The Guillotine or slow bleed?

Jun 26, 2023
By Kalpana Sharma

The guillotine or a slow bleed? A sane person would choose neither. More so if they lived in a country that they believed was a democracy. Yet, in democratic India, the very concept of press freedom has faced both – a dramatic cessation and a gradual, though deliberate, suffocation.


As we approach the 48th anniversary of “The Emergency”, the state of emergency invoked by then prime minister Indira Gandhi on the night of June 25, 1975, we should reflect on the past, but also ask whether the lessons from that past have informed this country’s future trajectory.


In June 1975, freedom of the press was suspended. It suddenly did not exist anymore. We were told that if you wrote critically about the government, you could personally face arrest, as well as the closure of the publication for which you wrote. In those days, the media consisted only of print. A nascent television (Doordarshan), and radio (All India Radio) were entirely controlled by the government.


Editors and journalists were arrested, even before they had a chance to write a word. Publications closed, either out of choice because they did not wish to be censored or were compelled to do so because they had violated censorship laws or were rendered financially unviable.


Smaller publications, often gutsier and more willing to speak up than the larger ones, were the most vulnerable. They depended on “goodwill” advertising, which is not determined by circulation figures. They also received advertisements from public sector companies and banks. The latter were ordered not to advertise in these publications and the former, mostly private companies, were told that if they continued, they did so at their own risk. Most chose not to take the risk.


All this was then. When press freedom was virtually guillotined.


Today, press freedom is intact, apparently. But it has slowly bled since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi, won the majority in Parliament.  What remains can only be revived with a huge infusion of fresh blood.


The most dramatic change has taken place in television, a medium that reaches the maximum audience compared to other media in India.  Pre-2014, privately owned television channels were highly critical of the government of the day, at that time the United Progressive Alliance led by Dr Manmohan Singh.  Every mistake, imagined or otherwise, was amplified and discussed in detail.


Print media undertook investigations into corruption, exposed the shortcomings of government programmes, poked holes in government propaganda and highlighted human rights violations.


Post-2014, most mainstream television channels appeared to do a complete turnaround. Initially it was awe and praise for the ruling party and its leader. When Modi announced demonetisation overnight in 2016, there was barely a critical voice heard on these channels. They gave Modi the benefit of the doubt and allowed airtime for him to put forward his point of view. But only that viewpoint was heard. There was practically nothing about how millions of ordinary people suffered the consequences of this decision.


Till then, print media continued to provide space for critical comment and reporting. But even then, you could see that these spaces were shrinking.


By 2019, when the BJP returned with a much larger majority in Parliament, the change in the media was almost universal.  Television became an extension of the government’s propaganda machine.  It fuelled narratives, especially the Hindutva agenda of demonising Muslims, that the government and the ruling party wanted amplified. And it literally drowned out the few token voices that were willing to say something to the contrary.


Some of this was the consequence of owners of these channels being convinced that the BJP and Modi were the answer for India. And some from the pressures of business and the fear that falling foul of a powerful government would not serve their best interests.  Whatever the reasons, or a combination thereof, by 2019 the capitulation of mainstream TV, barring one channel, was almost complete. This was finally completed in December 2022, when that last, lonely, critical voice was muffled by a business ally of Modi taking it over.


Print media does not have the reach of television.  Some spaces remain for critical writing and opinion. But they are shrinking by the day as these media houses become increasingly dependent on government advertising. Private advertisers must also be watching their backs, much as they did during the Emergency, by not being seen to support critical media.


The equivalent of the small publications that stood up and spoke out during the Emergency, are the digital news platforms. At the moment, these are virtually the only spaces where legitimate criticism of government policy and programmes, and of human rights violations, can be reported.  Their financial future is precarious given the government’s ability to pressure anyone supporting any form of dissent.


Yet, although the reach of these platforms is nowhere close to that of television, the current government is determined to restrict their reach even further.  This has come in the form of a proposed amendment to the IT rules that allows the government to set up a “Fact Checking Unit”. This body can decide that anything reported on a government programme is “fake”, “false” or “misleading” and compel any intermediary or social media platform to take it down.  Currently, this amendment is being challenged in court. But if it were to go through, it would be a virtual death blow for independent digital platforms that depend on social media to distribute their content.


Indira Gandhi had proclaimed that she invoked the emergency to “save democracy”. The Modi government believes that every draconian step it takes is saving, what it chooses to call the “mother of democracy”.


The intent is the same; only the methods differ. By learning from the past, this government has realised that it has no need to guillotine press freedom. It merely needs to bleed it slowly till the concept itself becomes lifeless.


(Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist, author, and columnist. She was editor of Himmat Weekly during the Emergency).