Earlier this year, Indian police arrested reporter Irfan Mehraj over a “terror-funding” case in India-held Kashmir, with Amnesty International describing it as “a travesty and yet another instance of the long-drawn out repression of human rights” in India. Taking note of the growing repression of journalists, Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2023 downgraded India’s ranking by 11 points—from 150 to 161—even as Pakistan’s rank grew by 7 points to 150. Justifying India’s position, RSF said: “The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in the world’s largest democracy.”
While the Indian economy has boomed under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, its traditionally free media has suffered a decline. RSF notes that media ownership is concentrated in “only a handful of sprawling media companies.” Reports from within India allege that Modi has an “army of supporters” who actively harass any critics of his government, triggering self-censorship among journalists. Amnesty International, meanwhile, warns that Indian authorities are “increasingly imposing unlawful and politically motivated restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly.” Ironically, Amnesty was itself targeted by the Indian government, and was forced to shut its operations in the country in 2020.
Key to Modi’s support are his linkages with the Indian business elite. Since acquiring Network 18 in 2014, Modi’s billionaire ally Mukesh Ambani expanded his holdings to more than 70 outlets across the country, with a combined weekly audience of at least 800 million viewers. The impact this has had on the Indian psyche can be gauged from an alarming rise in religiously-motivated violence, with mobs of the Hindu majority ransacking homes and offices of the Muslim and Christian minorities. Some Indian observers go so far as to say that most media houses in the country are now primarily defenders of the Hindu nationalist government, selling its majoritarian populist agenda. Independent voices, meanwhile, are actively silenced, as in the case of BBC, which was raided by authorities for alleged tax evasion. The British broadcaster’s “sin” was broadcasting a documentary on the Gujarat riots in which it held then-chief minister Modi responsible for the anti-Muslim violence left over 1,000 dead and tens of thousands displaced in 2002. The Indian Supreme Court, following Modi’s election as prime minister, cleared him of all responsibility in the violence.