Questions asked about media freedom in India

by Vikas PandeyVikas Pandey
(senior journalist at BBC Monitoring)
Is the Indian media really free? This is a question posed by many after a series of high-profile resignations from prominent media houses in the past few months.

The case of the Network 18 group is particularly intriguing. It runs several regional and national news channels along with a host of news and entertainment websites. The network’s English-language news channel CNN-IBN has become a popular name in the past few years under the leadership of editor Rajdeep Sardesai.

But Mr Sardesai quit his post last month after spending several years building the channel from scratch. His resignation came against the backdrop of a prominent Indian business group’s huge investments in Network 18.

Are the two developments linked?

While Mr Sardesai did not mention this ‘takeover’ as a possible reason behind his resignation, he wrote in his farewell email to his staff, “Editorial independence and integrity have been articles of faith in 26 years in journalism and maybe I am too old now to change.”

Reliance Industries, which has invested huge sums in the network through a trust, denies interfering in the editorial matter of the network.

Mr Sardesai is not the only high-profile editor to have quit his post recently amid questions about relations with media owners.

In November 2013, Harstosh Singh Bal left his post as the political editor of the Open magazine, and Sidharth Vardarajan quit the editorship of the Hindu newspaper earlier in the year.

Surprisingly, India is one of the very few countries where newspaper readership is growing in the age of the internet. India has one of the fastest growing media markets in the world with close to 400 news and current affairs channels, and more than 12,000 newspapers. Several more are on the way, with many business houses, big and small, eager to invest in the media.

Many business owners have strong political links and analysts say editors are often put under pressure to favour certain political parties or groups in their coverage.

Observers suggest that owning a media company gives “clout and access” to business houses.

Freedom House said in a recent report that India is only “partly free” when it comes to the level of freedom journalists enjoy in the country. It said India’s poor performance reflects “increased interference in content by media owners in the run up to the 2014 elections, which led to the dismissal of key editorial staff in several instances”.

Reporters without Borders ranked India 140th in its annual report on press freedom in 180 countries. It cited violence against journalists and reporting restrictions in Indian-administered Kashmir as some of the reasons behind India’s poor performance.

“Those responsible for threats and physical violence against journalists [in India], who are often abandoned by the judicial system and forced to censor themselves, include police and security forces as well as criminal groups, demonstrators and political party supporters,” it said.

In February, Penguin India recalled Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History after protests by a Hindu nationalist group. Campaigning group Shiksha Bachao Andolan had brought a civil case against Penguin India, arguing that the book contained “heresies” insulting to Hindus.

Academics fear that victory by Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent general election is likely to encourage groups like the Shiksha Bachao Andolan.

Amid battles between editors and owners, content is often the loser. India’s regional TV channels mostly concentrate on ratings-driving, sensationalist local stories and rarely pay attention to serious political discourse or international stories.

National channels cover important political stories but often through “loud and noisy” studio debates. “Television then has become less about great journalism and more about histrionics on screen,” media watchdog website The Hoot said in an editorial in May.

Most newspapers and channels do not give great attention to international stories, and when they do they mostly rely on Western news agencies.

Indians get their international news from outlets like the BBC, CNN and al-Jazeera. Some experts say the country needs its own international channel that can tell global stories from India’s perspective.

But that could take some time.


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