The War on India’s Free Press — with Manisha Pande and Samar Halarnkar

The War on India’s Free Press — with Manisha Pande and Samar Halarnkar
Members of the Indian media listen to a speaker during a protest for press freedom in New Delhi in October 2023. (Kabir Jhangiani/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

India’s media ecosystem has a long and proud history. It was in Kolkata, after all, that the first newspaper in Asia was published. But journalists and observers inside the country are speaking with increasing alarm about a climate of repression and self-censorship, in which outlets that challenge the official government line expose themselves to sanctions.

“There’s a complete and near-total capture of mainstream voices, especially the loudest voices, the most prominent voices,” says Manisha Pande, managing editor at Indian media watchdog Newslaundry and host of TV Newsance, a weekly show that looks at TV news in India. “It is not an exaggeration to say that, when you turn on the television today, it’s very close to what you see in nondemocracies like Russia,” she tells New Lines’ Surbhi Gupta.

“In the more than 30 years that I’ve been a journalist, I have never felt as acutely a sense of threat as I do today.”

“In more than 30, I think 34 years now that I’ve been a journalist, I have never felt as acutely a sense of threat as I do today,” says Samar Halarnkar, the founder of the independent Indian news website Article 14.

Pande and Halarnkar discuss the ever-present threat of legal action against journalists and news organizations, often on flimsy grounds.

“It doesn’t really matter what the charges are,” says Halarnkar. “In India, the judicial process is the punishment.”

Pande warns of a trend toward a hyperpartisan media environment in which the dominant, pro-government channels frequently join the government in attacks on the media and echo populist lines denigrating minority groups.

“I think in 2016 there was a marked shift where anchors started asking for the jailing of activists or voices or dissenters that weren’t in line with the current government,” she says.

“What’s happening to the media is an indication of the de-democratic realization,” adds Halarnkar. “Many people are self-radicalized, believing every bit of this fake news,” he says. “That turns them against their neighbors and friends.”

The two journalists discuss the economic incentives behind pushing a pro-government line and the financial difficulties that might be suffered by trying to remain independent.

“If you’re a digital news organization, you want investors coming in,” says Pande. “Today, you’re in that space where even if people believe in you and support you … they may not necessarily want to be seen around you because you’re seen as anti-government.”

Pande marvels at the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi still refuses to speak directly to journalists at press conferences.

“It’s really pathetic that the largest democracy in the world has accepted this,” she says.

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