As India was gripped by daily protests and violence against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), Modi tweeted to his 50.2 million followers, “I want to unequivocally assure my fellow Indians that CAA does not affect any citizen of India of any religion. No Indian has anything to worry regarding this Act. This Act is only for those who have faced years of persecution outside and have no other place to go except India.”
The only problem with this tweet was, at the time, large parts of India were under internet blackout.
The New York Times has pointed to the dubious distinction of India as the country that shuts down internet most frequently. In 2018 internet services was cut in India 134 times, and at last count in 2019, there have been 93 shutdowns. The country’s closest competitor is Pakistan, which had a meagre 12 shutdowns last year.
Part of the criticism is sparked by the fact that Modi made internet connectivity a major election plank before he won his first term as Prime Minister in 2014. One of the promises under the Digital India campaign was that Lakhs of villages would get broadband connectivity, e-governance, and universal mobile services. While the government has celebrated the success of the initiative, Huffpost India in a recent report, found that the government had also inflated data by designating previously uncategorised services such as railway booking, credit card transactions, and Aadhaar authentication as “e-governance.”
For example, all online railway bookings and cancellations was categorised as e-governance transactions for the first time in 2015, despite the ticketing services being available since 2002.
It is difficult to ascertain Modi’s actual motivation to advocate for a digital India; one reason could be his reliance on the internet to reach his constituents directly. There is a general agreement among scholars that Modi has been at the forefront of an effective social media campaign strategy to win elections, especially since he has shunned the mainstream news media and did not hold a single press conference during his first tenure as prime minister, a first for any prime minister in India’s post-independence history.
In his personal social media sites Modi does not link to any mainstream news media stories or acknowledge India’s long history of a free press. Modi’s antipathy toward mainstream media dates back to his time as chief minister of Gujarat when, most famously, he walked out of Karan Thapar’s interview when asked about his role in the 2002 communal riots. Modi effectively cut off all communication with the news media after becoming Prime Minister, choosing instead to direct his messages through tweets and radio programs.
While Modi understands the power of social media, he also knows that India largely remains a cable television nation. Even with the rising popularity of streaming and news apps, cable television news consumption in India has risen by 16% between 2016 and 2018. Modi’s election victory brought television ratings to a new high. The highest viewership on election result day went to the three Hindi news channels: Aaj Tak, ABP, and India TV with a combined viewership of a whopping 297 million.
In a research study I conducted of Modi’s 2019 election campaign television coverage, I found that in the month leading up to the results—in 48 hours of prime time broadcast news, 18 interviews of Modi by television journalists, and personal interview with individual journalists— that the coverage of Modi on these Hindi channels was completely partisan. Modi’s speeches and tweets were exclusively used as sources of information, Modi was only asked ‘soft’ questions during interviews, and journalists personally acknowledged that they were under tremendous pressure to sound pro-government. It is clear that Indian television journalists cannot speak truth to power—or even the truth.
None of this should come as a surprise.
Indian cable news media industry, since its privatisation in 1991, never evolved into the kind of watchdog television news we see in Western and advanced democracies. Instead, according to journalist Prasun Sonwalkar, television news transitioned from “byline to bottom line” where generating profit became the sole purpose of the industry which resulted in a slavish dependency on advertising, especially of advertising revenues from the ruling government.
Knowing this, Modi’s government has been working to keep the cable news industry in a state of complete pliancy. Raiding news channels, boycotting debates and television appearances, and stopping government advertising are some of the tactics being used. Indian media owners are only glad to acquiesce, muzzle dissent, and be partisans since many of them have investments in other businesses—real estate, transportation, natural gas, and telecommunication—for which they are dependent on the government for favors.
If there is a blueprint elsewhere, it is Turkey where a muzzling of free press happened prior to India but in an eerily similar fashion.
When Recep Erdogan came to power in 2002 Turkey had a relatively free press but its decline was precipitous. Beginning 2005, the government had started to slap fines on newspapers and television media companies which did not project Erdogan in a good light by labeling those outlets “anti national” or “anti Turkey.” Soon a small coterie of media tycoons, including Erdogan’s son-in-law, was allowed to own much of the news media. By 2015, the media had been completely co-opted. There has never been a ban on reporting the news—or, rather, the government had no need to impose one. Self-censorship became pervasive; critical journalists were fined or fired. Even without explicit threats, many editors toed an invisible line for fear of legal consequences as court cases against individual journalists increased.
Erdogan’s us-and-them rhetoric forced journalists to conflate being patriotic with being pro-Erdogan. Since 2013 more than 100 media outlets have been forcibly shut down for being “anti national” and “pro terrorist” and more than 150 journalists currently sit behind bars.
As in Turkey, the future looks grim in India, especially if the government continues frequent internet shutdowns. The few critical and independent news media, besides foreign media, have been online and to shut those down would allow the last vestiges of a free press to disappear. Along with it, India’s democracy.
The author teaches at the Department of Communication Studies, State University of New York, Plattsburgh. The views are personal.