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Indian media in trying times of political bigotry

As Indian Journalism Completes 240 Years, a Look at the Emergence of a Culture of Official Censorship, Intimidation, as Well as ‘Jingo’ Media


Freedom of speech and expression is an integral part of a democratic life. However, there are numerous instances where media became a soft target of state and non-state actors. The emergency period is considered as the darkest phase of Indian journalism after independence. The second darkest, as it is argued, is the present state of affairs where the existence of media is not threatened but the media itself became a threat to the functioning state and its citizens. The Indian media, especially the television channels, are heading toward a new form of journalism without the core principle of neutrality. It gives birth to Saffron Journalism.

Keyword: Press Freedom, Censorship, Neutrality, Jingoism, Saffron Journalism


Indian journalism completes 240th year since the publication of the first newspaper ‘Bengal Gazette’ by James Augustus Hickey from Calcutta (Now Kolkata) in 1780. Within decades with the launch of the Bengal Gazette, prominent presidency cities such as Madras (Chennai) and Bombay (Mumbai) began publishing newspapers. In 1785, ‘Madras Courier’, appeared as the first newspaper in Madras whereas the first newspaper from Bombay ‘Bombay Herald’ appeared in 1789. However, till the first decade of the 19th century, all publication and periodicals were started by the officials and Europeans. It was only with the effort of Raja Ram Mohan Roy that newspapers with true Indian faced appeared in India. Roy founded ‘Sambad Kaumudi’, a Bengali weekly in 1821; a Persian medium newspaper ‘Mirat-ul-Akbar’ in 1822, and a religious periodical ‘Brahmanical Magazine’ in 1823 to counteract against the missionaries propaganda on Hindu religion and culture (Parthasarathy, 1997).

However, publications of Roy were largely based in Bengal and are short lived, and therefore do not have serious impact on the masses of the period. The second half of the 19th century, nevertheless, could be termed as another chapter in the development of journalism in the country. Newspapers, either vernacular or English, began appearing in provincial towns and cities. The western education introduced by the colonial administration in schools and colleges increased the literacy and developed consciousness amongst the masses.  Amrita Bazar Patrika (1868), The Hindu (1878), The Statesman (1875), etc began publishing their own papers. The bold and critical stance of Editors and publishers of newspapers and periodicals against colonial authorities and their policies were evident from the fact that dozens of repressive measures were introduced by the government.

The first censorship against the press was invoked during the governor generalship of Lord Wellesley in 1799 which require ‘names of editors and proprietors’ be published in the newspapers. Charles Maclean, the editor of ‘Bengal Hirkaru’, continued his publication in defiance to the newly introduced law. The government took action against him and he was deported back to England. He was indeed the first journalist to be prosecuted in the history of Indian journalism.

Accepting Thomas Munroe’s recommendation, the government of India introduced yet another more restrictive law generally called the Regulation of Registration, 1823. This regulation provided that no press was to be established or any paper or book was to be printed without acquiring license from the authority. Besides, numerous restrictions were imposed in the aftermath of the Revolt of 1857; the Vernacular Press Act, 1878; Newspaper (Incitement to Offences) Act, 1908; the Indian Press Act, 1910 and the Official Secrets Act, 1923 (Ahuja, 2011).

The motive behind the regulations can be explained in two phases. First, from the introductory phase till the middle of the 19th century newspapers editors and publishers were largely Englishmen or Europeans. These editors were largely disgruntled officials and employees of the company who took to newspapers to challenge the establishment. News items of that phase were largely a report on the private lives of officials of the company in India and England, and no due attention was reported on the native people. Therefore, press regulations introduced during this phase were rather a face-saving mechanism of company officials which otherwise could hurt the reputation of the company in India and abroad.

Secondly, beginning from the middle of the 19th century till the attainment of independent, news regulation was repressive in nature. Unlike the previous phase regulations which are solely to create good image, the second was more of an aggressive posturing of company’s image and British imperialism. This coincides with the rapid rise of educated Indians who took to journalism to critically engage colonial authorities and their administration. The rising consciousness of Indians fueled by the availability of newspapers becomes a threat to the administration. Therefore, regulations were purposefully introduced to control accumulated discontent, dissenting voice against colonialism and maintain law and order more effectively.

