Herald View: Making sense of the Newsclick case

According to the NYT report, Singham shared office space in Shanghai with a Chinese company and had invested Rs 30 crore in NewsClick

Representative image of Indians protesting for freedom of the press in Delhi (photo: DW)
Representative image of Indians protesting for freedom of the press in Delhi (photo: DW)

Herald View

The investigations against media outlet NewsClick, ongoing for the past two years, are said to be related to its foreign funding. Investment in Indian news media by foreign entities is currently allowed up to 26 per cent, via the FDI (foreign direct investment) route, subject to government approval. NewsClick had denied allegations of any irregularity or impropriety, claimed to have cooperated with the investigating agencies and sought court protection. It looked like the case may have been put to rest till the New York Times published a report in August this year on alleged Chinese propaganda at the behest of a US-based tech mogul of Sri Lankan origin by the name of Neville Roy Singham.

According to the NYT report, Singham shared office space in Shanghai with a Chinese company and had invested Rs 30 crore in NewsClick. This detail opened the floodgates of a media trial of the digital news outlet, with the Union minister for information and broadcasting Anurag Singh Thakur openly accusing it of being a Chinese propaganda mouthpiece. The reason NewsClick was on the government radar is easy enough to guess—it was among the few media outlets standing that had the temerity to critique the government and its policies even after it had been marked and put on watch.

Government propaganda incidentally is not copyrighted by the Chinese— the US has perfected it into an art form and our very own government spends thousands upon thousands of crores to create various frothy narratives. These could be to tom-tom (debatable) government achievements—such as the ‘unanimous declaration’ at the recent G20 summit in Delhi. Or to deflect attention from something that embarrasses the government—the Chinese incursions into Indian territory, for example. Or to manage media headlines—away from, say, the most recent caste survey in Bihar, which might disrupt the ruling party’s battle strategies for the forthcoming elections.

In India, mainstream media is the government’s biggest ally in pushing its propaganda agenda, and the China story is one of the best examples. Take for instance the government and mainstream media narratives (the two are practically mirror images of each other) of a spirited Indian pushback at the border to fight off Chinese aggression—the unsavoury facts are buried in this propaganda. Or consider the much-advertised ban in 2020—after the India– China border faceoff—on TikTok and other Chinese apps; or the decision to displace Chinese mobile phone company VIVO as the title sponsor of the Indian Premier League (Indian cricket’s showpiece tournament), again in 2020; or the attempts to buttress the narrative of self-reliance (‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’) in the face of India’s lopsided balance of trade with China, a fact that you can’t really fix but can lie about—with effective propaganda.

China continues to needle India every now and then. It did so most recently just ahead of the G20 summit in Delhi, when it re-issued a controversial map claiming Arunachal Pradesh. We continue to import Chinese goods, now more than ever. India won’t sever diplomatic relations with China, perhaps rightly so, because beyond the nationalist swagger lies a hard-nosed calculation of unavoidable dependence. Indeed, prime minister Modi has visited China more often than any other Indian prime minister. Till 2020, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) bigwigs were frequent visitors to the People’s Republic of China. But real propaganda finds a way of deflecting attention from facts and news that don’t fit the sanctioned narrative while NewsClick pays the price, if it’s true, of receiving money that bears a Chinese taint. (The media outlet has denied the charge of receiving any money in contravention of Indian laws.)

Here are some other sobering statistics on the state of Indian media, put out by Newslaundry, a ‘reader-supported independent news media company’:

• In the past five years, the NIA (National Investigative Agency) has taken action against at least 20 journalists and media houses

• The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has taken action against 15 journalists and media houses

• The Income Tax department has taken action against nine news organisations

This, while superwealthy media owners like you-know-who and his friend he-who-must-not-be-named rule the roost. On whose shenanigans reigns a conspiracy of media silence

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Published: 07 Oct 2023, 10:36 AM