Photo credit: Reuters
In the past month, three journalists have been killed: each found dead for a different reason. This sudden spike is unusual for India that had seen killings of 28 journalists since 1992; most of them having been murdered in small towns and villages in the country – very few in big cities.The targeted assassination of Gauri Lankesh, an outspoken critic of the ultranationalist central government and PM Narendra Modi has left the national media and civil society stunned, angry and bewildered.
Lankesh ran her own publication, the Lankesh Patrika, through which she freely aired her views, and in 2016 was charged with defaming two BJP leaders. There are hundreds of people who are outspoken about the government, politicians and society, but people don’t get killed. Something has changed in India.
Usually the corrupt, the crooked and those who were impacted by investigative and adversarial journalism did not go out and kill a reporter or an editor if they proved troublesome. There were other ways to ‘handle’ them. The resourceful ones – especially the top politicians and businessmen – managed to get the journalist’s beat changed or got him transferred or even arranged a promotion so that he or she did not bear a grudge. This was especially true in the capital, Delhi, and the other metros for many years until the new era dawned when editors lost control of the newsroom to moneybags. Whenever an editor tried to assert himself by giving space to the critics of the government, as it happened recently in the case of Delhi’s Hindustan Times, the owners quietly showed him the door.
Now the news that’s fit to print, especially that against PM Modi or his government, does not find space in many major newspapers. The same is the case for television news. The bigger stories are just filtered out or mentioned in passing and seldom followed up. The only space that is left now is in online publications, which have been allowed to breathe easy by those who want to control the narrative, as the net does not yet have much penetration in the country.
Increasingly, the corporate world has a vice-like grip on what the country reads and watches, and anything that crosses the red line that can cause harm to their interest is not entertained. The recent acquisition of a dozen television channels and several newspapers by the Ambani group has ensured that the managers of these groups decide what should be aired or printed and what has to be blocked. And all of them have little patience for old-fashioned slogans that demand justice for the poor and oppressed, or for civil society groups demanding governments to be protective of national resources and indigenous people. These big businesses are trenchantly against the left parties and those working with the poor and the struggling. The convergence of corporate interests with those of the government negates the essence of journalism, which has to speak the truth and demand accountability from the State.
What is compounding the problem for media in India is the shadow the ultranationalist ideology is casting on the business of government. Now criticism of the government’s conduct is tarred as anti-national activity. Newspaper editors, at the behest of their owners, do not want to provide space to political reporting or news emanating from civil society. They simply want to steer clear of any trouble with the government – more so in the states than at the centre. Editors or anchors that plead restraint and rapprochement with neighbors Pakistan or China are trolled and attacked viciously. The chasm between the liberal section of the society and the ultranationalists has grown so much that when Gauri was killed there were many in social media that seem to applaud the heinous act.
These right-wing trolls are associated with the ruling party and bizarrely PM Modi follows many of them on twitter. These trolls help shape the narrative as well as scare the dissenters. Those who are not afraid of going on the defensive against this unrelenting attack are increasingly facing violence. Gauri Lankesh stuck to her beliefs and was subjected to a barrage of defamation suits for her writings. Most journalists or editors normally stop pursuing a story when served with defamation cases. It shapes their editorial behavior until they have courage of conviction to speak truth to power.
An owner of a mass circulated multi-edition daily explained to this writer how the newsroom has changed. Now, he said, there was little space for reporters in his organization. Most of the newspaper’s content (80%), according to him, was prepared centrally at its head office and transmitted to regional centres. There was just some space left for local editors to fill. Now, in his group, no reporters report on the Congress or other opposition parties, he said. The only beat reporter was there for the ruling party.
In the name of profitability, the newspaper has been stolen from journalists and turned it into a product that serves the interests of rich and powerful.
This phenomenon is not confined to the capital Delhi or Mumbai alone, but they betray the same caution towards the ruling ideology. Hence, regional language newspapers in India have found ways to be on the right side of the government, which helps them to earn large profits due to increased government advertising in their pages. Similarly, hundreds of news channels, too, have aligned themselves with the new political order. Only NDTV is standing up against the dominant narrative of the government and is on the threshold of a hostile takeover. Other news channels are towing the government line. Bizarrely, they speak with great hostility against those who are in opposition and seldom raise their voice against the BJP government. Is it journalism?
This approach gets an endorsement now from social media and their algorithm decides what is news and whether it would get greater viewership. That news gets precedence, which is trending and, as we have seen, which can be manipulated too. For instance, cosmetic issues are created to side step and drive out from public consciousness incidents that show the poor performance of the government. Media is left to chase a dud, for instance, what was witnessed after a tragedy that unfolded in the Eastern part of India that saw hundreds of children dying due to Japanese encephalitis in a matter of weeks.
In this world, those who pause and reflect on our putrid reality and demand accountability from the government are the new enemies of the State. The outriders of this new world killed Gauri Lankesh as she refused to forget why she became a journalist.
Sanjay Kapoor is Independent Media’s stringer based in Delhi. He is also the Editor of the publication in India “Hard News.”