Pioneers of the Anglo-Indian newspapers such as James Augustus Hickey (Bengal Gazette) and James Silk Bukingham (Calcutta Chronicle) were prosecuted and deported back to England. Indian editors such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak (Kesari), G. Subramanian Iyer (The Hindu), Mahatma Gandhi (Young India) and Jawaharlal Nehru (National Herald) were either charged with seditious writing, defamation and against the rule of law (Parthasarathy, 1997). However, Indian editors and publishers were least daunted. It was the fearless and ‘do or die’ spirit of Indian writers which builds national consciousness to the masses. Certainly, press played a vital role in freeing India from colonial rule.

Indian Media: A post independent Scenario

Freedom of press is a hard earned value of editors, publishers and founding fathers of India. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees its citizens the ‘right to freedom of speech and expression’ which press are part and parcel of the provision. Freedom of press, however, was not an issue until a national emergency was clamped by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975. For 21 months, every right enjoyed by citizens was curtailed and the public has to survive solely at the mercy of the government. The most effected was the press. Arrests of journalists, power cuts to media houses that do not conform to government policies and limiting supply of newsprints were direct strategy employed by the government to control free speech and expression. Besides, the government makes state broadcasting agencies such as All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan (DD) to propagate government policies to the masses. Any form of writing critical to the government and its policies were termed ‘anti-national’. Therefore, the emergency period was termed as the darkest phase of Indian press. While the logic of imposing emergency is questionable, the act of curtailing rights and privileges of citizens during emergency is unquestionable to a certain degree from a legal perspective.

In the post emergency period, press freedom has not been an issue in India. If there is one, it has been the emergency period that still hunts journalist and the press. However, the subject of press freedom has been gaining more serious attention than ever in the present times. Since the last 10 years or so, there has been an increasing threat to the freedom of speech and expression throughout the country. There are reports of murders, threats and blackmailing of journalists almost on a daily basis.

According to the report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) which registered cases targeting journalists with “grievous hurt” under sections 325, 326, 326A & 326B of the Indian Penal Code, there are a total of 114 reported in 2014 and 28 in 2015. Uttar Pradesh (UP) registered the most cases (64) over two years but only four persons have been arrested. UP was followed by Madhya Pradesh (26) and Bihar (22). The three states accounted for 79% of all cases registered across the country. Madhya Pradesh reported the most arrests (42): 10 in 2014 and 32 in 2015. It is believed there a numerous unreported incidents of threat, intimidation and abuse of journalists for their work.

According to The Hoot’s ‘India Freedom Report: Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in 2017’ report, 11 journalists were murdered, 46 were attacked and 27 cases of police action were filed in 2017. Besides, it also reports the rapid rise of hate speech, censorship and self-censorship by media houses. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), America-based media advocacy group, observes that conditions have ‘worsened’ in India in 2018.

On 25 March 2018, Navin Nischal of Dainik Bhaskar was run over by an SUV, reportedly driven by the village’s head, Mohammad Harshu. Nischal was reporting on child marriage. On March 26, the very next day, Sandeep Sharma of the News World was killed when a truck ran his motorcycle over. The News World’s bureau chief, Vikas Purohit, said that Sharma had received threats earlier for publishing stories on illegal sand mining and police corruption and had been beaten up earlier. Further, Shujaat Bukhari, a senior journalist and editor of the Rising Kashmir, was shot and killed on June 14, along with two police officers assigned to him for protection, for his reporting on the situation in Kashmir (Kamdar, 2018).

The previous year (2017), the most shocking of all was the cold blooded murder of Gauri Lakesh on the 5 September at her residence in Bangalore. Lankesh was a veteran journalist and editor of ‘Gauri Lankesh Patride’, a Kannada-language weekly tabloid. She was known for her bold stance against right-wing extremism.

