Descent into censorship
Perhaps many Pakistanis first noticed the state of Indian mainstream news media when they caught a glimpse of its coverage of the Pulwama attack and Balakot strikes. There was genuine surprise — or more aptly, horror.
However, for a section of the Indian media — especially, some respected news websites — the nationalistic, jingoistic and polarising narrative adopted by most mainstream media actors was simply the culmination of what they had been witnessing and documenting over the last few years.
India has followed a disturbing trend with a steadily falling rank on the World Press Index (now hand-in-hand with Pakistan like a good neighbour) due to an increase in threats, mob attacks, arrests and intimidation of journalists through defamation cases, heightened digital surveillance and controlled online trolling. In fact, the report on India’s descent in press freedom rankings itself was removed from at least two outlets after it was reported.
Last week, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, Indian journalists shared their concerns over media censorship with their Pakistani colleagues over a panel discussion. We all know that censorship is an ongoing battleground in Pakistan, but what has happened to India?
2014 onwards, the year Narendra Modi came to power, India changed. Journalists fought for access with a prime minister who never held a press conference. Some well-known journalists cajoled him, taking selfies with the leader in power they were supposed to question. The rules changed. And its latest gift was handed to the Indians in the sudden appearance of NaMo TV, three weeks before the election — a channel dedicated to the promotion of Modi’s election campaign, operating without a license or security clearance.
“What I am witnessing now over the last four or five years is completely unprecedented,” said Ritu Kapur, founder and CEO of India’s news website The Quint. “You see it, unfortunately, in a lot of capitulation by the mainstream media in the country. Some of the largest media organisations have actually become vehicles of propaganda or driving the agenda of a certain — for the lack of a better word — ideology.”
It isn’t just the government in power that is the problem, it is the powers that have been unleashed. Reporters Without Borders states that journalists are less free under the Modi government due to threats from Hindu nationalists. Gauri Lankesh, an editor and publisher who vocally supported minority rights in Modi’s India, was gunned down outside her house in Karnataka in 2017. She was also the Kannada translator of Rana Ayyub’s book, Gujarat Files: An Anatomy of a Coverup.
Rana Ayyub, also at the panel discussion, spoke about how she witnessed the pressure of Modi’s power, even before he became the PM. Disappointed by the lack of evidence against him and his cohort for overseeing the killing of 1000 people —mostly Muslims — in the Gujarat riots (2002), Ayyub was sent by her then employer Tehelka, to begin their own investigation.
She assumed a new identity — that of a Hindu nationalist — and spent eight months undercover, living, laughing, and bonding with the people close to the Gujarat government. “I had seven or eight cameras on my body at any given point in time. I had something in my watch, my ring, in my diary. I had a tunic with a camera fitted in it.”
Ayyub collected tapes full of conversations. “There were damning confessions by bureaucrats, ministers, the Home Secretary,” she says. She learned about fake encounters, incendiary speeches by those in power inciting violence, and the absolute unwillingness of the then Gujarat government to intervene. Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of the state at the time.
Rana Ayyub handed in her story to her employers. Whether it was political pressure or lacking evidence, the editors decided not to publish the story. Ayyub quit and took her work to other organisations. It was widely appreciated. There was meat in it. It had the seeds for follow-up investigations and could start a new debate on the Gujarat riots, but nobody published it.
That is when Ayyub began putting it all into a book. She signed a book contract but by the time it was to be published, it was 2014. Modi had been elected the Prime Minister and the publisher had second thoughts.
Determined to get her story out, Ayyub self published, and the book was launched to a room full of journalists, reporters, and cameras, without a single story covering it the following day.
Now the book has sold 500,000 copies in 17 languages. She always had interested readers, but she just didn’t get coverage. Since the publication, Rana Ayyub is trolled heavily by nationalist goons online whenever she speaks about something or shares her story at festivals like this one.
Pakistani journalists joining Ayyub and Kapur at this session at the festival had their own uncomfortable censorship stories to share. Gul Bukhari recalled her four hour abduction in Lahore last year. This was an act of intimidation. Newspapers dropped her articles from publication, and television talk shows rescinded their invitations to be a guest on their shows.
Taha Siddiqui spoke about his reporting and his attempted kidnapping in Islamabad following which, he moved his family out of the country for their safety. Both are trolled heavily on social media and it will be difficult to find mainstream publications or television channels that will broadcast their words. A lot of this may be pressure from elsewhere, but it is also editorial self-censorship because their views are not palatable to some.
While the four media professionals shared their experiences with media censorship at the festival, it was equally disconcerting and heartening to know that despite the growing hostility between the two countries, we stand together to fight the same fight. In either case, it isn’t easy watching your country and your industry take a sharp turn into a direction from which it is difficult to return.
For India, that turn became sharper two months ago with the media coverage following Pulwama and Balakot.
While reviewing Indian media reporting post Balakot, Polis Media stated in the Washington Post that many reports were “contradictory, biased, incendiary and uncorroborated.” Worse yet, when reporting errors were found, none were rectified or explained. The news cycle simply moved on.
With sky high ratings, anchors were baying for war, slamming down dissent as antinational, even donning army fatigues (with prop toy guns), throwing the ‘go to Pakistan’ line to silence opposition, building war hysteria with irresponsible statements and equally irresponsible journalism. ‘300 killed in Balakot. 200-300 killed. Actually, 254 killed.’ False numbers were attributed to “sources”. Secret recordings of two terrorists talking to each other (rather respectfully in 1950s Urdu) were ‘revealed’. Nobody asked for evidence. Nobody questioned the information because doing so was unpatriotic.
It isn’t only Pakistan that the media attacked. The mainstream narrative on Indian television screens was also “casting aspersions on the Indian Muslim,” says Rana Ayyub. When she applauded Pakistan’s move to return Wing Commander Abhinandan to India as a positive gesture of peace, she was hounded for being anti-national.
But where is all this coming from? Are there phone calls, directives, advertising pressures, owners’ interests, political alliances? Heightened nationalism and extremism in both countries has left limited space for debate on mainstream media. There is a large section of society in both India and Pakistan that stands on the sidelines, watching their countries being silenced, consuming incorrect information and propaganda, afraid that this polarisation may impact public opinion, democracy and the future of the region.
For India, the stakes have never been higher. After all, as the world’s largest democracy fed by false news, hate politics and anti-Pakistan rhetoric goes to election, what could possibly not go wrong?