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Modi's rise does not bode well for Indian press freedom

Narendra Modi is the prime ministerial candidate for India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in elections to be held in April. (AP/Tsering Topgyal)

As India is set to hold elections next month, journalists covering Narendra Modi, India's right-wing prime ministerial candidate, are reportedly coming under increased pressure online and in the newsroom for shedding critical light on him. Given these developments, free and independent reporting of the campaign is in doubt--as is the future climate for press freedom should the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) become prime minister.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Modi has widespread popularity--78 percent of those polled held a favorable view of him--even though he remains one of the most controversial political figures in India. Modi was cleared of any wrongdoing by a special investigation team appointed by the Supreme Court, but many journalists continue to question his role as chief minister during the deadly violence in Gujarat more than a decade ago. "The year 2002 changed Modi's equations with journalists and, in particular, the Delhi-based 'national' media," Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of IBN18 Network, wrote in an editorial last year.  

Sevanti Ninan, a media critic and editor of the media watchdog website The Hoot, told CPJ that outlets which reported critically on the 2002 violence continue "to draw Modi's ire to this day." She said Modi has been known to walk out of studio interviews on TV channels that question him about the violence. This week, Newslaundry, a media critique website, posted a statement saying Modi canceled a recent interview for its "Candidates 2014" series. According to The Hoot, he canceled only two days before the interview because Newslaundry would not fulfill conditions set by Modi.

Journalist Shivam Vij recently wrote about how some big names in Indian media have come under pressure. Sagarika Ghose, the host of "Face the Nation" on CNN-IBN and deputy editor of the English-language news channel, has received orders from Network 18, which owns the channel, to not post critical tweets on Modi, according to Vij. Management has also pressured Nikhil Wagle, editor of IBN Lokmat, Network 18's Marathi-language channel, to refrain from critical comments on Modi, according to Vij. Neither Ghose nor Wagle responded to CPJ requests for comment.

A recent report in Caravan magazine explored how Network 18 has shifted rightwards, from the managing director's public comments supporting Modi's candidacy to indirect pressure on editors to not criticize him. Open magazine, citing unnamed sources, also reported that there are orders from top levels at Network 18 instructing journalists to rein in anti-Modi stories and to cut live to any Modi rally or speech. Network 18 did not respond to CPJ's request for comment.

While Ninan expressed doubts whether journalists are coming under such pressure in the newsroom, she did say they are feeling it on the Internet. "Where journalists do get pilloried for their views by Modi supporters is on online media and social media. There is definitely a pro-Modi majority out there," she said. Journalists have documented the rise of pro-Modi, pro-BJP, pro-Hindu nationalist tweeters who dominate political discourse online.

Vij also found that both Ghose and Wagle have received online threats in recent months, and in the case of Ghose, threats of rape, as documented by Al Jazeera last month. Ghose told Vij that Modi's supporters make it increasingly difficult to criticize him online, especially over Twitter.

Some journalists appear to have drawn more direct consequences for their views. Sun TV, a regional Tamil-language channel, discontinued "Vibhada Medhai," a daily prime-time debate show hosted by political analyst Thiru Veerapandian for 17 years, following his comments at an event late last year suggesting people should think twice before they vote for Modi. Members of the BJP threatened not to participate in his future programs, according to news reports. Sun TV could not be reached for comment.

Some journalists now posit that the sacking of Hartosh Singh Bal, the former political editor of Open, occurred as a result of his critical reports on Modi, and not due to the magazine owner's connections to the Congress Party as initially reported. Bal's editor, Manu Joseph, who resigned days after Bal's termination, told The Hoot that the magazine's owner, Sanjiv Goenka, sacked Bal because he was "making a lot of enemies...political enemies."  Bal's position has since been filled by a journalist known to be close to Arun Jaitley, a member of the BJP and leader of the opposition in India's upper chamber of parliament, news reports said.

Modi, who is serving his fourth term as chief minister of Gujarat, has a history of silencing critical journalists in his home state. In 2006, his administration brought sedition charges against Manoj Shinde, an editor of the Gujarati-language daily Surat Saamna, for criticizing Modi's handling of a flood, news accounts said. Sedition is punishable by death in India. (It is unclear if the case against Shinde was ever resolved). Two years later, CPJ documented sedition charges brought by Gujarat authorities against an editor and reporter at The Times of India and a photographer at Gujarat Samachar in connection with a series of investigative reports questioning the competency of a high-ranking police officer and his alleged connection to the leader of an organized crime group. The latter charges were eventually quashed in court.

In addition, CPJ research shows that "Aakrosh," a documentary on the 2002 violence in Gujarat, was censored by India's Central Board of Film Certification, then headed by a BJP politician from Gujarat.

Last year, I documented how attacks against the press increased in Karnataka state under the Hindu right, which deifies Modi. Other Hindu nationalist groups who pay obeisance to Modi have followed suit. Last month, a mob calling itself the Hindu Sena gathered outside the Delhi office of Caravan and burnt copies of the magazine because of an interview with a jailed Hindu extremist who alleged that the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization that has close ties to the BJP (and to which Modi belongs), sanctioned attacks across India that killed more than 100 people between 2006 and 2008. The RSS leader denied the accusations.

