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How Free Is the Fourth Estate? A Discussion about India’s Media Environment

This event convened experts to explore the challenges within India’s robust media environment and the implications for democracy in that country, while also placing India’s press in a broader global context.

Date & Time

Nov. 18, 2019
9:30am – 11:00am ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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India’s large and dynamic media market boasts thousands of newspapers, several hundred news channels, and innumerable news websites. Yet it also ranks 40th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index -- and journalists, activists, and researchers express increasing concerns its independence. This event convened experts to explore the challenges within India’s robust media environment and the implications for democracy in that country, while also placing India’s press in a  a broader global context.

Selected Quotes

Neha Dixit, Independent Journalist

“It’s been increasingly difficult for journalists in India to be able to put out any kind of ground report, any kind of investigative report, which has facts and evidence that can be debated in the public domain. And a lot of that has to do with thr fact that we have an increasingly capitalist media, with a structure with a corporate/political nexus in it, which gives space to opinion, which is also a global trend. So, there’s more space for opinion journalism rather than ground reports.”

“It is not just me. Several journalists in India are facing this. The cases are filed far away. The new pattern in this current regime is that, apart from the defamation case, they also file a criminal case along with it, against journalists. And that makes it not just a press freedom issue, but they can always manipulate it, and say there’s something else, some crime on the side going on. So that is a new pattern.”

“We are living in times where… it’s a post-truth world, with just opinion, and no facts and evidence. But the government is not just targeting individuals…. They don’t want journalists to talk about certain issues which are off their agenda….The idea is not just specifically targeting journalists, but also creating an atmosphere where you cannot talk about the marginalized, where you cannot talk about people who are not part of the Hindutva agenda right now in India.”

Aliya Iftikhar, Senior Asia Researcher, Committee to Protect Journalists

“It’s not just about the threat of imprisonment when these cases are filed….When defamation cases or these criminal charges are filed against journalists in India, that itself is a form of harassment, because the legal system can be quite slow.”

“Dozens and dozens of journalists…have been fighting legal cases for many years. It can be a huge drain financially to travel to these courts to appear for your court hearings, and mainly, it also takes away time from journalists and media outlets to do their job, which is reporting.”

"That’s probably one of the biggest threats to press freedom, not just in India, but internationally, right now; setting the precedent that a country that calls itself the world’s largest democracy can completely cut off an entire region from access to information or ability to communicate.”

“The question I keep asking them is: ‘How long? How long can you keep an entire region – eight million-plus people – under a complete blackout, and completely curtail any voices coming out of the region?’ And that’s really what this is all about, ultimately. India very much wants to control the narrative around Kashmir.”

“There’s no direct censorship, I can put it that way…. The state or politicians or anyone is not directly telling journalists what to write, but they’re creating an environment that makes it incredibly difficult.”

Irfan Nooruddin, Former Fellow, Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council and Hamad bin Khalifa Professor of Indian Politics, Georgetown University

“The press, when it works, is counter-majoritarian, as are most of the supporting institutions of democracy. This is very difficult. It’s not just difficult in India, it’s difficult all over the world, because to be counter-majoritarian means that you’re always making enemies – not just of the powerful, but, in fact, of those who support the powerful.”

"If I think about media environment as Arnab Goswani and Republic TV and fifteen talking heads…all yelling at each other, it’s very hard to have any optimism about India’s media. But if you think about the media environment as including vernacular press, local journalists in small towns and cities across India, bringing stories about the plight of farmers, corruption and the nexus of corruption between local politicians and local bureaucrats and business and corporate interests, and the access of those very brave journalists have to getting their stories out...I think there’s a much more optimistic story to be told; at least there’s reason for hope, right? Without denying all the incredible difficulties journalists in any in any of those domains face, the bulk of those media are still telling really important stories.”

“When you think of the Fourth Estate, what we are really thinking about it as a check and balance on government, right? In that sense, I think of the press like the courts, even maybe like bureaucracy, as being a fundamentally counter-majoritarian role in protecting democracy. When the majority wins, they get to put their people in power, but the core principle of constitutional democracy is that just having power for these five years doesn’t mean that you get to rewrite all the rules.”

“There are no governments that are fans of the press, if the press is doing its job. That’s sort of almost definitional over here….The free press makes enemies of the powerful, and that’s the way, in some sense, that it should be.”

“The corporatization, the media conglomerates, and the fact that politicians, especially at the regional level, have major stakes in significant media ventures, means that the confluence of media and politics is much cozier, and, therefore, much less healthy.”

“We can’t have an independent media that’s going to be the Fourth Estate that checks the government, if government both owns them and is their primary customer. Media, in this sense, is truly between a rock and a hard place in a way that doesn’t seem very sustainable.”

“One of the challenges for elections in the twenty-first century is that the stakes of elections are both very small – and all the marbles. They’re very small in that the role of government in most developing countries is shrunk. They don’t have the fiscal space, they don’t have the revenues to actually do large projects. So most citizens turn to the private sector or NGOs for healthcare, for education. We essentially have exited the public state…. If you can’t compete, on the basis of, ‘Here’s a big public policy agenda I’m going to pursue, because I’ve got tax revenues,’ what do you compete on? What you compete on is identity issues.”

“Maybe we should stop focusing so much just on the government as the bad guys in enforcing this, and think about the society and the business structure of media … We could have a completely pro-free press government; we could still have the same rot in the media because it’s from the bottom up.”

Shanthi Kalathil, Senior Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies, National Endowment for Democracy

“Mediating the media is supposed to be a space that acts between various layers of society, [that] mediates the information and makes sense of it. But, increasingly, what we’ve seen around the world is a trend of disintermediation, meaning that the media is becoming thinned out, and that there is no longer this mediating layer between state and society, between different actors, and essentially everyone is able now to participate in the information space to some degree.”

“What we’ve seen is a proliferation of challenges that link to the ease of manipulation of that information ecosystem, and, unfortunately, these types of manipulation, the lack of transparency, and the increased opportunity for all sorts of powerful actors to play in this space without transparency, has led to a set of systematic challenges to democracy around the world. So, not just in India, but in all sorts of other democracies.”

“We’re seeing an internet shutdown right now in Iran, in fact. And so, you see this being relied on much more frequently as a very blunt, very force-driven, tool of censorship. The problem, of course, is that there are all sorts of, not just human rights impacts, but daily life impacts; sometimes, real human security impacts that go unnoticed when you have these broad internet shutdowns.”

“At the other end of the scale is very fine-tuned censorship, whereby, particularly authoritarian governments, have been able to use the tools of the information space to censor material in ways that makes it almost seamless or invisible through sort of different layers of censorship, as well as working through institutions such as the media corporations and so on.”

Image: Debasmita19/Shutterstock

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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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