A distinct chill has set in this January. The first month of the New Year has spelt trouble for anybody interested in India’s future as a democracy – where freedom of expression ought to be guaranteed. Not to speak of our newly minted status as the ‘mother of democracy.’ There are things happening, which must be seen together to understand the reality: Censorship is here.
First, there was a ‘draft amendment’ pushed into the Ministry of Information and Technology’s infamous IT Rules, 2021, last week, stating, in effect, that any news which the Union government’s official mouthpiece, the Press Information Bureau (PIB) regards as fake, will have to be taken down. Moreover, the amendment gives this power not just to the PIB, but all Union government ministries and departments. Since this privilege has been given only to the Union government, this means, all state governments can be overridden by the PIB fact-check team! If allowed to go unchallenged, it would amount to agreeing that only PIB fact-checkers can do news. The rest of us can pack shop.
So why should the PIB not have the last word? Plenty of decent fact-checking has exposed its fact-check team as shoddy, irrational and often, plainly wrong. But we believe at The Wire, that the competence of the PIB is not the point. Even if they were the Encyclopaedia Indica, they cannot be the sole repositories of the truth. This is because their job is to advance the government’s point of view. The job of the media is to get hold of the facts, ask questions of authority and seek accountability. The mouthpiece of the entity that the media must scrutinise cannot start decreeing what the sole truth is.
The Modi government enjoys significant popular support. Other governments in the past have, too. Indira Gandhi in 1971 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 come to mind. But history tells us the independence of the media matters more when unbridled executive power runs strong. Media matters because ‘popular’ governments often think they are a government in perpetuity. Those myths and delusions need to be corrected. Only questions can do that and keep the government on its toes. A smart government should welcome questions, criticism and feedback. But governments don’t get that until it is too late.
Modi is the first Indian prime minister to never have addressed a press conference.
This regime has gone ahead and jailed journalists, especially in Kashmir, for the precise act of reporting and filed cases against reporters elsewhere. India is among the 30 worst countries of 180 in the world in the World Press Freedom Index of 2022. It is recognised as the Internet Shutdown capital of the world since 2015. In this context, such choke-hold amendments must be recognised for what they are.
It is not as if just views are sought to be edited by an all-controlling regime. India has been unable to conduct the Census 2021, denying us of a vital data set only a government can generate. Before 2019, the government held back private consumption expenditure data as it was unflattering. Unemployment is not recorded properly and data was withheld till elections were over in 2019. COVID-19 death undercounts were shown up by WHO’s figures and global hunger, malnutrition recorded by global agencies are denied by the government.
In such a situation, a free media is more necessary than ever, to keep the population informed. The quality of the information and perspectives that the people get ultimately determine the quality of democracy they live in. Tom-tomming a routine rotational presidency of the G-20 as an award or crown will not strengthen India, but allowing information to flow freely and safely through its length and breadth will.
The censorship of the BBC documentary on the Gujarat violence of 2002, despite giving ample airtime to the then-chief minister of the state and to pro-government analysts is unprecedented in recent times. That it has also happened under the same IT Rules shows how cynically ‘amendments’ can be deployed to protect the image of Narendra Modi.
There has been other dark news in January too: A CBI court has decreed that journalists are not protected under any law from not wanting to reveal their source.
All these things are connected. The environment is being shaped by the impunity that the Centre displays in its desire to “handle the Media.”
These were Modi’s words in the BBC documentary pulled off YouTube and Twitter. This was the one regret he said he had over the Gujarat violence 21 years ago, of being unable to “handle the media.” The lesson he said he learned then is coming to haunt India now. The national media used to preen about the 1975 Emergency being an inoculation against future drives to control the free press. That swag is beginning to sag.
As the noose around independent truth-seeking tightens, it is imperative that everyone interested in the survival of India’s democracy speaks up. It is not a matter for journalists alone. Any attack on independent journalism will come to haunt all Indians next. Pastor Neimoller comes to mind. If government impunity is allowed to carry on unchecked, there would be no one left to come to the aid of India’s democracy.