Narendra Modi is the prime ministerial candidate for India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in elections to be held in April. (AP/Tsering Topgyal)
Narendra Modi is the prime ministerial candidate for India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in elections to be held in April. (AP/Tsering Topgyal)

Modi’s rise does not bode well for Indian press freedom

As India is set to hold elections next month, journalists covering Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing prime ministerial candidate, are reportedly coming under increased pressure online and in the newsroom for shedding critical light on him. Given these developments, free and independent reporting of the campaign is in doubt–as is the future climate for press freedom should the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) become prime minister.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Modi has widespread popularity–78 percent of those polled held a favorable view of him–even though he remains one of the most controversial political figures in India. Modi was cleared of any wrongdoing by a special investigation team appointed by the Supreme Court, but many journalists continue to question his role as chief minister during the deadly violence in Gujarat more than a decade ago. “The year 2002 changed Modi’s equations with journalists and, in particular, the Delhi-based ‘national’ media,” Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of IBN18 Network, wrote in an editorial last year.  

Sevanti Ninan, a media critic and editor of the media watchdog website The Hoot, told CPJ that outlets which reported critically on the 2002 violence continue “to draw Modi’s ire to this day.” She said Modi has been known to walk out of studio interviews on TV channels that question him about the violence. This week, Newslaundry, a media critique website, posted a statement saying Modi canceled a recent interview for its “Candidates 2014” series. According to The Hoot, he canceled only two days before the interview because Newslaundry would not fulfill conditions set by Modi.

Journalist Shivam Vij recently wrote about how some big names in Indian media have come under pressure. Sagarika Ghose, the host of “Face the Nation” on CNN-IBN and deputy editor of the English-language news channel, has received orders from Network 18, which owns the channel, to not post critical tweets on Modi, according to Vij. Management has also pressured Nikhil Wagle, editor of IBN Lokmat, Network 18’s Marathi-language channel, to refrain from critical comments on Modi, according to Vij. Neither Ghose nor Wagle responded to CPJ requests for comment.

A recent report in Caravan magazine explored how Network 18 has shifted rightwards, from the managing director’s public comments supporting Modi’s candidacy to indirect pressure on editors to not criticize him. Open magazine, citing unnamed sources, also reported that there are orders from top levels at Network 18 instructing journalists to rein in anti-Modi stories and to cut live to any Modi rally or speech. Network 18 did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

While Ninan expressed doubts whether journalists are coming under such pressure in the newsroom, she did say they are feeling it on the Internet. “Where journalists do get pilloried for their views by Modi supporters is on online media and social media. There is definitely a pro-Modi majority out there,” she said. Journalists have documented the rise of pro-Modi, pro-BJP, pro-Hindu nationalist tweeters who dominate political discourse online.

Vij also found that both Ghose and Wagle have received online threats in recent months, and in the case of Ghose, threats of rape, as documented by Al Jazeera last month. Ghose told Vij that Modi’s supporters make it increasingly difficult to criticize him online, especially over Twitter.

Some journalists appear to have drawn more direct consequences for their views. Sun TV, a regional Tamil-language channel, discontinued “Vibhada Medhai,” a daily prime-time debate show hosted by political analyst Thiru Veerapandian for 17 years, following his comments at an event late last year suggesting people should think twice before they vote for Modi. Members of the BJP threatened not to participate in his future programs, according to news reports. Sun TV could not be reached for comment.

Some journalists now posit that the sacking of Hartosh Singh Bal, the former political editor of Open, occurred as a result of his critical reports on Modi, and not due to the magazine owner’s connections to the Congress Party as initially reported. Bal’s editor, Manu Joseph, who resigned days after Bal’s termination, told The Hoot that the magazine’s owner, Sanjiv Goenka, sacked Bal because he was “making a lot of enemies…political enemies.”  Bal’s position has since been filled by a journalist known to be close to Arun Jaitley, a member of the BJP and leader of the opposition in India’s upper chamber of parliament, news reports said.

Modi, who is serving his fourth term as chief minister of Gujarat, has a history of silencing critical journalists in his home state. In 2006, his administration brought sedition charges against Manoj Shinde, an editor of the Gujarati-language daily Surat Saamna, for criticizing Modi’s handling of a flood, news accounts said. Sedition is punishable by death in India. (It is unclear if the case against Shinde was ever resolved). Two years later, CPJ documented sedition charges brought by Gujarat authorities against an editor and reporter at The Times of India and a photographer at Gujarat Samachar in connection with a series of investigative reports questioning the competency of a high-ranking police officer and his alleged connection to the leader of an organized crime group. The latter charges were eventually quashed in court.

In addition, CPJ research shows that “Aakrosh,” a documentary on the 2002 violence in Gujarat, was censored by India’s Central Board of Film Certification, then headed by a BJP politician from Gujarat.

Last year, I documented how attacks against the press increased in Karnataka state under the Hindu right, which deifies Modi. Other Hindu nationalist groups who pay obeisance to Modi have followed suit. Last month, a mob calling itself the Hindu Sena gathered outside the Delhi office of Caravan and burnt copies of the magazine because of an interview with a jailed Hindu extremist who alleged that the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization that has close ties to the BJP (and to which Modi belongs), sanctioned attacks across India that killed more than 100 people between 2006 and 2008. The RSS leader denied the accusations.

In another disturbing development, a Hindu nationalist group pressured Penguin India to recall Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History last month, news accounts reported. Prominent journalists Siddharth Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma subsequently called on Penguin to cancel their existing contracts to continue publishing their books, saying the Doniger outcome had undermined their faith in the publisher. Interestingly, Varadarajan’s book is on the 2002 violence under Modi’s rule. Varadarajan told CPJ that Penguin is considering their request.

A figure who could one day head the world’s largest democracy should have a high tolerance for criticism. Yet Modi, his supporters, and some media owners apparently want to shut down such criticism. Free, independent news coverage is most likely to pay the price.