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The 2019 Indian elections: is media complicit or controlled?

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Up to 900 million eligible voters in India will go to the polls in April and May. Historically largely well informed, thanks to government and policy discussions in the media before general elections, Indians have been able to vote out incompetent or corrupt governments. But things are looking different this time, explains Dr Kiran Hassan, associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. At the behest of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the press has been muzzled at all levels and the current media scape is highly complicated.

The ruling BJP government is alleged to have mastered the art of managing the mainstream Indian press and manipulating social media information/disinformation flows. Furthermore, growing public distrust towards a ‘staged media’ that have either conspired with the government because of commercially driven incentives, or bullied into ‘toeing the line’ and thus colluding with its agenda.

Many argue that unlike 2014, neither the mainstream nor social media outlets will be the key factors in tilting the outcome of the election to the advantage of one single party. One of the central arguments backing this observation is that the country’s news outlets, having endured considerable editorial control and constant scrutiny by the ruling BJP government, are no longer trusted.

Will cosy relationship with media moguls influence election results?

This was one of the topics discussed at a recent event organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London as part of its year-long 70th anniversary celebration. Professor James Manor, the institute’s former director, stressed the current Indian government’s antagonism towards and sustained attack on the media. His point was persuasive as the Network 18 Group, India’s largest news conglomerate, is owned by Reliance Industries, whose business interests range from petroleum to telecom, many of which are dependent on government policy.

Subhash Chandra whose candidacy for election to the Rajya Sabha (the upper legislative house) was backed by the ruling BJP, owns Zee News. Meanwhile, Republic TV is part of a group in which one of the principal investors is a BJP parliamentarian. The cosiness between the country’s media moguls and the government may well result in a highly partial election campaign coverage favouring the BJP.

Professor Manor also pointed out that advertising budgets are doubled for the proprietors who support the BJP government while its critics and those of extremist Hindu nationalism, are penalised. He said that as most media proprietors have commercial interests (and media is a ‘consumer product’) many owners and editors do not want to provoke the authorities. Moreover, Prime Minster Narendra Modi has 250 people scrutinising the television channels and social media for criticisms and adverse comments. The Ministry of Information also has an extensive surveillance team with the same remit.

While threats against journalists, jamming television programmes, blocking television channels, or pulling advertisement budgets are established methods of punishment for the BJP government, Hindutva groups hound social media commentators and place vile and vicious attacks on anyone who criticises the government.

Journalists face death threats and trolling for doing their jobs

Nupur Basu, a leading journalist and documentary filmmaker, underlined the challenges currently faced by journalists. Those likely to uncover anti-government stories or report critically and objectively, often face sedition and defamation cases. In recent months, Anil Ambani-led Reliance Infrastructure has filed a clutch of defamation suits (amounting to billions of US dollars) against news media organisations for raising uncomfortable questions about the Rafale deal, a controversial defence project in which India acquired 36 fighter jets from France.

According to Nupur Basu, critical journalism is suffering from these pressures and manipulations of the legal system. Journalists are often the targets of death threats or trolling when their reporting or views annoy the followers of Hindutva. This is especially true for women journalists. Citing the example of Gauri Swathi Vadlamudi, the editor and publisher of the Kannada-language newspaper, who was shot outside her home in Bengaluru in September 2017, he condemned her assassination and the misogynist hate speech published on social media following her death.

Focusing on social media, the veteran journalist and writer Salil Tripathi confirmed that the Facebook-owned service WhatsApp is now the primary source of information in India. He argued that the shape of the election campaign will depend on the media’s means of communication and information flows. India’s broadcasters will remain shrill, print media is likely to be less aggressive, but social media, with unabashed manipulation of information by partisan groups and individuals will be the principal focus pre-election. However, there is a glimmer of hope. A limited number of fact checking websites are doing an effective and efficient job in countering the spread of overt propaganda, disinformation and ‘fake news’.

The Indian election campaign seemed to shift its focus after the 14 February Pulwama attack in Kashmir. Forty Indian Central Reserve Police Force members were killed in the bombing, which the Pakistan-based Islamist extremist group Jaish-e-Mohamed said it was responsible for.

Prime Minister Modi packaged as India’s ‘sole saviour’

Subsequent rising tensions with neighbouring arch rival Pakistan appears to have temporarily transformed the election narrative in India, in classic ‘Bonapartist’ style: a foreign threat or distraction to unite a country, through ‘negative integration’. While some parts of Indian social media are fanatically attacking Pakistan, most television channels are carving out a new debate that is presenting the anti–Pakistan rhetoric merging with Hindutva nationalism, packaging Prime Minister Modi as India’s sole saviour.

BJP’s tireless jingoistic nationalist election campaign blurs Indian national identity with staunch support of the prime minister. Criticism is equated with being anti–Indian and a supporter of (Muslim) Pakistan. The media’s war mongering towards Pakistan, controlled or colluded, may provide Modi with extra backing taking him ahead of his political competitors in the May 2019 election finish line. However, much may still change in two remaining months of the election cam[aign

Dr Kiran Hassan is an associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published and spoken about Pakistan’s political, foreign policy and media issues on various academic and policy platforms.

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