Press Freedom in India Threatened by Corporatism

January 1, 2015

rajdeep sardesai and sagarika ghose
Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose

Narendra Modi’s election as India’s prime minister brought hope to millions. He was heralded as the forger of India’s new path, one that would bring prosperity, efficiency and, at the very least, less corruption, after a disastrous decade of Congress Party rule. Newspapers commented excitedly that government officials had finally started to come to work on time. But Modi’s election is not all sunshine and rainbows- his growing influence over the media industry through his friend and benefactor, Mukesh Ambani, has serious implications for India’s freedom of press.

Ambani, India’s richest man and owner of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), India’s second-largest publicly listed company, announced in 2012 that it would be investing in Network18, one of India’s largest news organizations. Network18’s stock prices had been falling dramatically over the last few years; like many other media companies around the world, it was suffering from downsizing and cutbacks. RIL seemed to be its savior.

But as Rahul Bhatia reports from Caravan Magazine, an investigative journal, the RIL’s ownership of Network18 had pressured its news channels and magazines to bias the Modi over his contender, Rahul Gandhi. An independent think tank in Delhi, the Centre of Media Studies, found that CNN-IBN, an affiliate of CNN and a channel under Network18, covered Modi for an average of 72 minutes while it covered Gandhi for only a measly 18 minutes. Although other channels had also spent more time covering Modi, CNN-IBN’s coverage was much more disproportionate.

Raghav Bahl, the founder and managing director of Network18, had apparently asked Forbes India’s editors whether they “really needed to” continue covering stories on RIL. The editors began to question Bahl’s open support of Modi; according to Pankaj Mishra, writer for Bloomberg, Bahl had transformed “major news channels and websites into propaganda outlets for Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party”. Mishra’s article also underlined the fact that Ambani gained $800 in a single day after exit polls declared Modi the winner. He compared Ambani’s domination of the media to that of Silvio Berlusconi’s.

After RIL’s acquisition of the Network18, both Rajdeep Sardesai, widely respected editor in chief of the IBN18 Network, and Sangarika Ghose, deputy editor of CNN-IBN, resigned. As reported by the Times of India, Sardesai wrote in a letter to his employers: “Editorial independence and integrity have been articles of faith in 26 years in journalism and maybe I am too old now to change!” Freedom House downgraded India’s press freedom score this year, citing “increased interference in content by media owners in the run-up to the 2014 elections”.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), an independent organization mandated by the government, underlined in its 2014 report that there had been a marked increase in the “corporatization of media, desegregation of ownership and editorial roles, and decline in autonomy of editors/journalists”, and remarked that its concerns had been echoed by both the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, and Vice-President Hamid Ansari. TRAI recommends that the government impose more stringent ownership restrictions on corporations entering the media industry.

India’s democratic institutions are severely flawed in countless ways. But the presence of a free media has played a significant role in helping India evolve in the right direction. For my project, I would like to monitor corporatism in the media in India since Modi’s rise to power and determine its effect on the freedom of press and democracy. Indians have been willing put the past behind them and overlook Modi’s troubling role in the 2002 Gujarat Riots, but such plainly anti-democratic behavior in the run up to the highest office in the country is highly troubling for India’s democratic future. People often call Indira Gandhi’s imposition of a state of emergency the darkest time for press freedom since India’s independence. But Modi’s election might also be the onset of a new dusk.

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