In another disturbing development, a Hindu nationalist group pressured Penguin India to recall Wendy Doniger's book, The Hindus: An Alternative History last month, news accounts reported. Prominent journalists Siddharth Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma subsequently called on Penguin to cancel their existing contracts to continue publishing their books, saying the Doniger outcome had undermined their faith in the publisher. Interestingly, Varadarajan's book is on the 2002 violence under Modi's rule. Varadarajan told CPJ that Penguin is considering their request.

A figure who could one day head the world's largest democracy should have a high tolerance for criticism. Yet Modi, his supporters, and some media owners apparently want to shut down such criticism. Free, independent news coverage is most likely to pay the price.

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Comments

Ironical that you glossed over the 12 years of witch hunt of Modi by the media where Modi was subjected to vilest of abuse such as mass murderer,killer etc without an iota of proof and Modi to his eternal credit has never filed any defamation suits nor attempted intimidation of the media personnel.now that the courts have given clean chit and the events seem to be folding giving clear picture of Modis likelihood of being his becoming Prime minister,it is the guilty consciouesss which is making the media see ghosts where there are none.
It is more likely that rather than Modi it is the proprietors of media house who sensing the change of affairs at helm is shunting out the anti Modi brigade on their own in their interests.

Do you have any idea what is happening in India. Obviously you have not lived here and giving western view. Hindu nationalist is not communal it symbolises patriotism. Modi is an excellent leader that India needs.

250 seats to bjp in next govt will be dangerous:why
1)The fear of corrupt business houses which controls the media ,they fear if a non corrupt govt comes up ,they have to close the shop.
2)The right wing goons can do any kind of rampage which the media cannot criticize because of above fear of the corrupt.
3)The unusual interference of Army in the recent past ,It can be doubted as rightist tendency inside the Army.(My personal doubt)
4)I dont think if this happens Arnav Gosawami can ever utter "India wants to know".

It is funny that Sumit regurgitates whatever spewed by modi-haters in the Indian mainstream media.

Let us look at some people and events quoted:

1. Nikhil Wagle: Nikhil tweeted "Middle class has poor IQ & limited understanding of politics-they support BJP". So this guy is your champion of free speech?

2. Sagarika Ghose: It is well-documented how she abuses Modi or BJP every day. She does not report, she just abuses.

3. "Candidates 2014": It would have been better if Sumit did some research on this event. This event was started initially as "PM Cadidates for 2014". Laloo Yadav was one of the interviewees. But Laloo Yadav is a convicted criminal and he cannot contest elections, so he cannot be a Prime Ministerial candidate. When pointed out, the event organizers changed it to "Candidates 2014". Then NDTV, perpetual mod0hater, also came into picture and was advertsing this event. Modi backed out because he did not want to be associated with an event where convicted criminals like Laloo are touted as "candidates". Any WTF is "Candidates 2014". Candidates for what?

4. Wendy Doniger: What does pulping of a book has to do with Modi? Using the same laws the movie "The Da Vinci Code" was banned in India not to hurt Christians, Satanic Verses was banned, The Red Sari was banned, Taslima was hounded, Sanal Edamaruku IS hiding right now in Finland right now because he exposed a "miracle" in a Mumbai Church. So how is Wendy's issue different from the other issue and why is Modi being beaten up for this issue?

5. Siddarth Varadarajan: Siddarth Varadarajan is hardly your role model for free speech. He is the one who wrote that section 153(the same sections used against Wendy's book) should be used against cable companies not to broadcast movies like Border. Ironically he wrote this in the same book quoted by Sumit. He is so intolerant that he had an editorial policy not to cover Modi's meetings on the front page.

FauxLiberal, you said it well.

This piece is disagreeable for many reasons, from poor research (a re-hash of wild allegations) to a lop-sided tint.

What I find most reprehensible though is the display of a fascist streak by the leftist/communist media at even the slightest possibility of a semblance of balance creeping into an otherwise compromised and blatantly biased media!

Over the decades, an increasingly leftist clique has taken over the mainstream narrative in India. (That is one reason much of Indian center and right has had to find shelter in online forums, blogs etc.) Microscopic segments of the mainstream media seem to be getting their act together, realzing that the public is best served through truthful reporting and balanced editorial content. This is a trend that CANNOT be stopped. Live with it.

[Btw, the fascist nature of leftists/communists should not be surprising; all fascist groups in history began as leftist movements. Yup, including the National Socialists of Germany - abbreviated as Nazis.]

dear Modiji
please choice the place to victory from varansi seat is good idea but it need more development and good emplymnet as young genertion are out please make good and better to eradicated cost factor into development that give a lot of development in area

Exactly great article with point to note analysis. Narendra Modi has a huge fan following among the all political leaders in the world. I just found one article related his popularity just check it out here : Narendra Modi popularity

Newslaundry has clarified that Modi canceled the event because NDTV was involved. Now will you correct the article and not spread the rumuors?

http://www.newslaundry.com/2014/03/14/candidates-2014-let-the-gossip-stop/

Blatantly lop sided article by the leftist - communist Modi hater/basher. Media like this and so many others do not understand common people's mindset that they are fed up with this Kaun gress paid media.

Nothing is going to stop Modi from becoming PM..
Abki baar Modi Sarkar.

Your title says you are research associate. I advice you to complete your studies first rather than post baseless speculative agenda driven BS online ... Rather, i advice you to go back to school and start journalism from scratch... indian english press has always been based against Modi...for the first time press will become free after Modi lands into power...