After an emphatic electoral victory in May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces important challenges in his second term. Growth has slowed to a five-year low, with Modi’s own former top economic advisor publishing research in June that showed India’s GDP growth was likely overestimated by 2.5 percentage points. Unemployment is at its highest since the 1970s; hundreds of car dealerships have closed amid a shortage of liquidity in the country’s credit sector; and many promises from Modi’s first term remain unfulfilled, such as his proposals to launch sweeping infrastructure projects across the country.
But as Modi looks to address these issues, there’s one big problem for regular Indians: The media is no longer able to adequately hold the prime minister or his government to scrutiny. And in an era of fake news and low trust in the media, an enfeebled class of journalists could eventually lead to a weakening of the very democracy that defines modern India.
The signs have been clear for a while now. For much of Modi’s first five years in office, his government seemed to get a free pass from the country’s pliant media. In November 2016, when Modi abruptly recalled 86 percent of the country’s currency—to fight corruption, he said at the time—many influential media outlets failed to ask crucial questions. By initially lauding what most economists called a damaging move and by buying the government line, journalists helped spread the incorrect perception that phony economics could fix big problems. In the end, India’s growth rate dropped for several quarters.
There are other examples. Last February, Indian military pilots struck the Pakistani town of Balakot in response to a suicide attack on its soldiers. India’s media was awash in jingoistic sentiments, unquestioningly publishing in print and broadcasting on TV the government line that New Delhi had killed a “very large number” of militants from the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group. Days later, Reuters and some other international media challenged the government line with satellite imagery as evidence; but the damage, once again, was done, as most Indians had already been sold New Delhi’s version of events.
Or consider how the Modi government has changed how the country calculates its growth data. In an open letter written last March, more than a hundred economists and social scientists expressed concern that India’s statistical machinery was being “controlled by political considerations.” Again, India’s media barely covered the letter’s release, let alone the dodgy data behind the government’s growth proclamations.
In each of these cases, mainstream media—especially the country’s influential TV news channels—functioned largely as government mouthpieces, with only a few exceptions. Perhaps the best example of how journalists have become accustomed to not challenging the government is the fact that Modi failed to hold a single press conference in his first term in office. (On May 17, days before he was reelected, Modi invited the press to his party headquarters and delivered a prepared speech. Amit Shah, then-president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, fielded questions from reporters as Modi looked on.) During both state and national elections over the last five years, television news channels frequently carried live campaign speeches by Modi without challenging his assertions or matching the free airtime with coverage of his opponents.
One way in which the government exerts control over domestic media is through advertising. In June, New Delhi cut off state advertising with at least three publishers of prominent English-language newspapers. Senior executives of those groups and opposition leaders contend that the ad freeze was retaliation for news reports critical of the government. According to a Reuters report, these newspaper groups—the publishers of the Times of India, the Hindu, and the Telegraph—have a combined monthly readership of more than 26 million.
Not surprisingly, India’s media compares unfavorably to those of other countries. According to Reporters Without Borders, India ranks 140 out of 180 countries for press freedom, behind violence-ridden Afghanistan and South Sudan. And things are getting steadily worse: In 2002, India had ranked 80 of 139 countries surveyed.
Originally published on www.foreignpolicy.com