According to the latest report of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Finland based media advocacy group, India ranks 140 of the total survey of 180 countries in 2019. It is behind its neighbors such as Bhutan (80), Nepal (106), Afghanistan (120) and Myanmar (138). It is only ahead of Pakistan (142) and China (177).

As also available in the report, press in India is comparatively freer and independent in the past as compared to the present. In 2010, India ranks 122 whereas Pakistan and China, the two neighboring giants, ranked 151 and 171 each. In 2009, India ranked 105 whereas Pakistan and China ranked 159 and 168. These data shows that Pakistan was no way close to India a decade ago. However, as per 2019 ranking, Pakistan is fast catching up India with just two ranks behind India. These figures indicate two prepositions: either Pakistan improves its index or India increasingly goes authoritarian.

Censorship and the rise of ‘pro-establishment’ media

Journalism is part and parcel of a democratic life. Edmund Burke, the 18th century English statesman and philosopher, describes “press” as the “fourth pillar of democracy”. To Burke, freedom of speech and expressing of ideas is vital in the well functioning of a democracy. The importance of free press is also stressed by Thomas Jefferson, another 18th century statesman and advocate of free press, that, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. He heavily stressed the importance of newspapers over government; that a government without newspapers would be of little value and dangerous.

In India, it is without doubt that the importance of media has been recognized far and wide by state. However, the bigger question is whether it does really played a role in the functioning of a democracy. One of the most critical role of media acting as ‘check and balance’ on the functioning of the government is increasingly missing in the media sphere. This is even more evident with broadcast channels since the last ten years.

The advent of satellite Televisions channels (DTH) and the internet have considerably increased information consumption amongst Indians in the last decades. According to Sanjay Kachod (2017), there are about 800 news channels covering 61% of the population in 2017. This not only indicates the rapid rise of private players in broadcasting sectors but also the prospect it have for the future. This has rapidly increased competition amongst broadcasters for more Television Rating Points (TRP). As a strategy for growth and survival, broadcast media have resorted to all short of strategy available to attract readership which are against the very essence of journalism.  This is the main agenda of the paper.

Media houses, especially broadcast, is becoming more of pro-establishment media, rather than being critical to the government. Prime time shows of news channels are dominated by pro-establishment agenda which lacks balance reporting and analysis. Plurality of views is discouraged and dissent which should have equal value as free speech is being treated as unpatriotic and anti-national. As such, media houses now appear to be a propaganda tool of the government as done during wars and emergencies.

The deterioration of Indian journalism is becoming a serious concern even from the professional community in the country. Bobby Naqvi (2019), National Editor at Gulf News (UAE), published a report entitled ‘How Indian News Channels are Peddling Hatred’ over the toxicity in newsrooms of Indian broadcast media.

In the report prepared by the Gulf News, Ravish Kumar, Managing Editor of NDTV is reported to have said that, “Mainstream media is murdering Indian democracy. This is not done by one or two but by several hundred news channels”. He also observe that “Indian media was never so communal” and that he is “worried that media is turning Hindu youth into a mob”. “Youngsters who want jobs, good education, want to become doctors are being turned into rioters to support a particular political party. Today’s media has become Hindu media and they don’t follow ideals of journalism. I say to Hindus to stop watching news channels to avoid becoming what these channels want them to. Indian media has become dangerous, shame!.” Ravish Kumar added.

The editor of CNN-News18, Bhupendra Choubey is also without doubt that a “large sections of mainstream media have indeed become a bit partial” and urges the need for fair and balanced reporting. He further said, “a regulatory framework may not serve the purpose and may only end up raising more questions. The story of media has to be handled by media itself”.

In a response to the Gulf News, Rajdeep Sardesai, Consulting Editor, India Today Group, agrees that, “a large section of the Indian media, especially TV, has played a pernicious role in amplifying bigotry towards minority groups. It is shameful and reflects a moral degradation in the search for TRPs”.

