PM’s fear of ‘free Press’: The Chowkidar has refused to face ‘unpliable’ media

Narendra Modi as Prime Minister has not addressed a single press conference or given an unscripted interview. While he strutted around the globe, he would not speak to ‘independent’ journalists

PM’s fear of ‘free Press’: The Chowkidar has refused to face ‘unpliable’ media
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Ashutosh Sharma

Talking about his “eternally viral” interview with Narendra Modi that barely lasted for three minutes in 2007, senior journalist Karan Thapar writes in his book Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story, quoting JDU leader Pavan Varma: “Modi said to Prashant (poll strategist Prashant Kishor) that he will never forgive you and when he gets an opportunity, he will take his revenge.”

“What he said seemed to explain the way the BJP has treated me since around early 2016. This, no doubt, is why party spokespersons have been told not to appear on my programmes, why ministers started to decline interviews and, ultimately, why Amit Shah, after his initial assurance, failed to get back or even take my calls,” Thapar says in the book, elaborating how he fell out of favour with Modi, after giving a glimpse into one of the most watched TV interview on YouTube.

However, Thapar is not an exception. During his tenure as 14th Prime Minister of India, several media houses and senior journalists have faced undeclared boycott by the ruling BJP’s spokespersons, ministers and Prime Minister Modi.

After one day ban on Hindi news channel NDTV India in 2016, its senior executive editor, Ravish Kumar, has time and again resented BJP’s boycott of his channel. He has also complained of threats and intimidation by party supporters for doing his job.

Women journalists like Barkha Dutt and Sagrika Gosh have also complained of threats and abuses they received from BJP workers for being critical of the Modi government.

In fact, Modi discontinued some practices which were followed by his predecessors after becoming the Prime Minister. He stopped taking journalists along with him on foreign visits and didn’t appoint any media advisor.

Modi’s disdain for the “unpliable press” seems to be rooted in his past experience with some journalists including Thapar, who left him in an awkward position, either silent or fumbling for the words.

During PM Modi’s tenure several editors got fired for purportedly holding critical views against his government and the party.

Eminent journalist Harish Khare resigned as editor-in-chief of The Tribune weeks after the daily published Aadhaar exposé that embarrassed the Modi government.

Last August, former ABP News anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai wrote an exposé for The Wire’s Hindi website, explaining the circumstances of his ouster from the channel. Maintaining that he was asked not to make any mention of Modi on his programmes, Bajpai disclosed that “the government had employed 200 people to monitor the media and send directions to the editors on how they must report on the prime minister’s activities.”

Eventually, ABP’s news anchor Abhisar Sharma in his Facebook post stated that he was fired owing to pressure from the BJP government on the TV’s management.

Previously, ABP’s managing editor Milind Kandekar and host of Master Stroke show Punya Parsoon Bajpai had resigned from the channel for similar reasons.

Bobby Ghosh, an editor with the Hindustan Times, had to resign as the government was allegedly unhappy with a tracker that was launched under his leadership to chronicle hate crimes in India. Incidentally, the tracker was discontinued following his exit.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta had to step down from his position as editor of Economic and Political Weekly after the Adani Group, whose owner is believed to be PM’s friend, sent a defamation notice to the 50-year-old journal for publishing a story on how the government allegedly bent the rules for the group.

His tenure also saw raids on certain media outlets and stopping government advertisements to the media outlets critical of the government.

The World Press Freedom Index released by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders last year ranked India at 138th-position in the world out of 180 countries, down two positions since 2017 and lower than countries like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Myanmar.

Notably, India was ranked 80th out of 139 countries surveyed in 2002, when the index was started.

But on the contrary, those journalists who are widely believed to be biased towards the Modi government were rewarded as well.

Republic TV and later Republic Bharat, partly owned by multimillionaire entrepreneur and BJP parliamentarian Rajeev Chandrasekhar and headed by Arnab Goswami, were given immediate permission. But several others awaiting license for the past several years were ignored by the government.

“Over the last few months those associated with the ruling party have warned me - politely, impolitely - not to work on new TV projects and told me – “we will never allow them to happen”- today I was told a 45 minute meeting was held on how to stop me, smear me, malign me, tap me,” Barkha Dutt had said in a series of tweets last year.

Curiously, the Prime Minister gave interviews to some handpicked journalists. He spoke to Times Now, Republic, Zee News besides Swarajya and ANI besides a Bollywood lyricist.

But Indian media watchers argue that such interviews were scripted. They insist that the interviews were conducted in the most servile way without a focused probing, cross-questioning or follow-up questions.

Last May, a sting operation by Cobrapost showed that some 25 leading media organisations, including The Times of India, The New Indian Express, and the India Today Group, were willing to peddle propaganda for the ruling BJP in lieu of money.

Amid criticism of the Prime Minister, however journalists like CNN-News18’s Bhupendra Chaubey believe that elected leaders giving press conferences “does not help the cause of democracy.” He went on to argue that Modi not giving press conferences is a ‘new paradigm of communication’.

Chaubey’s message of a paradigm shift in communication, however, is yet to reach other world leaders like the US President or the German Chancellor, who continue to face the media and unscripted questions.

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