There is a creeping quiet spreading across India’s otherwise loud and lively journalism. Front pages, websites, and news programs are brimming with stories, but “people are afraid”, one editor told me recently in Delhi. “We come under a lot of pressure” says a journalist from Chennai. “I have never experienced anything like this” is how a veteran reporter from Calcutta put it. They are among the journalists I spoke to on a recent trip to India, all of whom describe how a combination of government pressure, harassment by political activists, commercial actors including both some advertisers and some media owners is exercising a chilling effect on Indian journalism.
Not everyone is silenced. In October, the non-profit news site The Wire published “The Golden Touch of Jay Amit Shah”, showing how Jay Shah, the son of Amit Shah, the president of the ruling BJP party, had seen a dramatic increase in his business fortunes since Narendra Modi became prime minister. The article used company balance sheets and annual reports filed with the Registrar of Companies (RoC) to show how Shah’s Temple Enterprise had seen revenues increase 16,000-fold after Mr Modi and the BJP party his father presides over took power. The response was interesting. On the one hand, Jay Shah, his lawyers insisting he was a private citizen entitled to privacy, filed a criminal defamation case and a civil defamation case seeking a billion rupees ($15.5m) in damages. On the other hand, a number of high profile government ministers and BJP officials defended Shah publicly and attacked the Wire for publishing the story.
In parallel, the Indian Express has reported on allegations that a top official at the Indian Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) had repeatedly dismissed tax fraud allegations against various parts of the Adani Group, a large Indian multinational conglomerate company headquartered in Mr Modi’s home state Gujarat and seen by many as closely aligned with the Prime Minister. (As the business paper the Mint reported, “[Gautam] Adani has travelled with Modi in the past year more than any other billionaire, helping him emerge as the most prominent face of India Inc.”) Following up on earlier stories first published by the Economic and Political Weekly in 2016, the Indian Express in August reported that the adjudicating authority of the DRI K V S Singh had passed an order striking down all proceedings against the Adani Group firms. In October, the paper reported that Singh struck down another case, alleging that an Adani subsidiary had inflated the declared value of imports to avoid taxes. The sums involved are estimated to be in the region of 15bn rupees ($233m).
What is striking is how little attention these stories have generated in other news media. Imagine if ProPublica reported that Donald Trump Jr. had seen a 16,000-fold increase in his business income after his father took office, or that the Washington Post found that federal officials had repeatedly dismissed allegations of tax evasion by the Trump Organization. Every serious and self-respecting news organization in America would cover the story and follow up to see what else they could find. After the The Wire broke the Jay Amit Shah story, NDTV, the country’s leading English-language news channel, began to do exactly that. A follow-up story focused on the loans given to Jay Shah, asked whether this was “cronyism or business as usual”. But while a video version is still available, the web version of the story was taken down briefly after, according to NDTVbecause it was being “legally vetted”. As of early November, the story has yet to be republished. The case has been widely discussed on social media under hashtags like #AmitShahKiLoot, but news media have covered the coverage more than the substantive allegations. Similarly, the Economic and Political Weekly and Indian Expresscoverage of the Adani Group has been mentioned by some other major news media, like the Times of India as well as digital-born news sites like Scroll and the Quint, and has been discussed on social media under hashtags including #adani and #stopadani. But the substantive allegations have not received the attention one might expect of what could look like an explosive mix of politics and private business at the highest levels. What we see instead is what the media watchdog site NewsLaundry calls “an eerie silence in the media.”
Both the Jay Amit Shah case and the Adani case play out against a backdrop of what many journalists I spoke to in India describe as a climate of fear. People are reluctant to be quoted, so I will not name names here, but in my conversations, journalists and editors point to five different factors.
· First, public attacks on the press by prominent politicians, including for example the BJP minister VK Singh referring to journalists as “presstitutes”, another BJP minister Kiren Rijiju telling journalists to “stop this habit of raising doubt, questioning the authorities”, and the Rajastan state government trying to limit reporting of public officials and withdrawing government advertising from some papers.
· Second, private pressure by government ministers and elected officials. One journalist I spoke to described how he had overheard editors reluctantly negotiating the wording of headlines of stories about government initiatives with politicians before they were even published—others asked whether the Central Bureau of Investigation’s raid on NDTV and on the NDTV founder Prannoy Roy’s private home in June 2017 and the 2016 decision to force the station off the air for 24 hours over its coverage of a terror attack in Pathankot were intended as warning shots for the media.
· Third, systematic trolling of journalists by both volunteer militants and paid provocateurs, especially by right-wing Hindutva activists, sometimes allegedly orchestrated by political parties. Much of this is online, but sometimes goes beyond that to involve offline harassment and even officials, as in the case of a journalist in Uttar Pradesh charged with defamation by the police for sharing a satirical video of Mr. Modi in a WhatsApp group.
· Fourth, commercial considerations including instances of either major advertisers or even media owners themselves pressuring journalists to present feel-good stories and avoid controversial and polarizing issues. (While most major newspapers are owned by independent publishing groups, parts of the local and regional press is controlled by politicians, and many television news channels have been bought up by large corporations or are subsidized by local business interests.)
· Fifth, the kinds of defamation suits pursued by Jay Shah against the Wire, as well as by the Essel Group against the Caravan, by Jet Airways founder and chairman Naresh Goyal against the journalist Josy Joseph, and in many other cases. These suits are often eventually dismissed by courts, but create a period of pressure and uncertainty in any case, and drain the resources of the publication or individual targeted.