Prime Minister Narendra Modi shares an uneasy relationship with the media. In his 42-month rule, he has never faced the media or taken their questions on behalf of the people. He might not be nit-picking the media’s coverage of his policies openly but his followers have shown brazen intolerance of anyone even remotely seen criticizing him. However, whenever Modi gets a chance, he has tried to speak somewhat critically and patronizingly of the media. His recent speech at Chennai on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Tamil daily ‘Dina Thanthi’ on freedom of press has raised eyebrows all around and the analysts are wondering if the PM was issuing veiled threats to the media especially to those not particularly toeing his government’s line.
Modi said that Editorial freedom must be used wisely in public interest. “The freedom to write, and to decide what is to be written, does not include the freedom to be less than accurate or factually incorrect.” He even quoted the father of the nation as saying “The press is called the Fourth Estate. It is definitely a power, but to misuse that power is criminal.” This quote is obviously taken out of the context since Mahatma Gandhi had said this in self-analysis as a journalist.
Modi even made light of the media by saying that people often wonder how a day’s news fitted the fixed space of a newspaper!
Media persons and analysts were shocked by PM’s speech, as he sounded patronizing and almost contemptuous of the media. He tried to paint the entire media as bunch of ‘Liars’ whose only passion is to distort the truth and focus on the trivia. Agreed that there are black sheep in all profession and the Indian media too has its share but it does the need the focus of the PM of the world’s largest democracy to be point out the fringe elements. He could have taken a quote out of Jawaharlal Nehru’s speeches on freedom of press wherein he said if he had to choose between a free and irresponsible media and a subservient and gagged media he would prefer the former.
Also, is it the job of the Prime Minister to decide what is public interest from the peoples’ point of view? Should he not leave this to the wisdom and experience of erudite editors and also point out that media could do well with self-regulation rather than gain from his pontification.
To be fair the BJP, as an opposition party it was fairly open to media scrutiny and didn’t mind the criticism. Media persons were free to mingle with the leaders, write about the party affairs and all the functionaries were accessible. However, the party’s ascendancy to power under the Modi-Amit Shah leadership saw it suddenly keep the media at an arm’s length. Both Modi and Shah are infamously not enamoured of media; the culture has percolated to the party and the government. In the Modi Raj, ministers have instructions not to speak to the newspersons; senior bureaucrats are gagged too and the media is left to report just the handouts of the government departments.
The apparent indifference of the Modi government to the media is a facade given the fact that BJP has the largest army of social media warriors whose job is to troll anyone speaking or writing against Modi government’s policies. The Information technology (IT) cell of the BJP has been rated as the most active online troll army by Journalist Swati Chaturvedi in her well-researched book I am a troll.
Their job is to shame and hound journalists for criticizing Modi’s policies on demonetisation, the flawed implementation of the GST and even his foreign policy moves. They also indulge in false propaganda to refurbish Prime Minister’s image. Modi’s arbitrary style of functioning has come under veiled criticism by the media and all those who dared to question his move of unleashing demonetization without consulting any of the relevant authorities like the RBI governor or his finance minister have come under attack by the cyber army of BJP.
Prime Minister does not answer any of the questions that come into the mind of people on these issues and that the press is bound to raise. Modi prefers a monologue on his Mann ki baat on the national broadcaster periodically rather than interact with the media persons.
The government’s veiled threats and financial squeeze on the media houses owning television channels has worked well; most of the popular channels are now reverent to the government and hostile to a small opposition. Television debates often end up promoting the government and BJP’s saffron or pro-Hindutva agenda than highlighting issues that matter to the people most. Television anchors with high rating and decibels have given up the pretence of being custodians of public interests as they roll out debates in support of the government policies. Only a few are around to stand with the truth.
This culture has led the BJP-ruled Rajasthan to go ahead with enacting a draconian law that curbs freedom of media and even private citizens to take up cudgels against the corrupt officials. The entire media led by the most popular Rajasthan Patrika has lodged its protest on the despotic manner in which the ordinance was promulgated by the Vasundhara Raje government. The editors’ Guild has also criticized the Rajasthan government on this as the Patrika has announced its decision to boycott all coverage of the government in protest.
It’s under the same trend that the Tamil Nadu government has dared to arrest a cartoonist Bala in Chennai who had shown a naked police commissioner, collector and chief minister trying to cover themselves up with wads of cash, as they close their eyes to a child’s burning body lying in front of them. Bala was trying to portray the indifference of the administration to the plight of a farmers’ family that was hounded by loans sharks resorting them to self-immolation.
The case of a stand-up comedian from Rajasthan Shyam Rangeela, whose mimicry of Modi and Rahul Gandhi has gone viral on the social media, was mysteriously ousted from the popular comedy show on Star television is another episode in the same vein. In today’s world of social media, such frivolous bans are counterproductive. Rangeela’s clip from the banned show has since become a rage on social media and it has entertained more people than it could have through the television show.(Published on 13th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 46)