The unrest in Kashmir accompanied with several media controversies has prompted a Hong Kong-based newspaper to question India’s commitment to a free and fearless press. “From a high-profile public spat between two leading television journalists to a media clampdown in a troubled region and the sacking of a top editor known for his disdain for the ruling dispensation, one of Asia’s most vibrant media sectors is facing scrutiny over the degree of freedom it enjoys,” said South China Morning Post.
Commenting on media clampdown in Kashmir, it mentioned that “parts of Kashmir were made off-limits for the media, making it impossible to report from the ground.” While it was conceded that curfew restrictions in Kashmir were being slowly relaxed but nevertheless the attack unleashed on the press was widespread and serious.
“The curfew is now being lifted slowly after nearly two months but while it was on, midnight raids on media outlets and seizure of printed copies of newspapers were commonplace. Social media wasn’t exempt either, with posts about the protests routinely deleted.”
The daily newspaper owned by the Alibaba Group criticized Times Now’s Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami for pleading the government to put other journalists on trial for their coverage of violence-hit Kashmir.
“Targets of his self-righteous rage range from politicians to diplomats, but this time he was training his gun on an unlikely species – fellow journalists,” the newspaper wrote. Citing NDTV’s Consulting Editor Barkha Dutt’s response to Goswami, the daily hinted at a struggle between the left-leaning English media and the Hindu nationalist government at the centre.
“At the heart of the bitter exchange lay the tension between a historically left-leaning liberal English-language media and the conservative right, which is witnessing a rare upsurge in India alongside the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party,” reasoned South China Morning Post.
It added that “the controversy over Kashmir reportage has only brought out this widening fault line in India’s mediascape.”Giving the examples of ousted editors Rajdeep Sardesai and Krishna Prasad, it opined that editors who don’t toe the government’s line are shown the door.
“One of the most respected television journalists in India, Sardesai was forced to exit CNN IBN, a news channel he had helped build from scratch. With business interests aligning themselves with pro-market Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, the space for journalists like Sardesai who have been critical of the new prime minister in the past is fast shrinking. Several editors have met with similar fates since Modi came to power in 2014,” it said.
Though South China Morning Post maintained that previous governments headed by the Congress also indulged in media abuse, the incumbent government had recorded new lows. “The tendency to twist the arms of media houses is hardly unique to the Modi government. Previous governments led by the Congress party would do the same by various degrees, say veteran journalists, who complain the current dispensation has taken it to a whole new level.”
Mentioning India’s poor showing on Word Press Freedom Index 2016 prepared by Reporters Without Borders, the newspaper felt that since big media businesses had joined forces with the government, voices of dissent would likely emerge on the internet.
“As those perceived to be critical of the government or the ruling party are denied access to politicians and officials, cutting them off from the news cycle, big media houses have been trying to minimise friction and fall into line. A direct fallout has been the mushrooming of alternative online platforms, where much of the critical journalism is migrating,” the newspaper concluded.