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Local media is too soft on Modi

Highly-rated international newspapers, on the other hand, have been scathing in their criticism of the PM.

 |  6-minute read |   14-08-2016
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Press freedom in India has been under serious threat since Hindutva forces under Narendra Modi rode to power in Delhi. The sudden removal of Krishna Prasad as the editor-in-chief of Outlook magazine after it published an investigative report called "Operation #BetiUthao" clearly demonstrates the present regime can go to any extent to muzzle the media. The report had exposed trafficking of 31 young tribal girls from Assam by the Sangh Parivar in order to "Hinduise" them.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi loves to hate the media. His hatred towards journalists, particularly those from Lutyens' Delhi, has taken shape since 2002. Ever since he became the prime minister, he has not refrained from calling them news traders and "bazaru". His junior foreign minister, who also happens to be a former Army chief, has given the journalists the vulgar epithet "presstitutes".

Also read: Modi's interview to Arnab Goswami felt like a PR exercise

In spite of Modi's open abhorrence towards the Indian media; he has mostly enjoyed wall-to-wall coverage since he became the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in 2013. India's mainstream media has been respectful overall and has rarely challenged him with serious and uncomfortable questions.

The media in general has accepted his aggrandised claims of policy successes from coal auction to toilet construction, from defence procurement to foreign relations. If any journalist or media house attempts to question it, his regime does not hesitate to use its influence to silence that critical voice. Hindutva trolls are also used to silence the critics.

modi-embed-444_081416065020.jpg PM Narendra Modi. 

Mainstream media in India has given Modi a much easier time on policy as well as personal issues than what his counterpart in neighbouring Pakistan can ever dream of. Thus Modi's grouse against the media is quite puzzling. Probably Modi's authoritarian personality refuses to accept any criticism.

Also read: How Modi turned the interview with Arnab Goswami to his advantage

While Modi leaves no chance to control the Indian media, and his supporters continuously vilify a number of senior journalists who refuse to toe the line, it is actually the foreign media, which has been ruthlessly critical of his policies and performance.

International news heavyweights, like The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Economist and The Guardian, have been carrying reports and editorials regularly disapproving Modi and his brand of politics.

Also read: Editor explains why he wasn't surprised Modi knew Arnab's questions in advance

One of the world's most respected newspapers, The New York Times, had come out before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections expressing its serious doubts about Modi's suitability to become the prime minister of India. More than two years have passed, and this newspaper has not changed its view.

Before Modi was sworn in as the prime minister, on May 21, 2014, The New York Times wrote an editorial reminding him about his obligation as the prime minister towards all sections of the society, particularly Muslims.

Since then, the paper has brought out 24 editorials written by its own editorial board concerning India and most them are highly critical of Modi's Hindutva brand of politics and policies.

From the sex education controversy to dilution of environmental laws, from religious intolerance to crackdown on NGOs, several policies of the Modi government have been reported and severely criticized by the newspaper in its editorials. The most recent editorial has taken Modi to task over violence by cow vigilante groups against Dalits.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Times, from the other corner of the United States, has also been extremely critical in its reporting of the growing intolerance in India.

Immediately after Modi's capture of power in Delhi, an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times raised serious concerns about India's ability as a country to treat all of its citizens equally. Even when Modi visited California last September and was getting the adulation of the Indian diaspora, this highly respected newspaper brought out a very critical report on how secular thinkers are under attack under the "intolerant" Modi regime.

The other important American newspaper, Washington Post has also not been left behind in criticising Modi, even mocking him and his style. Recently, it carried a story on Modi's awkward hugs and handshakes with other world leaders, which went viral. Its staff writer Annie Gowen also caused a massive embarrassment for Modi with her tweet on November 27, 2015 exposing how private PR companies were pestering her for favourable reporting of Modi's American visit.

Modi's media critics are not confined to American newspapers only. Highly respected British newspaper The Guardian had expressed its concern over Modi's suitability as India's prime minister before the 2014 general election. On April 10, 2014, it had even published a letter from several of India's most respected artists and academics, which had expressed their "acute worry" at the prospect of Modi becoming the country's prime minister.

Even after the election, The Guardian has never missed any opportunity to criticise Modi. When Modi went on a much-hyped visit to the UK in November 2015, The Guardian even published an opinion piece by Anish Kapoor titled "India is being ruled by a Hindu Taliban".

The other reputed British publication and with much larger global impact, The Economist had openly urged Indian voters to vote against Modi in the 2014 general election, for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Modi's election as prime minister and his liberal economic policies have failed to persuade The Economist to be lenient on the Modi brand of politics in the past two years.

Besides these frontline global media outlets, many highly rated international newspapers, like Canada's Globe and Mail, Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, France's Le Monde, Germany's Spiegel, have been frequently raising concerns about the growing sectarian tension in India. International media is unequivocal in its criticism of the Modi brand of politics.

Unlike their global counterparts, a majority of the mainstream Indian media has been uncritically positive and even laudatory of Modi and his government. A smaller number of senior journalists and few publishing houses who continue to criticise his "Hindutva" brand of politics are being regularly harassed by the regime and vilified as anti-national and anti-Hindu by its supporters. While Modi targets this small section of critical media at home, he almost ignores the near-unanimous disapproval of the international media.

It is true that the influence of the international media on Indian voters is very limited. Thus, their criticism might not adversely affect Modi's electoral prospects.

However, the consistent critical reporting in influential international media outlets has started to raise serious question marks over the prospects of the India story, the idea which Modi is trying hard to sell to the international community. India's image as a secular democratic society is fast eroding in the eyes of the world. It is increasingly being compared with Turkey, if not yet with Pakistan. Modi can afford to ignore the international media, but India cannot.

Writer

Ashok Swain Ashok Swain @ashoswai

The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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