections of the press. According to a 2012 report by Business Standard, more than a third of news channels in India are owned by politicians or political affiliates, who use their channels as “political vehicles” to influence the course of local elections.

In his recent article in Caravan magazine, Parthasarathy explored the political ownership of media during the past few years. “Owning a news entity has become a practical necessity for political parties in India,” Parthasarathy told CPJ. 

This is particularly evident in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where regional politicians and their family members have launched television channels that are used for political purposes. Channels like Sun TV, Kalaignar TV, and Makkal TV, which all launched since 2000 and which are owned by local politicians or their families, have used news broadcasts to provide favorable coverage to one party or another. Some of these channels have also refrained from coverage of issues that may cast the party with which they are affiliated in a negative light. For example, during the run-up to the last major election, in 2009, Sun and Kalaignar avoided coverage of alleged atrocities against Tamils in nearby Sri Lanka, in an effort to shield from criticism the regional party to which they are tied, according to Parthasarathy.

The cable distribution systems that telecast the channels are also coming under political control. Nearly 60 percent of the cable distribution systems in India are owned by local politicians, according to the Business Standard report. Cable distribution systems block telecasts of channels carrying information deemed politically unfavorable. While Sun and Kalaignar were omitting coverage of events in Sri Lanka, Makkal TV, which is owned by a rival politician, was providing robust coverage of the events.  But politicians who controlled Sumangali Cable Vision, the dominant cable distribution system in the state, blocked telecasts of Makkal at the time, according to Parthasarathy. The news channels and the cable distributor did not respond to requests for comment.

This phenomenon is not limited to Tamil Nadu. It is evident across much of South India in states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and in places like Punjab in the north, where Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s family owns three news channels, Parthasarathy said.  There too, cable distribution systems have blocked telecasts of anti-Badal stories, according to news reports. “This is very unique to a modern-day democracy. This wouldn’t happen in the [United] States or the U.K.,” Parthasarathy said.

While the political ownership is particularly stark in broadcast media, it occurs in the print media as well. The Sun Group, for example, owns two newspapers and a few magazines in addition to its TV channels, according to Parthasarathy.

To compound concerns about independent coverage, reputable national print publications recently have shown signs of political allegiances. Hartosh Singh Bal, who served as the political editor at Open, a weekly English-language magazine, was sacked immediately after he published a hard-hitting article in October that criticized Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, who are widely expected to face-off to become India’s next prime minister. Many in the domestic and international media questioned whether Bal’s termination was due to reported links between Open‘s owner, his family, and the ruling Congress party.

Bal told The New York Times that his letter of termination offered no reason for the decision and added, “This is a particularly divisive and important election in this country, and I think the role the media plays is very, very important. I do think that overall there is an attempt to stifle voices which are independent. I have never seen the media so divided within itself, taking sides, being so partisan, even when it is clear where the funding and support is coming from.”

This wasn’t the only high-profile shake-up in late 2013. Siddharth Varadarajan, editor-in-chief of The Hindu–considered by many as one of India’s most reputable dailies under his two-year tenure–resigned in October after the family that owns the paper had a change of heart about letting go of editorial control. The New York Times reported that “it became clear that disputes over political coverage had been simmering under the surface.” Many local and international journalists saw Varadarajan’s departure as a step back for independent journalism.

Sevanti Ninan, founder-editor of The Hoot, wrote in a recent piece for Al-Jazeera that “the connecting thread between events at The Hindu and at Open is the impending general elections in 2014.”

This upheaval comes as India’s leading investigative magazine Tehelka has been in the headlines for turmoil of its own. Following allegations that its editor, Tarun Tejpal, molested a staff journalist at a work event, several staff members, including the journalist who was allegedly molested, have quit. The magazine’s influential managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury, also resigned amid criticism of the way that she and others responded to the allegations. Some journalists, including The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, have suggested that right-wing elements in India are using the episode as an opportunity to settle political scores against the magazine for its past exposés and critical coverage. Journalist B.G. Verghese wrote that members of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, “exhibited a rare zeal not noticed before” and “gleefully grabbed the opportunity for revenge.” (Still, many journalists have spoken out against Tejpal.)

Although India is heralded as the promised land of journalism, with more than 80,000 print publications and close to 400 news channels–at a time when the media industry elsewhere faces shrinkage and uncertainty–recent events underscore that the huge number of outlets do not guarantee widespread independent coverage in the world’s largest democracy.