Exporting Censorship

Tactics used to intimidate journalists in India are being replicated abroad

In Canada, several journalists and media outlets have been facing pressure from Indian high-commission officials to drop critical stories about Narendra Modi. mark blinch / reuters
01 December, 2019

In 2014, the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on a North American tour, his first visit after the revocation of a nearly-ten-year visa ban. He received an overwhelming welcome from the Indian diaspora at Madison Square Garden in New York, and largely favourable press coverage in the media. At the time, in Canada, the journalist Gurpreet Singh was preparing to present his radio show in Vancouver. The programme was to feature, among others, someone who was planning to protest Modi’s tour. Singh started receiving express instructions from his colleagues not to have anyone—or any content—critical of the prime minister on air. These, we were to understand, were the wishes of the owner of the radio channel. The pressure was being created through the Indian high commission. Singh went ahead with his plan anyway, and was fired. I was working as an India correspondent for the same radio network at the time. In protest, I handed in my resignation.

Another journalist from Canada, Tejinder Kaur, faced similar circumstances. Kaur had prepared a radio report called “2002 Gujarat Massacre.” The radio-station owner and officials from the Indian high commission raised objections. “I have been targeted because I raised issues of human rights and participated in the protest against Modi’s North American tour,” Kaur told me. “I have also been instructed on what and what not to write on social-media accounts. I was asked to not criticise Modi. I told them clearly that this is my personal medium.” Following this, her organisation told her to take a holiday. “I took a stand: either I do the show, or else I resign,” she said. “Ultimately, I had to leave the radio.”

The silencing of independent journalists by the ruling government seems an ordinary occurrence in India by now. In his entire tenure, Modi has never held a press conference, only accepting interviews with pre-vetted questions. Anyone critical of the government, or not toeing the line, faces vicious smear campaigns and trolling, and frequently the loss of their job. For instance, Punya Prasun Bajpai, an anchor for the national news channel ABP, was asked to leave the organisation after he aired a show interrogating Modi’s claims about employment generation through the government’s skill-development programme. He had been told by the channel’s proprietor that while it was okay to name other ministers and be critical of policies, he must not name Modi. This climate of intimidation and fear under the Modi government has received wide coverage in the international media. The country slipped down the rankings to 140, out of 180 countries, on the world press-freedom index in 2019. Before this year’s general election, Aatish Taseer wrote the cover story for Time magazine on Modi, in which he called him “divider-in-chief.” Later this year, his Overseas Citizen of India card was revoked by the Indian government, thus banning him from entering the country again.

What is surprising is how this repression is spilling beyond its national borders. The trolling of Indian journalists online parallels a new trend in the foreign media. If a host of a radio or television talk show critiques the Indian government or Narendra Modi, then people connected to the Sangh or the Bharatiya Janata Party start calling or messaging the host with insulting comments. Recently, when the Pakistani-origin Canadian-Punjabi journalist Haroon Ghafar asked a question at the press conference about the atrocities inflicted by the Indian army on the women of Kashmir, Purushottam Goyal, the head of the BJP-associated Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, abused him. Many journalists working with the NRI media in Canada told me about how their organisations are being pressured by the Indian high commission to drop critical stories about Modi. Many argued that though there was similar coercion during the Manmohan Singh government, the situation has worsened under Modi’s rule.