When pointed out that Indian media is spreading hate, Sevanti Ninan, Founding editor of South Asian media watch website The, disagrees to the blanket description that all Indian media spread hate. However she agrees that “some elements of news television indulge in unwarranted communal provocation”, and further bemoaned that “those in Indian media who indulge in communal provocation are confined to a few TV channels and a few anchors. But unfortunately those are the ones with high viewership.”

Prominent journalist and author Paranjoy Guha Thakurta also agrees that media is responsible for the growing hate and intolerance in the country. He says: “Yes, I do believe that sections of the media in India have contributed greatly to growing intolerance in our country. These sections have sought to portray a seventh of India’s population — comprising Muslims and other minorities – as second class citizens, which is in keeping with the ideology of many in the ruling regime…this is a form of Islamophobia that has been spread”, Thakurta added.

Comparing the past with the present, Sarmah (2015), a writer, feels that “television journalism is no longer the same as it used to be earlier. Except for the classic Doordarshan, everywhere it is not news- but all cacophony”.  “There is something more to the murkier side of our TV journalism. If you want to indulge in character assassination, then the channels are there for your aid,” Sarmah added.

Social media user Celine Mary is reported to have compared Indian media with “white Southern” press. She said, “the Indian media is playing the role of the white Southern press during the bloody 19th and 20th century in US. While the Southern Press called colored people, ‘fiends’ and ‘brutes’, Indian media allows calling Muslim representatives Mulla and Jinnah with impunity, in their own studios,” (Naqvi, 2019).

Today, Indian television channels such as NDTV, CNN-IBN, Times Now, Republic TV, Aaj Tak, Zee News, News18 and India Today TV are few prominent ones with high viewership base. When it comes to Television Rating Points, however, the word of Sevanti Ninan that channels which go against the general ethics “are the ones with high viewership” cannot be denied.

The latest channel to enter the fray of broadcasting is the Republic TV. It was launched by Arnab Goswami, the then editor and anchor of the Times Now, in 2017. It is reported that right from the very first week of its launch on the 19th week of 2017, Republic TV has topped Broadcast Audience Research Council of India (BARC) weekly ratings of Top-5 English channels in India. What makes the channel popular is Goswami’s style of debating; literally forcing his view and opinions onto the debate participants and viewers, which is a unique one. His tune, tenor and aggressive projection of views in a certain way make rival channels “pale, stale and redundant”. The strategy ‘sensational sells’ has been finely and successfully applied by Republic TV. Republic TV has set a new trend to broadcast journalism.

In fact, any discussion on Indian television channels will be incomplete without Repubic TV and the editor Arnab Goswami. Further, when it comes to ethical issues, the channel remains the prime target not just from the public but also from professionals. While it enjoys highest viewership primarily due to its aggressive and high-pitched shows, it is also known to many Indians as promoting bigotry, hate and jingoism.

Kohli (2018) a vocal critic of Goswami’s style wrote, “while Republic TV, its editor-in-chief and its journalists have plumbed new depths, the propaganda that is central to the channel’s behaviour is symptomatic of a much bigger, scarier disease plaguing the media industry worldwide”. She further added that, “journalism in India is facing a crisis and we can’t afford to let our viewers/readers down at a time when they need us to be impartial, objective and efficient more than ever”.

In its feature news, The Free Press Journal compared the newly introduced journalism to those of North Korean media and said, “The only country where the media absolutely refuses to question the government in the name of patriotism is North Korea. Several instances of Republic’s reporting point out to nothing more than harassment of individuals and more broadly propaganda”. It further questions the nature of patriotism the Republic TV professes and that “Republic has simply refused to question the government on any issue”.

In the aftermath of the death of over 40 Indian soldiers as a result of a bomb attack launched by a Pakistan based terrorist group Jaish E- Mohammed last February, Indian television news channels were campaigning for a full scale war on Pakistan. Literally, the Indian media has been baying for blood.

