Constitutional Law

The State of Indian Media: Challenges and Possibilities : In Conversation with Ms. Saba Naqvi

Prannv Dhawan

Vidhi Srivastava*


Author, Journalist and Commentator, Saba Naqvi is one of India’s best known political analysts. She has published four books namely, In Good Faith (2012), Capital Conquest (2015), Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi (2018) and, Politics of Jugaad: the Coalition Handbook (2019). The former political editor of Outlook magazine, Saba writes columns in leading national dailies and websites. She is also an election analyst on television and a known political commentator. In this interview, Prannv Dhawan (Founding Editor, Law School Policy Review) seeks her insight on the state of Indian media in 2021, the various challenges it faces presently, and the role of digital media.

Prannv– Thank you so much. Ms. Naqvi for agreeing to speak to us. We are going to be talking about the state of the media today, and to know from your perspective what is it that is ailing the Indian media. How does it affect the actual operation of the right to free speech in the country, whether it has an implication on all citizens uniformly or a particular implication on certain citizens who may be targeted for ideological reasons? So, we’ll be breaking up these questions in part and asking you. So, could you please tell us about what you think is the state of Indian media in 2021?

Ms. Naqvi– Traditional media which is the newspaper industry ( the print industry) is obviously financially very seriously challenged. Even pre-COVID and lockdowns, this was happening because of the technological transformation, shrinking economy. In fact, the economy has been shrinking since Mr. Modi became the Prime Minister, but he remains afloat on a sentiment. Meanwhile, India has not done well economically. In November 2016  demonetisation was a direct blow to the economy and a reflection of the age of poor policies that we live in. Add to that for months and months, newspapers were not being circulated.

Under these circumstances, most of them seem to have decided that it’s necessary to give content and news in a way that the government does not get annoyed and gives them advertising. Today, I give this interview to you when the front page of a newspaper I read every day has a big advertising campaign on Uttar Pradesh CM Adityanath Yogi which is about three, four pages. Similarly, newspapers today are reduced to carrying editorial opinions by BJP ministers. For instance, I noticed in the case of one newspaper, on the day after they carried an opinion piece on their editorial pages by BJP Assam CM Hemanta Biswa Sarma, they had a full-page advertisement given by the Assam Government. It’s quite tragic. I’m not saying the journalists and editors have gone down this path willfully. Maybe it’s the owners and management and the loss of jobs in the industry that has led to the sorry state.

Prannv- What about television?

Ms. Naqvi– The television industry again depends on government ads. So let’s take Hindi and English channels, most of which (with a few notable exceptions) seem to thrive on news that is toxic and contributes to deepening divisions and spreading hate and prejudice. Under the guise of having a debate, they will get a Hindu and Muslim to shout at each other or make it liberals vs RSS/BJP. They thrive on binaries. Nowadays the guests need not shout at each other as the anchors take it upon themselves to shout and scream at Muslims, liberals, Congress and opposition spokespersons, and so on. It’s a completely rigged match for these so-called debates. They search out topics that heighten prejudice against Muslims under the guise of presenting them as a threat to the nation or just putting them in a spot. Simultaneously, they sing praises of the PM, BJP CMs, and anything India’s pre-eminent political party does. They have certainly contributed to religious profiling, hate crimes, and the evolution of the cult of personality around the prime minister.

But in the midst of all this, the only silver lining is the digital media. They are brave and exciting and ready to give a push back to the government-promoted narrative. The primary job of media is now being done not in print (with notable exceptions) and certainly not on TV but by non-traditional media. It is all happening in the digital space on online platforms. This is why the government is now hitting back with FIRs that are frivolously filed from some police station in a BJP ruled state or through ED and Income tax inquiries. So, you are already writing editorials here and there and I think you know that your generation does not read newspapers but gets news on digital platforms.

Prannv – But don’t you think these are the very outlets and entities which are under even more stress not just financially but also because of the state’s reprisal against them. We see the sort of, unleash of the investigative agencies, the operation of the Sedition law, the National Security Act, and the defamation law. As someone who’s been around and seen the situation of free speech rights with respect to defamation laws, where is it that you stand on it at the moment?

Ms. Naqvi–  Yes, I understand as I have just been served a notice in a defamation case because I tweeted an article written by someone else. Before that this year I faced a criminal case and all are linked to who I am, my social media profile, my Twitter account and the belief that targeting me will get some traction for one day. Anyway, in this eco-system, let me carry such complaints like a badge of honor. I have also had so much support and young lawyers writing to represent me pro bono. A lot of love and support also comes your way although dealing with such cases is an ordeal and an education of sorts.

Everyone knows it’s all just harassment. I am fortunate to have legal representation from the amazing Rebecca John and her junior Megha Bahl. On a lighter note let me say that if you don’t have a case against you are you doing your job as a journalist properly? At the very least there should be one FIR from UP police? Naturally, I am joking as many good journalists will not face criminal charges but a minority name is a target these days. I mean, I’m partly joking, but there’s an element of seriousness in what I’m saying.

Prannv– So, how do you think the defamation laws impact a reporter’s right to report or an opinion maker’s right to find, in terms of like how we’ve seen so many of these defamation cases and the sort of impact that they have.

Ms. Naqvi– The Jay Shah story done by the Wire was in the public interest. If you’re a politician, or in this case the son of a politician, you are accountable to the public. But naturally, fighting defamation cases filed by powerful people with unlimited resources is a big hassle but it’s necessary to take the risks in many instances as The Wire did. It’s actually very unfair as no regime wants to answer questions about political finance and in the case of the current regime, it is according to income tax statements and affidavits filed in the Election Commission, the richest party ever. But no questions are welcome. Take the case of the PM Cares fund as the government has just argued in court that it is out of public scrutiny. Take electoral bonds that are again being issued before the next round of elections and in effect, they allow complete secrecy about who is funding political parties. Most of the bonds are going to the BJP and healthy media should run a campaign on this but traditional media just won’t as they are gasping for ads from the government. But digital media will do these stories but they don’t have the army of reporters that traditional media still has. Anyway, there are such big financial scandals that are not reported these days. We have never been in a situation like this.

Prannv– So you think there’s like a lot of opacity around the way government functions.

Ms. