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How to Silence Critics

By targeting critical voices like NDTV, the government is sending out a message.

All rulers love to be surrounded by adoring courtiers. It makes the task of governance so much easier. All youhave to do is make pronouncements from the top, and your followers will sing hallelujahs. Only the foolhardy will break ranks and ask a question, or worse still, offer some criticism. If they do, they know the consequences. Fantastical as this might sound, Indian democracy is veering close to this imagined scenario. Within three years of being in power, the Narendra Modi government has successfully turned a once vibrant and even hectoring television news media into a chorus line that endorses and adores the leader while roasting what little of the opposition that still exists.

It is this that makes the television news network NDTV, its shortcomings notwithstanding, stand out as different. There has already been much debate about whether the 5 June raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the establishments of the founder–owners of NDTV, Prannoy and Radhika Roy, represent a direct assault on the freedom of the press in India. While NDTV’s financial arrangements have been under investigation since 2009, it is extraordinary that the CBI felt the urge to conduct raids to investigate a private person’s complaint against the channel regarding its dealings with a private bank. Inevitably, the timing of the raids, as well as the target, has raised questions about the intent.

While it is true that previous governments also used the CBI to silence opponents, including media houses, there is a pattern to the way this government is going about it. By focusing on the alleged financial misdemeanours of its opponents, the government hopes to achieve its twin aims of maligning the opponent—whether it is an opposition leader, a human rights activist, a non-governmental organisation, or a media house—and at the same time, silencing others who fear similar reprisals. In the case of the media, this works far more effectively as the government can continue to parrot its commitment to the freedom of the press while acting against media owners on the pretext that all it cares about is financial probity. It is a justification that is easily bought by a public that has already been schooled to believe that a media critical of the government is either unreliable, or telling lies, or has an “agenda,” as was stated by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson on NDTV a few days before the raids.

Apart from putting pressure on the corporate owners of the media, this government has also perfected the art of injecting fear in the minds of individual journalists. As Ravish Kumar of NDTV India pointed out in a brilliant programme a day after the raids, journalists in the national capital, and elsewhere, know that they are being watched and are fearful. If they are seen as critical, their access to sources, so essential while covering government, are cut off as fear prevails even in the corridors of power in Delhi and some state capitals. This method of silencing the media works almost as effectively as direct censorship.

Given this, one would have expected that there would be stronger expressions of outrage at the government’s targeting of NDTV. Yet, what is evident now is the absence of solidarity amongst those who recognise the agenda of this government. Barring exceptions, media houses have not rallied behind NDTV for fear that they will be targeted next. While professional media organisations like the Editors Guild have come out in support of the channel, there is little else. Even people outside the media, who recognise the reason behind the government’s picking on NDTV, hesitate to give it unqualified support because the channel did not back other media houses that were similarly attacked in the past. There is also a growing consciousness that while a big metro-based news channel draws some attention, there is little by way of solidarity with smaller newspapers and journals, in places like Kashmir or the North East for instance, that have been singled out by the government, or outrage at the number of journalists investigating wrongdoing by the powerful who are beaten up and even killed. The media in India is a house divided, and it is this division that gives those in power a handle to manipulate it and use it as a tool of official propaganda. We see this being played out yet again.

Following the CBI raids on NDTV, some people have drawn a parallel to the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 and the total censorship on the press that she imposed. Although the situation today is different, the BJP ought to heed the lesson from that period. Indira Gandhi paid a political price for imposing censorship. She believed the censored media, and was blinded to the extent of distress that her policies had caused to the poor. She also believed the intelligence agencies when they assured her she would win the election in March 1977 because people supported her policies. Indira Gandhi was defeated, resoundingly, in those elections. The poor voted against her. Ironically, her defeat gave the BJP a foothold at the centre as a part of the Janata Party.

History sometimes comes full circle. It is interesting that today, like Indira Gandhi, the BJP is choosing to believe the “lapdog” media, while attempting to silence those who oppose it. There is a political price attached to this, as history suggests. One wonders if the spiralling farmers’ agitation in BJP-ruled states is an illustration of the blindness a pliant media induces in the rulers.

Updated On : 16th Jun, 2017

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