THOUGH India calls itself the world’s biggest democracy, the fact that Reporters Without Borders has placed the country below Pakistan where press freedom is concerned says a lot about the Indian media’s true state of affairs after nearly a decade of Narendra Modi’s rule. As per the RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index, India stood at 161 out of 180 countries, while Pakistan came in at 150 (an improvement over last year’s ranking). These are not enviable statistics for either country, but the Indian propaganda machine’s claims about commitment to democracy lie exposed by the RSF ranking. The fact is that in India, a compliant, corporatized mainstream media has worked diligently to project the BJP/Hindutva narrative, while those brave media persons and outlets that prioritise truth-telling over serving the rulers are hounded by the state. Of particular concern is the fact that powerful business conglomerates with close ties to the ruling party have acquired most mainstream media outlets, ensuring that the ‘patriotic’ narrative muscles out alternative voices. Moreover, the RSF report notes that critical voices face “horrific harassment campaigns”, which has led to self-censorship. As some media watchers have noted, much of the mainstream press in India has transformed into ‘godi media’, indicating the close, unhealthy relationship between these media outlets and India’s ruling party.

The debilitating effects on society of this bonhomie between corporate media and the right-wing government is quite obvious. Screaming anchors often rail against Pakistan, while India’s Muslims are, at best, treated as a troublesome minority, and at worst are demonised and accused of sympathising with terrorists. These destructive narratives propelled by the unquestioning media inflame communal tensions, and can abet anti-Muslim violence. For example, the demolition of Muslim homes by the state has been celebrated by media outlets, while many critical journalists — Muslim and non-Muslim — have been hauled up and charged under the sedition law. Even established foreign media outlets have not been spared the onslaught. For instance, earlier this year, the BBC offices in India were raided after the UK’s public broadcaster released a documentary examining Mr Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom. The message is clear: anyone who fails to toe the line will face the wrath of the state. That may be the way things are done in authoritarian states, but countries calling themselves democracies should certainly not be resorting to such draconian tactics.

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2023

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