Ranjona Banerji: Authoritarianism UnLtd

12 Jul,2019

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Government advertising banned: Check.

Newsprint price raised: Check.

Media access withdrawn: Check.

Silly sops provided to silence opposition: Check.

In four easy steps, the Narendra Modi government has made its intention vis-à-vis the media extremely clear. Should one have to spell it out for those who insist on being obtuse? Vindictive, secretive, undemocratic, authoritarian, patronising. The underlying threat is in Bold Caps for all those who dare to even question the government.

Perhaps one cannot blame the Modi government? Over the last five years, large swathes of the media have been so obsequious, so genuflecting, so cheerleading that anyone who raises even a minor question is portrayed as an evil anti-national, whose only desire is to break India into bits. The arrogance of this government coupled with the unprofessionalism of the Hindutva rightwing media has brought us to this pass.

The stupidity of cheerleading was showcased in its embarrassing glory when on Wednesday, a news channel put out the idea that Mr Modi should be sent into bat for India as the Indian cricket team’s batting line up crumbled against New Zealand in the ongoing World Cup. Even as a joke, it was not that funny. And the level of sycophancy would make even Uriah Heep cringe.

The fact that Mr Modi did not hold even one press conference in his first term was seen as a sign of strength by some journalists. As if refusing to speak to them showed his great superman status. Hero worship masquerading as editorship.

Now, Modi’s government has tried to change old practices so that journalists cannot access the finance ministry without prior appointments. Even the distinctly venerable and pusillanimous Editors Guild has been pushed to chastise the government for this latest action:

“The Editors Guild of India condemns the Union finance ministry’s arbitrary decision to deny even government-accredited journalists’ access to its offices in North Block, without prior appointment. The Guild has no dispute with the ministry that journalists should behave with restraint and responsibility while enjoying their access to the finance ministry. But a blanket order is not the answer. Journalists do not go to government offices to enjoy the comforts and hospitality of visitors’ rooms designated for them. They go to perform their challenging job of news gathering. This order is a gag on media freedoms and can even result in a further fall in India’s global press freedom rankings, especially as the contagion can easily spread to other ministries as well. If the finance minister believes that journalists’ access to government offices was causing some inconveniences, the system could be improved in discussions with journalists. The Guild urges the finance minister, Ms Nirmala Sitharaman, to reconsider her decision and withdraw this decision.”

There was no statement from the Guild when government advertising was withdrawn from certain media groups nor indeed on the increase of customs duty on imported newsprint. Perhaps the Indian Newspaper Association will wake up on that one. They usually react badly to price hikes when it affects them.

The biggest achievement of the Modi government’s second term so far – inasmuch as Modi was not sent into bat for India by the BCCI — has been the lacklustre Union Budget presented by Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman. That is obviously why media access to the finance ministry has been curtailed. Questions are unacceptable to a fascist regime, whether asked of the Prime Minister or anyone else.

Forget all the big talk and hot air about the Emergency and how everyone in the BJP fought against it. That was then. In the here and now, this government and the BJP has made its authoritarian agenda clear.

The more the media buckles down, the closer we reach the end of democracy. Even the Editors Guild has understood that. Figure that.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

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