Tanmoy Ibrahim (2019), a writer and critique, describe Indian television journalists as war mongering journalist. He went to describe, “Each of the toady TV show anchors like Arnab Goswami, Sudheer Chaudhary, etc, started advocating a full-scale war with Pakistan, which helped to invigorate the jingoism embedded within the upper-caste Hindu elites and urban middle class”.

The aggressiveness of Indian TV channels is particularly evident with the Republic TV when its chief and anchor thundered, “We want revenge, not condemnation. … It is time for blood, the enemy’s blood”, a day after the incident. One TV news anchor, Gaurav Sawant, tweeted that India should “Strike again & again” after India strike back terrorist camps at Balakot in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Softness is understood as weakness. Even the wife of one of the slain soldiers, Mita Santra, was attacked online when she questioned the failure to prevent the attack and advocated peaceful dialogue with Pakistan (Chandrasekhar, 2019).

Chandrashekhar further noted the alarming lack of objectivity and said, “especially television, contributed to that pressure, trading journalistic responsibility for tabloid hysterics. High-profile journalists ditched any pretense of objectivity, tweeting their support of India’s retaliatory strike”.

When the autonomy status of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir was scrapped last August, the Republic TV does not receive good response from the ruling dispensation either. Author, filmmaker and BJP stalwart Vivek Agnihotri launch a scathing attack on the Republic TV that the news channel has spoiled what the government did for good.

Vivek Agnihotri tweeted, “I have a feeling all the extraordinary efforts of @narendramodi to establish peace & harmony in #Kashmir will be countered by irresponsible News Channel owners like Arnab Goswami inciting violence. It’s not just the worst in Indian journalism but dangerous for all of us.”

On the other hand, censorship is on the rise. In an editorial ‘For Democracy to Survive, Attacks on Journalists Must End’ published on the National Press Day, The Wire, an independent news portal, describe the growing intolerance against free speech and expression in the country. It noted, “Growing intolerance of dissenting journalists has manifested itself in various forms across the nation – from censorship fiats to acts of outright physical intimidation. The escalating attacks on whistleblower journalists across India have taken a toll not just on individuals but also on journalism as a profession. The killing of several journalists over the last few years in India is a reminder that those who object to free speech – especially when it involves liberal ideas – will stop at nothing to quell those voices.”

Besides, there are rising case of self censorship within the media establishments. However, few bold journalists speak out against the unethical practice. One such case is with the Vice India, an American media arm. In a resignation letter of two journalists, Rishi Majumder and Kunal Majumder, who work with the Vice, it is learnt that Chanpreet Arora, CEO of the Vice is reported to have repeatedly cautioned its staff “we cannot get a call from Amit Shah” (Kholi, 2018).

Kunal in his resignation letter boldly stated: “Chanpreet repeated something she has said earlier – we cannot get a call from Amit Shah. I cannot work in an organization that takes a call on stories based on double guessing what the ruling party’s president will like”.

Rishi Majumder’s resignation letter notes. “I am well aware that many media outlets today are crawling when they are being asked to bend,” he said, reprising the phrase made famous by L.K. Advani about the behavior of the Indian media during the Emergency. “But having a committee vetting Hindutva stories for political and cultural sensitivity, keeping in mind all the time calls from Mr. Shah, would amount to much worse…Mr. Amit Shah may take offence easily and at everything that is inconvenient to the ruling party and the RSS,” Rishi disagrees.

Moreover, the advent of social media added to its advantage. Nikhil Inamdar (2019) stated that exponential rise of social media coincides with the rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP, and thus observed, “This government exploited to the hilt to target critics, mobilize public opinion, and use tags like “anti-national,” to discredit anyone showing a hint of circumspection with the state narrative”.

The above accounts provide a glimpse of a slowly decaying profession in the country. While the critical ones are being censored, the pro-establishment groups increasingly became jingoistic in their pursuit. This reminded of the later 19th century journalism in America. According to Emery, Emery & Roberts (1996), the American-Spanish war of 1898 was actually a result of the competition between Joseph Pulitzer and William R. Hearst.  In the battle for more circulation, Pulitzer’s Sunday World and Hearst’s New York Journal resorted to publication of crime, fake and sex stories with bold-catchy headlines to capture its readers. The sensational presentation of news later came to be known as yellow journalism.

