The Indian government’s decision to stop buying adverts in three major newspaper groups has drawn a spotlight on a system that critics say is used by the state to control media coverage.
Last week it was reported that prime minister Narendra Modi’s administration had frozen all advertising spending with the publishers of the Times of India, The Hindu and The Telegraph, three of the country’s highest circulation English-language outlets.
The decision appears to have come after all three papers published articles or a series of articles that irritated the central government.
The government has strongly denied using advertising expenditure to influence editorial content, saying the existence of critical stories in Indian media is evidence enough that this does not happen.
But speaking to The Independent, Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific bureau head, Daniel Bastard, said: “Rewarding or punishing media outlets through the allocation or non-allocation of advertising by the government is common practice, and an effective way to [make them] toe their editorial line.”
He added that it was this political leverage over the media that has seen India under Modi constantly drop places in the organisation’s World Press Freedom Index.
India ranked 80th of 139 countries surveyed when the index began in 2002. This year it ranked 140th, behind the likes of Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Myanmar and South Sudan.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, a senior MP with the opposition Congress party, called the move “undemocratic and megalomaniac”, telling parliament it appeared to be “a message to media from this government to toe its line”.
The scale of government advertising in Indian newspapers would be unthinkable in many developed nations.
Reuters, which first reported on the freeze, estimated government spending accounted for 15 per cent of all advertising revenues for the Times of India newspaper group and for the ABP Group, which publishes The Telegraph.
Some of this comes in the form of government tenders for contracts, but a lot of it is to publicise and extol the virtues of government schemes, often accompanied by an image of Modi himself.
The administration went on an advertising blitz in the 10 days before campaigning rules kicked in for the May general election, placing more than 160 adverts in just three leading papers, of which 93 were full-page.
“Most featured a picture of Modi and highlighted government initiatives,” the Reuters news agency reported at the time, but they also highlighted party-political campaign issues, including that Modi was “putting farmers first” and “national security is top priority”.
In a nation where all political parties invest in newspaper advertising, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has become “one of, if not the largest advertiser in the country” in its own right, according to Bastard.
To an outsider, the extent of government advertising in India has to be seen to be believed, according to Ashish Malhotra, an Indian-American journalist who worked at another leading English-language daily, The Hindustan Times.
“It’s just considered normal here for full-page adverts to be the front cover of a newspaper – you’d have to turn the page to get the real front page stories underneath,” he said.
“These could even be political ads – often by the government. Nobody really questions it or what it says about the state of Indian media.”
It is easy to see how such financial clout could be abused.
The Telegraph, based in Kolkata some 1,500km away from the Delhi seat of central government power, is well known for its powerful front pages taking critical stances against the government.
In March, its creative “WANTED: JAWAHARLAL NEHRU” poster front page was widely seen as mocking Modi for blaming all India’s recent troubles on Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who died in 1964.
Two company executives told Reuters their advertising revenues from the government had been waning for around six months.
“Once you don’t toe the government line in your editorial coverage and you write anything against them, then obviously the only way they can penalise you (is) to choke your advertising supply,” an ABP official said.
The Hindu has been at the forefront of reporting a series of investigations into the Rafale scandal, allegations of government wrongdoing over a multi-billion pound deal to buy combat planes from a French manufacturer. The government rejected the accusations and the Supreme Court decided against ordering an inquiry.
The Times of India is the country’s largest circulation English daily, and the Times Group also publishes another major paper, The Economic Times.
“There is a freeze,” one executive told Reuters. “Could be (because of) some reports they were unhappy with.”
Bastard claims the most clear-cut case of the government withdrawing funding from newspapers over their editorial coverage comes in Kashmir, where two major regional papers that had been closely following separatist agitation in the valley were then “deprived of state advertising”.
Rouf Bhat, a communications and media studies academic at the University of Kashmir, told The Independent that The Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader had not published any single “scathing” story critical of the government that could have led to a ban on their own.
“But we also have to understand that the media and state administration do not share a very healthy relationship in Kashmir,” he said.
“The state has on and off resorted to different means, including economic sanctions and an [outright] ban on publishing, to make Kashmiri media fall in line.
Bhat said a nadir was reached in 2016 when the government invoked a colonial law to stop the Kashmir Reader going to print, saying that the newspaper’s coverage of riots was itself “inciting violence”.
“Bans on media in Kashmir have a direct link to the conflict. It is a potent tool to stop the world from knowing about the situation in Kashmir,” he said.
A spokesman for the BJP, Nalin Kohli, said the press in India remained fully free, pointing to the ample criticism against the ruling party in newspapers and on TV news channels.
“That’s testimony to freedom of speech,” he said. “The suggestion that the BJP is throttling free press is ridiculous.”
But in his resignation speech as leader of the opposition Congress party this week, Rahul Gandhi cited the freedom of the press as an example of a “capture of power” perpetrated by the BJP over national institutions.
Gandhi argued that May’s election, in which Congress was badly beaten, was not free and fair.
“A free and fair election requires the neutrality of a country’s institutions; an election cannot be fair without arbiters – a free press, an independent judiciary and a transparent election commission.”
Modi had, Gandhi claimed, “marshalled every institution [of the state] against the opposition” on his way to winning an emphatic second term.
“It is now crystal clear that our once cherished institutional neutrality no longer exists in India,” he said.
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