Members of India’s media were shocked earlier this month when two journalists from television channel ABP News were allegedly fired and another suspended after doing reports critical of the Narendra Modi-led government.
One of the two sacked journalists, Punya Prasun Bajpai, later alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government had set up a 200-member committee to monitor and censor the media. Asia Times spoke to Shivam Shankar Singh, a former member of the BJP, who quit the party in June and wrote a post that went viral about issues with the BJP’s governance.
What are your views on Bajpai’s allegations about the BJP monitoring and censoring the media?
I know the party does track news. If an excel sheet is maintained with all the news, marked as pro-BJP and anti-BJP, and who the anchor or writer was, at a higher level it could be used against the journalist.
It’s very much possible and even likely to be true because the government, in multiple instances, has shown its tendency to monitor the media and even punish the media for going against them.
There’s a huge culture of self-censorship. It may not be that someone from the party is going and telling people not to run something. But people in the party hinting that they’re unhappy with a certain kind of journalism, itself scares a lot of outlets. The entire atmosphere of fear is not like the Emergency [of 1975] at all, it is a self-imposed Emergency.
When you say atmosphere of fear, what do you mean? What would media companies be afraid of?
The primary fear is definitely money. This government, as several news outlets have reported, has spent more than Rs 4,200 crores (US$60 million) on advertising. So the government itself is one of the largest advertisers in the business. If they decide to pull out ads from a certain network or newspaper, it harms the bottom line a lot.
And if the current government says it is unhappy with a certain kind of reportage, a lot of corporates will also pull out. This government has a lot of control over corporates because, in India, corporate interests are very closely aligned with the government. If you don’t keep the government happy, you will not do well in business.
Is this true of all governments or are you only talking about the present BJP-led government?
The current government does this a lot more. This party has branded specific channels and journalists as anti-national and anti-Hindu – which never happened under the previous regime.
Censorship has also increased right now because the fear is greater. Under UPA-2 [United Progressive Alliance], scams like 2G, Commonwealth Games and Coalgate were all widely reported; several politicians were named and no one tried to censor any of it.
Today, most channels are funded or owned by people close to the BJP or even its Members of Parliament, like Republic TV [funded by BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar] and Zee [owned by Subhash Chandra, who was elected to the Upper House of the Indian Parliament from Haryana state in 2016 as an independent candidate supported by the BJP]. Other than that, a lot of news channels, like Network 18, are owned by Reliance, which allegedly has close ties to the present regime.
What about the BJP’s alleged closeness with certain corporates?
It is very obvious that the BJP gets a lot more money than the Congress ever did and they are outspending Congress on election campaigns by about double the amount. There are corporates who are helping the party, because that is the only way for the party to get funds. And if a corporate gives so much money to a political party, they obviously will expect something in return.
During your time with the party, did the government take action against any media outlets?
I was not directly involved, but there are stories of high-level people calling specific news channels to ask them to proactively run or not run a story. But no one’s made this call in front of me; it’s all hearsay from other people in the party. But this hearsay creates more fear in the media.
You can’t know if the current government has proactively done anything against the media. Except, there were raids on the owners of NDTV, which is one specific instance of the government acting against a media outlet.
What about web outlets which criticize the government?
No one will act against online news platforms because their reach is limited. The primary reason behind action against ABP News was that it is a Hindi channel with a huge presence in the Hindi heartland, especially Uttar Pradesh [the state with the most parliamentary constituencies].
No party needs to censor Delhi-centric English media that caters to a small demographic of elite, rich people in urban areas – because it is not reaching the core voters. But a major TV channel like ABP is much more likely to get pressured by the government.
Bajpai alleged the Information and Broadcast Ministry was ordering editors what to run. Is this something that should be in the ministry’s purview?
No, it’s completely unethical of a ministry to do so, but I have no idea if they are doing it. But look at the Human Resource Development Ministry’s actions in the Rohith Vemula case or the Jawaharlal Nehru University case, where a ministry branded one of its own institution’s students as anti-national. It was the ministry pushing a political agenda, which backfired.
Why would the BJP resort to these methods, considering they won the 2014 election with a majority?
All of these incidents are from the last two years. When the government was initially formed, most of the stories were automatically positive because people had a lot of expectations. This censorship has kicked in as people are starting to see that a lot of promises are unfulfilled.
The 2019 elections will be tougher for the BJP than 2014, so this will continue. They will try to suppress competing narratives. Their message is pretty clear: If you go against us, we will act against you. Punya Prasun Bajpai’s story doesn’t even need to be true. Just that the story is out there is enough for most outlets to abide by whatever the BJP says.