America’s intervention against Spain in Cuba is said to be a result of unverified news that ‘Maine’, a US naval ship was sank by Spain, killing 255 lives. Hearst took advantage of the situation and gradually the tide swung toward a declaration of war. Being one of the highest circulated and most influential in the city, it managed to convince the public and the authorities for immediate action toward Spain in Cuba. Like the 19th century American media, the jingoistic nature of Indian media is yet another worrying sign for the public and the government. Chandrashekhar (2019) thus wrote, “If India and Pakistan ever resolve their conflict, it won’t be thanks to the Indian media”. The above statement describes the hopelessness of Indian media in the pursuit toward peace and development within and outside the country.


In an interview given to the Gulf News, Republic TV chief editor Arnab Goswami claims to have “represented a new kind of journalism”. He further stated that, “there’s always going to be a clash between the way things are”, referring to traditional style and the new kind that he introduced. To him the idea of neutrality ceased to exist when he reportedly said, “in a choice between India and Pakistan I will not be neutral”, to the Gulf News.

The above statements sound attractive, courageous, patriotic and professional. When interpreted in its essence, however, there are murkier side concerning the respected and the challenging profession. One of the core principles of journalism is ‘neutrality’. Neutrality herein means the freedom on how a journalist perceived a certain situation or issues at the first instances, and not necessarily being neutral to issues or situations. Goswami’s statement that he will, under any circumstances, not be neutral but support India on any issue with Pakistan speaks volume that the new form of journalism he adopted had an ‘inbuilt preconceived notion’ over certain matters even before it is being observed, covered and presented.

Goswami’s stance on neutrality, no doubt, sounds appealing to Indians as long as it is against Pakistan. However, this is in total violation to the general ethnics and principles of journalism. While Indians find the comfort when Pakistan is bombarded on televisions shows, few will understand the grave danger it pose to its citizens. Under the newly introduced journalism, everything the Indian government decides and does will be supported without doubt. Concerns raised by its citizens are labeled as ‘anti-national’, ‘terrorist’ ‘or’ unpatriotic’. Any form of protest or dissent is considered as an act against the state.

The assumption that the new style adopted will be limited to India’s foreign policy but will maintain the core principle of ‘neutrality’ on its domestic affairs is a myth. Country’s foreign affairs are largely determined by its domestic demands and circumstances. There always exists a co-relationship in the approach. A media that support a government foreign policy unequivocally will also embrace government’s domestic politics. This exactly is what is being experienced with the Indian media, especially the television channels. Therefore, media acted as the facilitator of government policies and programmes, rather than its role as ‘check and balance’ to the government. As patriotic as it is sounds, media acted like state propaganda tools during the infamous wars where all forms of communication channels available were censored and used to propagate government policies.

Incidentally, the birth of new journalism coincides with the rise of ‘far-right ideologies’ at the state and national level. In a number of ways, media appears to be finely tuned to the establishment and goes hand to hand on all matters affecting the state and its citizens.  This form of journalism which sees the ‘state’ and the ‘fourth estate’ as sides of a coin, rather than an independent entity, has been described as ‘Saffron Journalism’. Saffron color in fact is a symbol of right-wing nationalist movement in India. As the ‘yellow kid’ does to the American press during the 19th century, the trend of ‘nationalist’ journalism that is being practiced in India can be best described as ‘saffron’ journalism.

Several factors could be behind the birth of Saffron Journalism in India. Restrictive regulatory policy of the government, media ownership in the hands of politicians and activists, and sense of insecurity of journalists are believed to be few major reasons giving birth to this form of journalism. Besides, there are also pull factors that led to widespread adoption of Saffron Journalism. This new technique helps increase the TRP which is one indicator of growth and ensures better income generation. Moreover, journalists find themselves at the safe side from fringe elements who always pose a threat to them. These provide a favorable condition for Saffron Journalism to thrive.

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