Who are the best Indian journalists

Thugs, troll armies and unsolved murders: in India journalists are allowed to report freely - but the risk is high

It is clear that working conditions for the media have deteriorated significantly. The government doesn't want to know anything about it.

India fell two positions on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom list in 2018 - 138th out of 180. Delhi commented on the ranking presented in April with defiant incomprehension. Could it be that the world's largest democracy is in the same league as Burma, where two Reuters journalists disappeared behind bars for documenting a Rohingya massacre? And India appreciates the fact that it is virtually equated with its archenemy Pakistan. In the neighboring country, state security services often seem to have a hand in the game when unwelcome journalists are kidnapped, abused or driven into exile.

The ranking of press freedom is based on subjective perceptions rather than statistical data, the state press council of India has been claiming for years. The committee, which among other things examines complaints from the readership, is presided over by a former member of the Supreme Court. The magistrate indirectly accused the authors of the press freedom report of arbitrariness and bias.

Attacks and hostility

India's poor performance may be partly due to special factors that are difficult to quantify and that distort the overall picture. The freedom of the press is restricted in the troubled province of Kashmir, where the security forces fight rebels with little consideration for the civilian population. Delhi is also upholding a draconian law that provides life imprisonment for inciting the people. Even if journalists are not punished with imprisonment for this paragraph, Article 124a of the Criminal Code induces self-censorship.

However, easily measurable and relevant indicators show that working conditions for journalists in India have deteriorated significantly. Eleven reporters were killed in 2017, with at least three of them undisputed that the attacks were directly related to professional activity. Another six Indian journalists were killed between January and October 2018. In rural regions, it is also common for local giants to send out thugs to teach the author a lesson after a report that is unfavorable to them.

India's sluggish judicial system has not solved a single journalist murder in the past decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international non-governmental organization lobbying for a free press. That inevitably creates a climate of impunity. Courageous local journalists who research corruption cases often put their lives in danger. In Madhya Pradesh state, a reporter was knocked over with a dump truck and run over. He had exposed how an organized crime mine operator smeared the police. In return, the company was allowed to set up a mine in a protected crocodile reserve. The journalist asked for personal protection after threats. A decision was apparently still pending.

If the killing of local journalists receives little attention, the Indian public reacted indignantly when the nationally known publicist and activist Gauri Lankesh was shot in the chest and head and killed in front of her house in the southern Indian metropolis of Bangalore in September 2017. The 55-year-old appeared as a pronounced critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing national Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In her last editorial, Lankesh wrote that the spread of fake news contributed to the rise of Modi and the BJP. In addition to her journalistic activities, Lankesh brought together Muslims, leftists and members of minorities and low castes. Together they fought the sometimes reactionary agenda of the Hindu nationalists and called for tolerance towards those who think differently.

The political establishment has sharply condemned the murder across all parties. Nor did anyone accuse the political leadership of having anything to do with the murder. However, the government is criticized for preparing the ground for violent attacks by tolerating radical groups. Prime Minister Modi came under fire for following a Hindu extremist on Twitter who badly berated Lankesh after the bloodshed. The prime minister also follows people whose opinion he does not share, the government headquarters said succinctly.

Fake news as a means of pressure

Indian journalists who mess with Modi, the BJP or militant Hindus have to be prepared for a shit storm. This mixes hate speech with tangible threats. Reporters Without Borders accuses the Indian government of commanding a veritable troll army.

In a more subtle way, the administrative apparatus influences the reporting. In April 2018, the government adopted new guidelines for the accreditation of journalists. Anyone who is accused of spreading fake news can lose their admission to press conferences. Although the administration does not decide on such sanctions on its own initiative, the regulation has been interpreted as an attempt at intimidation. A precise definition of what the government understands by fake news is missing.

In the past few months, the departure of several well-known journalists raised further questions. Punya Bajpai lost his job at the TV station ABP because he had defied the motto published by the owner to spare Modi in reporting. After his expulsion, Bajpai wrote in an article that the editorial staff had received political instructions from the prime minister's office. In addition, the government is urging its well-balanced company to place advertising exclusively in media that are loyal to the line.

According to the Indian media, Modi's team was also working in the background for a change at the top of one of the country's leading newspapers, the Hindustan Times. Editor-in-chief Bobby Ghosh had launched a "hate tracker" on the website, listing attacks by mobs, mostly against Muslims and Dalits. Modi's ruling party, the BJP, is reluctant to take action against militant Hindu groups in its ranks that are held responsible for such attacks. After Ghosh's departure, the "Hate Tracker" also disappeared.

The co-founder of the first private television station NDTV, Prannoy Roy, diagnosed aggressive McCarthyism in India. Unlike in America in the 1950s, however, it is not leftists who come under general suspicion, but representatives of the fourth estate.

Thin-skinned modes

Modi himself has a tense relationship with the media. He refuses to hold press conferences and, like America's President Donald Trump, prefers to communicate with the public via Twitter. He only grants interviews to tame journalists who only act as key word givers and do not upset the thin-skinned populists with unpleasant questions. Modi reportedly felt that he was being treated unfairly by the media during the 2014 election campaign. At the time, the question was asked what role he had played as Chief Minister of Gujarat in the run-up to the serious religious unrest of 2002. At least 800 Muslims and 250 Hindus fell victim to the excesses of violence. Indian journalists have since avoided this sensitive issue; this, too, is a form of self-censorship.

From the government's point of view, there is absolutely no problem with freedom of the press. Those who beat the government seven days a week, of all people, saw a problem, scoffed Treasury Secretary Arun Jaitley; if there were indeed restrictions, such permanent criticism would not be possible at all. In a different context, but in line with the finance minister's assertion, an Indian lawyer noted that he was not concerned about freedom of speech, but rather about freedom after speech. In other words: the media can report freely - but not without risk.