New Delhi, April 26: India has constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and by some measures the biggest and most diverse media industry in the world. But journalists here say they are increasingly facing intimidation aimed at stopping them from running stories critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his administration.
At least three senior editors have left their jobs at various influential media outlets in the past six months after publishing reports that angered the government or supporters of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), according to colleagues.
Some reporters, as well as television anchors, have said they have been threatened with physical harm, abused on social media and ostracised by Modi’s administration.
In its annual World Press Freedom Index released Wednesday, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said that India was now 138th-ranked in the world out of 180 countries measured, down two positions since 2017 and lower than countries like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Myanmar. When the index was started in 2002, India was ranked 80th out of 139 countries surveyed.
Reporters Without Borders said that “with Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”
The group said that “hate speech targeting journalists is shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies.” Spokesmen for the government declined comment on the accusations by journalists. They did not immediately respond to the Reporters Without Borders report.
However, not all Indian journalists believe there is a problem. Swapan Dasgupta, a member of parliament and a political columnist who supports Modi, said the press freedom ranking was “quite inexplicable”. “I don’t believe there has been any shrinkage in the freedom of the media in the past few years,” he said.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a spokesman for the ruling BJP, said allegations of media intimidation were far from the truth. “On the contrary, the BJP has been a victim of the viciousness of large sections of the media that flourished under the patronage of the Congress, left and other opposition parties,” he said. “The unabashed bias of these media against the BJP has not dented our party’s political growth.”
Some journalists in India say they believe media freedoms are now under even more threat in the run-up to an election due next year. There have been some signs of increasing opposition to Modi’s economic policies and to the BJP’s muscular Hindu nationalism.