How interlinked economic and political forces create self-censorship in India

Most contemporary discussions on press freedom begin with some sort of rankings: X country slipped Y positions on Z index—that’s evidence something wrong is happening.

This makes headlines every year in India, as we continue to slip down in these indices. Criminal defamation cases are filed against journalists for merely doing their jobs and reporting stories. Organized disinformation campaigns and troll armies delegitimize the institution of journalism and individual reporters to evade trust in the media. The list goes on. These observable metrics—all problematic—reflect in the various rankings.

But I don’t find much meaning in this data. As someone who plays with numbers for a living—I am a data journalist—I remain deeply skeptical about any methodology that claims to quantify press freedom. It’s hard. That’s because the everyday experience of being inside a newsroom, the anxieties journalists live with and forces that shape editorial decisions stay hidden from the outside world — all they get to see is the output, which, however egregious, doesn’t capture the true extent of the rot in the Indian press.

Let me give you a brief glimpse of a few revealing aspects of the big media. I will restrict myself to English language publications with the largest readership and circulation.

Of India’s four largest English newspapers — Times of India, The Hindu, Hindustan Times and Indian Express — only Express has a dedicated investigative reporting team, which, for instance partners in international stories like Panama or Paradise papers. Their team strength: less than five.

None of the other three papers even have the position of an “investigative editor”. That does not mean the papers don’t investigate or publish critical stories — or, as the public opinion goes, “sold out” to the government. It’s not that simple. Their coverage is crucial to our understanding of modern India and reporters at those papers are doing important work. But the point is, hard hitting stories are rare, and when they appear, it’s driven by the efforts of a few individuals pushing boundaries rather than a systemic culture encouraging publication of uncomfortable stories. Don’t judge a paper by what it publishes. What is excluded is generally more telling.

In September 2018, I returned to India after spending five months reporting with the investigative reporting team of the Wall Street Journal in New York as part of a fellowship program. I was pumped up to use my newly acquired skills for reporting in India. However, on the very first day, when I started meeting journalist friends, I saw a drastic cultural difference: at the Journal, you pitched an investigative idea, and colleagues helped me brainstorm how to report the story; in India, colleagues said no point chasing this story as it won’t be published.

That’s not without reason. Consider this: I reported a story showing how propaganda is disseminated and troll accounts are promoted on the Twitter-like interface in the official app of Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister. My editor sat on the story for two months. Why? He was busy. But he did have time to edit the other stories I was filing. No explanation was offered.

In another case, I wrote a story that showed how the Twitter metrics — retweets per tweet, for instance — of India’s opposition leader Rahul Gandhi had surpassed that of Mr Modi. All hell broke loose for publication of such a benign story (it took me half a day to analyse and write this short story). Union Ministers from Mr Modi’s party accused my report of propagating partisan propaganda. Next day, I got a phone call from the owner of the publication—whom I had never met—asking me to follow up and check if the opposition leader’s metrics were amplified by a bot. I should send the story directly to the owner and not to the editor. Sigh. It is not too hard to imagine what would have transpired behind the scenes: actions that remain a mystery for reporters at my pay grade.

This toxic culture of self-censorship has become oblivious: many journalists may not even recognize the boundaries they have constructed in imagining what a story could be. Once, I was given an assignment to analyse the content of the Prime Minister’s campaign speeches. The editor wanted numbers: how much time, as a proportion of the overall speech, does Mr Modi take shots at the opposition than talking about his promises? It was a fairly analytical story. I had to randomly select a few speeches, make sure I cover different time spans and states, listen to the speeches, create a dataset, and tell what I found. A senior political reporter was asked to help me. The first question the reporter asked: “have you been told what the analysis needs to say?” I was shocked. The implications were clear: it was normal for that reporter — at least ten years older than me — to be sometimes told what the story needs to say before reporting it. That’s not acceptable.

It took me some while to understand how common this is: some reporters start doubting themselves and ask whether they are chasing stories that don’t matter, whether they have not done the job properly, or simply the institution they work for is compromised. The answers don’t come easily. Others, who don’t think too much about these supposedly “idealistic” questions, continue to flourish. “Not a single story I wrote was ever censored,” they will tell you. Of course—it won’t be.

This form of self-censorship, I would argue, is a bigger problem than explicit censorship. Because it happens subtly and parasitically cripples the institution of journalism. It’s driven by interlinked economic and political forces. For instance, most of India’s large media houses that are struggling with cash organize grand annual conclaves to bump up their bottom lines: Political leaders, top company executives, sport stars, and Bollywood celebrities are invited as guests. The bigger the names that speak at your conclave, it is said, more money sponsors put in.

But what if Mr Modi is in your speaker list, and he refuses to turn up at your event at the last moment? It could be disastrous for the company’s finances. This is not a theoretical case: it has happened with one of India’s largest papers. “Security concerns” was the official reason, but news reports flagged the PM was not happy with the paper’s coverage. Which simply means you can’t offend Mr Modi’s sensibilities for at least a month preceding the event. Imagine the pressures a reporter would face to even pitch a story that holds the PM accountable.

I have deliberately chosen all the examples that relate to Mr Modi. In journalism circles, it is often said: you can criticize the government, write about his party, but things get complicated when the story centers around the Prime Minister himself.

George Orwell wrote: “Intellectual honesty is a crime in any totalitarian country; but even in England it is not exactly profitable to speak and write the truth”. With all signs of India sliding towards an illiberal democracy, the situation here is no different.

So, hypothetically speaking, even if India’s position in press freedom rankings jumps a few places, it would be no cause to celebrate. Unless the systemic problems which one finds inside India’s largest newsrooms begin to change, and reporters and editors can think and write freely, while being committed to the craft and core values of the profession, free press in India will remain a myth.

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