India’s position has fallen from 142 to 150 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index for 2022 of Reporters Without Borders. India’s position on the Index was a terrible 140 even before the BJP came to office in 2014, so media harassment is hardly new; but it does seem to have got worse.
Even non-BJP state governments have channelled government advertising to reward friends and penalise foes, and misused laws on sedition and unlawful activities to muzzle critics. Journalists have been killed, arrested, and hounded on social media.
Last year Dainik Bhaskar highlighted the toll of the Delta wave of Covid, with dead bodies reportedly floating down rivers. Last July, the group was raided by the I-T department which alleged large-scale tax evasion while the newspaper said it was because of its aggressive reporting. Whatever the claims and counter-claims, the reality is not many businesses can withstand pressure in the form of raids or withdrawal of government advertising. Hence, the rise of what critics call “godi media” to describe obedient newspapers and TV channels cuddling in the government’s lap.
Yet all is not lost. Many media critics still survive. Opposition parties provide advertising support to non-BJP media. Top independent journalists have found financial backing for new TV and digital channels.
The silver lining is the rise of what can be called the “guerrilla media.” These are new outfits with tiny budgets that post clips critical of political parties on social media.
These individual critics can reach a large audience through the internet — often through viral media clips — evading formal media controls. The net has democratised access to the public. Such decentralised dissent cannot be crushed easily. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak controlled all print and TV media, yet was ousted by crowds guided entirely by the internet, with no formal leadership.
During the recent Uttar Pradesh state election, I attended a tiny election rally of 40 villagers of a minor party. I was amazed to see a TV reporter filming this event. He ran a digital outfit with a staff of seven. He covered even tiny rallies looking for eye-catching material. His low-cost operation required just a smartphone to record events or interviews. He made short video clips of a few minutes each and posted them on YouTube. The channel paid one dollar (Rs 75) for every 10,000 clicks. Sometimes he got a million clicks.
I was stunned. As editor of Financial Express in 1988, I boasted of a circulation of 60,000, but this unknown newcomer could reach a million eyeballs and was apparently viable without depending on advertisements that governments could withdraw. New channels like this can be launched without limit, with or without a political agenda. Such tiny ventures would be too decentralised to be monitored closely or cowed through raids. A censor’s big hammer cannot squash a swarm of ants.
Decentralised channels also have a dark side. Political parties and other interests can use armies of trolls to attack those they dislike. They can use spambots to spread hate and lies, which often find bigger audiences than harmony and truth. On balance, internet freedom remains valuable since lack of freedom is currently a bigger problem than excessive freedom.
During the UP election, I met another entrepreneur running a one-man operation called Bolte Bharat. He too posted videos on YouTube, getting paid if he garnered enough clicks. He had clashed with pro-BJP TV channels and politicians, some of whom had filed cases against him for promoting terrorism and anti-national activities. He was ready to fight because he had no big business to lose. He earned around Rs 30,000 in most months, barely enough to survive, but could touch Rs 1.5 lakh in an election month. India can surely generate such low-cost guerrillas without limit. That is good for democracy.
Last year the government assumed powers to regulate digital media. It could order social media and independent websites to take down content deemed undesirable by the government, using algorithms to catch offenders. Digital businesses have challenged the constitutional validity of these regulations. Ultimately the Supreme Court will lay down limits to such censorship of the digital media.
Tax raids and sedition cases (which are now hopefully on hold) will remain powerful tools to cow big media. Fortunately, dissent will still be guaranteed through new voices too small to be affected by intimidation. That is not, however, a substitute for full press freedom.
This article was originally published in The Times of India on May 15, 2022.