Is India’s free press not so free after a decade of Modi?

Analysis by Aishwarya S. Iyer

New Delhi CNN  —  These days, journalist Siddique Kappan avoids controversial stories.

Last time he chased a major story, a shocking rape-and-murder case, it landed the father of three in jail for more than two years, and severely damaged his career and livelihood. The 44-year-old blames his incarceration on a worsening climate for journalists in India, where arrests and harassment are growing more common.

And he is far from the only journalist feeling squeezed out of their industry during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decade-long rule.

The government of the popular but divisive leader – who has not taken a single solo press conference while in office – stands accused by opponents of suppressing media pluralism and ratcheting up the use of anti-terror legislation against reporters.

And as Modi looks to win another five years in power in an ongoing nationwide election, critics fear further erosion of the protections afforded to India’s free press.

“I think many times before I write stories,” Kappan told CNN. “Anytime, anywhere, anyone can file a case against me.”

Journalist Siddique Kappan, who was arrested in October 2020 in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, walks out of jail after being granted bail in a money laundering case, in Lucknow on February 2, 2023.

In October 2020, Kappan was working as a freelancer for a Malayalam-language news website. He was on his way to Hathras district, in northern Uttar Pradesh state, to report on the alleged gang rape and killing of a Dalit teenager by upper-caste men. India’s caste system was officially abolished decades ago, but the social hierarchy imposed on people by birth still exists in many aspects of life. Dalits are on the lowest rung.

Before he arrived at the scene, he was taken into police custody, charged under anti-terror and money laundering laws. The police alleged he was part of a conspiracy to disturb the peace in the area, but he said his arrest was an attempt to tamp down on coverage of the story.

He would spend 28 months in jail. Kappan was granted bail by the Supreme Court in February 2023, but while he currently walks free, his case is still making its way through the courts.

Opposing his bail, the Uttar Pradesh government, led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court. In the document, seen by CNN, it argued against bail on the grounds Kappan had been “writing articles targeted at spreading communal tensions” and was a part of a larger conspiracy to “foment religious discord and spread terror in the country.”

CNN has contacted the BJP at both the local and national level for comment on the case.

Since his bail, Kappan has struggled to find a permanent job to provide for his family. “The main reason is the fear of newspaper bosses, the media, which depends on government advertisement, who do not want to upset the government,” he told CNN.

He says he is wary of more cases being brought against him, and finds himself working on “safe zone” stories unlikely to ruffle feathers.

The treatment of journalists like Kappan has struck fear into many other reporters.

“There was nothing Kappan could have done differently to avoid arrest, except not going to report,” said Kaushik Raj, who works with several publications and writes on hate crimes. “This was chilling for me.”

India is one of the largest media markets in the world, according to the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), with more than 20,000 daily newspapers across the country and about 450 privately owned channels dedicated to news, which broadcast in dozens of languages.

Yet despite its size and diversity, critics say the media industry is growing increasingly subservient to Modi’s government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the presentations of the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup India on November 19, 2023 in Ahmedabad, India.

“There was a blend of public service, public interest and corporate private media that served a burgeoning urban middle class, but also showed interest in issues of rural development. Journalists were respected… Regulatory mechanisms were weak but not completely absent,” said Shakuntala Banaji, professor of media, culture and social change at the London School of Economics.

“They have been all but destroyed in the last 10 years,” she added.

According to RSF, the country fell 25 places on the Press Freedom Index between 2015 and 2023, to 161st place – below neighboring Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. In the latest index for this year it rose slightly to 159th place but remains below all neighbors except Bangladesh (165th).

“There has been a sharp deterioration in the status of media over the last ten years,” Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) India representative Kunal Majumder told CNN, adding that this included imprisonment and invoking terror laws to criminalize journalists.

According to the CPJ, 21 journalists were imprisoned in India between 2014 and 2023, up from four between 2004 and 2013.

There has also been an uptick, it said, in the use of anti-terror laws – which allow for detention without trial or charge for up to 180 days – against reporters.

