Ranjona Banerji: The Joke’s On Us

20 Nov,2020

By Ranjona Banerji


Every once in a while, a government gifts to sections of society moments of high jollity. That moment came for India’s media this week. No less a personage than the Union Home Minister Amit Shah declaimed that the Modi Government was committed to media freedom and it strongly opposed those who try to throttle said freedom. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi then added to this joke by congratulating the media on its coverage of Covid-19.


I know, I know. The Joke’s on us. Even Indira Gandhi’s Emergency wasn’t as bad for press freedom as Modi’s two reigns. And the Emergency lasted for considerably less time. Under Modi, we have seen India’s press freedom index plummet year on year. Journalists are constantly jailed. Threatened. Harassed. Murdered.

Of course, if you read between the lines, you know exactly what Modi and Shah mean. They’re talking about the toxic rightwing channels and sites which get into trouble very occasionally for their vile appropriation of journalism. Like Sudarshan News or Republic TV or OpIndia and so on. The BJP applauds these propaganda outlets the way you patronisingly pat a stray dog on the head. Modi has made it clear to an interview to Reuters a few years ago that he only feels marginally bad when his car runs over puppies. So, a metaphorical dog if you will. These outlets having got their go-ahead and a promise of scraps at the next selfie meeting, now carry on with their lies and attacks with renewed vigour.

If you venture a little further, you may stumble upon Modi’s use of “positive criticism” when it comes to Covid coverage. This is another one of those dog whistles to the media, a warning that it must know its limits. It means ignore those briefings about the spread and containment of Covid19 that stopped. It means ignore those journalists who were pulled up for too much questioning of official figures. It means ignore falling test rates and increasing problems of healthcare professionals. For fear of falling incomes and malicious action, many mainstream media outlets will hold even further back from criticism, even of the “positive” variety.


And thus you will see this blank, bland reporting of the Indian Army’s clarifications on its actions or lack of actions across the Line of Control across Pak-Occupied Kashmir. The Indian media has loudly reported on these actions, based apparently on a PTI report. PTI must have got the information from somewhere. And if we are to believe that the entire Indian media amplified the PTI report minus even a single outlet cross-checking the matter, then the collapse of the Indian media is even worse than I suspected.

Or, is it that someone within Government wanted some traction and/or brownie points and therefore put out the news only for someone else to see that there would be unwanted repercussions?

In another world, the Indian media would have questioned the change in stance. I still, ahem, await that.





And at the end, this sad bit of news. Legendary editor Patricia Mukhim has resigned from the Editors Guild of India claiming double standards when it comes to the Guild’s support to her or lack of support actually and its instant support to Arnab Goswami. And there is no doubt that she is correct in this accusation. Especially when you consider that Goswami is not even a journalist and had dramatically resigned from the Guild on air.


Many of us expected the Guild’s new leadership would end the government-support programme under the earlier regime and shift to a journalism-support strategy.

Knowing some of them, I still have hope. It’s not too late but it soon will be…


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



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