Analysis | India’s BBC Raid Is Just Its Latest Attack on Press

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By Amit


A visit to the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai by income tax officials is drawing international attention to the precarious state of press freedoms in India. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described it euphemistically as a “survey,” which is an unsubtle way to characterize a tax raid.

There’s no subtlety to the timing, either: Three weeks ago, the British broadcaster aired a documentary drawing attention to Modi’s alleged role in deadly sectarian riots that wracked his home state of Gujarat in 2002. Modi is notoriously thin-skinned on this front: His government banned the documentary, and tried to block clips on social media platforms as well as screenings in universities.

Government spokespersons and leaders of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been building a head of steam against the BBC, accusing it of retaining a “colonial mindset.” (The broadcaster has defended the documentary as “rigorously researched according to the highest editorial standards.” The documentary cites a British Foreign Office report, which raises questions about Modi’s actions during the riots, which claimed more than 1,000 victims, mostly Muslims.)

The tax raid, inevitably, was cheered on by the BJP’s vast troll army, which amplifies attacks on Modi’s critics and political rivals. The New York Times editorial board had warned just a day earlier that the government’s attempts to suppress the film were another sign that India’s “proud tradition of a free press” was at risk, undermining its democracy. The raid will doubtless inspire more such alarms from abroad.

But that train has long since left the station. Press freedoms in India have been under attack from the start of the Modi era in 2014. Until recently, the main targets for the intolerance of the government and the wrath of the ruling party were domestic media outlets — especially the local-language press.

I got some glimpses of how this works in an ill-starred stint as editor of Hindustan Times, New Delhi’s leading English-language newspaper. Just two years in power, the Modi government was already demonstrating an intolerance of criticism that was familiar to me from my previous experiences as a foreign correspondent in the dictatorships of the Middle East. Stories deemed embarrassing to the government or the ruling party led routinely to minatory phone calls from ministers and bureaucrats: The threats ranged from the withholding of ads and the pursuit of punitive lawsuits to investigations into my personal finances and those of my family.

And yes, there were dire warnings about income-tax raids.

As an American citizen, I enjoyed a degree of protection not available to other editors. And the pressures against metropolitan, English-language papers were as nothing compared with what my counterparts in the small-town and vernacular press had to endure.

In the years since my departure from Delhi, things have only gotten worse. Cowed into compliance with official diktat, much of India’s media merely cheers on Modi’s abuses of power. Only a few weeks ago, the most prominent of a dwindling category of independent TV networks was acquired by Gautam Adani, the controversial billionaire and longstanding Modi admirer.  

More than any action against prominent foreign media, this campaign of coercion and subversion has imperiled what Indians are proud to call “the world’s largest democracy.” It is no accident that Freedom House has for the past two years rated India as only “partially free”; I would be very surprised if its newest report, expected next month, doesn’t extend the streak.

But Modi has paid no price for the democratic retrenchment that has come to characterize his rule. Neither India’s economy nor its standing in the free world has suffered. 

India’s trajectory resembles that of Turkey, where the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the same combination of economic pressure and intimidation to achieve near-total domination of the media landscape. Media outlets in both countries are vulnerable in similar ways. Their administrations are able to use the leverage that comes from government being a major advertiser to silence criticism. Since media entities are often part of large family-owned conglomerates, the owners are especially susceptible to bullying and blackmail. Independent outlets are bought and muzzled by businessmen keen to curry official favor.

In both countries, governments use tax raids and frivolous lawsuits for harassment. Intimidation of journalists by troll armies is routine. And supporters of the ruling party are not above physical violence against the most stubborn critics.  

India and Turkey have one other thing in common: The indulgence of the West has inculcated a sense of impunity in their leaders. Having received little criticism over his bullying of the Turkish media, Erdogan has been emboldened to target foreign outlets. The raid on the BBC suggests Modi is making the same leap — and with the same confidence that he need not expect any pushback from abroad.    

The British government, keen to strengthen trade ties with India, offered only a pro forma defense of the BBC’s independence, and even this has been undermined by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who told parliament he “did not agree with the characterization” of Modi in the Foreign Office report.

The Biden administration seems to have taken much the same see-no-evil, hear-no-evil stance. State Department spokesman Ned Price responded to a question about the controversy with the blandest of bromides: “We support the importance of a free press around the world.” He softened even this most indirect of criticisms with a homily about “the shared values that enact the United States and India as two thriving, vibrant democracies.” 

Thriving and vibrant India may be. Its democracy, however, is neither of those things.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• India’s Surging Population Is an Economic Virtue: Matthew Winkler

• India May Be Warming to Free Trade But Not for All: Mihir Sharma

• India Is in Danger of Missing Its Big G-20 Moment: Pankaj Mishra

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

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