Police have used the same anti-terror law against a website linked to a left-leaning organisation critical of the government. In a charge sheet filed to the court recently and seen by CNN, police claimed NewsClick was responsible for stoking riots that hit New Delhi in 2020, spreading disinformation around Covid, and funding terror groups. In a statement, NewsClick said the claims were absurd and baseless, and were intended to “target independent journalism.” Its editor Prabir Purkayastha was in jail from October 3 until Wednesday, when the Supreme Court granted him bail, saying his arrest and remand were “invalid in the eyes of law.”

“When the state resorts to using anti-terror laws to shut down the freedom of expression of journalists holding institutions to account, then we are deep in authoritarian rule,” said Banaji from LSE.

Asked about this apparent increase in hostility to journalists, Kanchan Gupta, senior advisor to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, told CNN that media workers were not above the law.

“If journalists violate the law they are open to prosecution and legal action,” he said.

Shrinking independent media

Alleged harassment of reporters has worsened too, according to press freedom groups. The Amnesty 2022 release says Hindu nationalists feel emboldened to threaten and abuse journalists critical of the government.

Ravish Kumar, one of the country’s best-known journalists, said he has not felt safe for many years while people from various Hindu-nationalist organisations showered him with death threats and abuse.

The face of New Delhi Television (NDTV) for more than two decades, Kumar said he chose to resign when he was told he would have to toe the government line. He said he was driven to this decision during a hostile takeover of the channel by billionaire Gautam Adani in late 2022.

Indian Journalist Ravish Kumar speaks during Jaipur Literature Festival on January 26, 2020.

CNN has contacted NDTV for comment.

Kumar told CNN he resigned because Adani’s proximity to Modi and the BJP would leave him unable to continue asking tough questions of the government.

Soon after, he started his own YouTube channel with a small team that has about 10 million subscribers. He said he took to YouTube – where his videos receive at least a million views within their first 24 hours – because there was no other option left.

“There is no place for people like us in Indian media anymore,” he said.

Critics say TV news has been overrun by pro-government voices. With the world’s largest election underway, a study of prime-time shows by media watchdog Newslaundry – that tracked more than 400 segments between February 1 and April 12 – showed that 52% of airtime was spent criticizing the opposition, while another 27% pushed pro-Modi narratives.

Security officers after a raid at the office of NewsClick in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.

For Kumar the pluralism of India’s past is fast disappearing. “There is very little time and space left, so we’re living our last moments,” he said.

But Gupta, of the information ministry, said it was “not true” that the media toes a government line. “There are 903 satellite channels in the country,” he said. “If you look at the headlines across newspapers and television channels you will see that this generalization is not true.”

“This entire thing of saying that the media houses or individual journalists are manipulated by the government, that is not true.”

Foreign correspondents

It is not just local reporters who face obstacles. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s South Asia bureau chief Avani Dias recently left the country, as did Vanessa Dougnac, regional correspondent for four French publications.

Dias said the government told her that her visa extension would be denied as her reporting had “crossed a line,” though the government has denied this. It said she was granted an extension the day she paid her visa fees, on 18 April, but decided to leave nonetheless on 20 April.

Dougnac, an overseas citizen of India (OCI) who worked in the country for 23 years, left in February. In January, she said, she received a notice from the Ministry of Home Affairs stating that her journalistic activities were “malicious” and “critical in a manner that they create a biased negative perception about India.”

She applied for her journalistic permit – as required for OCIs since 2022 – but was denied. “They gave no reasons nor any justifications for why they denied my permit,” she told CNN from Paris.

India’s Home Ministry did not respond to CNN’s request for comment about Dougnac’s situation.

And in February last year the Indian offices of the BBC were raided by tax authorities, weeks after the broadcaster aired a documentary highly critical of Modi.

The documentary, which was described as “anti-India garbage” by a senior advisor to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, was later blocked on social media platforms.

Speaking to reporters shortly after the BBC raids, BJP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia made no reference to the documentary, and said companies, including media agencies, must “follow and respect Indian law.” The BBC has since split its India operations into separate companies in a bid to meet the country’s foreign investment rules.

Dougnac said she was not surprised by the actions against international media.

“It started with local journalists and slowly foreign correspondents got the sense they were next,” she said.

“That is what is happening now.”

Despite witnessing what is happening to and around him, Kappan says he has not lost faith in journalism in india. He considers advocating for it a “moral imperative.”

“Despite the personal risks involved, the pursuit of truth remains paramount,” he said.

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