Modi Reignites Nationalist Movement in India at Media’s Expense

Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister for five years now, is spearheading a renewed Hindu nationalist movement sweeping the country. The government has cracked down on media outlets and individual journalists who publish content that does not align with the government’s agenda.

Earlier this month, the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins wrote an extensive profile on Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, who is known for pursuing Modi and his aides. The article shed light on the difficulties in documenting and publishing official misconduct in Modi’s administration.

By 2012, Modi had become the most recognizable B.J.P. (Bharatiya Janata Party) leader in India, and seemed likely to run for Prime Minister,” Filkins wrote.

“‘Everyone saw the writing on the wall,’ Ayyub said. ‘Modi was going to win, and no one wanted to alienate him.’ Ayyub kept trying to find a publisher, but nothing came through.”

Ayyub ended up financing the publication of her book, “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Coverup,” herself. The book uncovers Modi’s involvement in instigating and continuing violence during the 2002 Gujarat Riots, during which he was the Chief Minister of the state. Gujurat Files was published in 2016 after a four-year-long search for a publisher.

“[The Home Secretary of Gujurat in 2002] Narayan added that the V.H.P.—the religious arm of the R.S.S.—had made preparations for large-scale attacks on the Muslim community and was merely looking for a pretext, Filkins wrote. ‘It was all planned by the V.H.P.—it was gruesome,’ Narayan said, adding that he believed Modi was in on the plan from the beginning. ‘He knew everything.’”

As a result of the publication of scathing evidence against Modi’s innocence in the riots, Ayyub revealed at a conference in Washington, D.C. earlier this year that she has been targeted for her work.

“There is a good deal of self-censorship in the Indian media right now because [journalists] are being targeted and they’re losing their jobs for speaking out against the government,” Ayyub said.

In addition to violent threats, Ayyub and female journalists in particular have been vulnerable to threats of a sexual nature.

Ayyub said in Filkins’ piece that Neha Dixit, who has done groundbreaking reporting on the B.J.P., said she receives death threats and sexual insults constantly.

Censorship runs rampant in addition to threats. The Indian government shut down internet and phone services in an effort to subdue protests against a new law that makes it more difficult for Muslims to become citizens. The government also imposed a total communication ban in Kashmir after revoking Article 370 in early August. They partially lifted the ban after two months; prepaid phone, SMS and internet services, however, continue to be banned to this day.

“What got published in prominent local English dailies was a reflection of the censorship and government pressure on the press,” Majid Maqbool wrote for The Telegraph. “For example, Greater Kashmir, the largest circulated daily published from Kashmir, avoided publishing editorials on the emerging situation for months after August 5 when the government revoked the special status and bifurcated the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union Territories.”

“Since then Greater Kashmir has not published a single opinion piece in its edit page on the revocation of Article 370 and the subsequent clampdown in the valley,” Maqbool continued. “The only opinion piece it did publish, in the third week of the clampdown, argued, curiously, in favor of the revocation of the special status.”

In April 2018, Reuters reported that the government has intimidated journalists for running articles critical of Modi and his party. The B.J.P. Reporters were threatened with physical harm, harassed on social media and ostracized from the administration. 

Ravish Kumar, a news anchor for a Hindi-language broadcast network, was targeted by pro-government activists.

This is very organized,” he told Reuters. “They follow me. When I go out to report, a crowd gathers in 10 minutes.”

Multiple senior editors at prominent newspapers have also quit under suspicious circumstances. Shortly after Modi met with the owner of the Hindustan Times in September 2017, the newspaper’s editor Bobby Ghosh quit.

This year, the finance ministry imposed restrictions on journalists’ access to government offices. Rather than allowing journalists inside the ministry, they are now forced to stand outside, hoping to catch officials only as they arrive or depart.

The Editor’s Guild of India called the sanctions a “gag on media freedoms” while causing a “further fall in India’s press freedom rankings, especially as the contagion can easily spread to other ministries as well.”  

In 2002, India was ranked 80th in the world in terms of press freedoms, out of 139 countries. As of 2019, it is ranked 140 out of 180 according to the World Press Freedom Index. India is ranked below Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Philippines, none of which are deemed fully free countries by Freedom House.

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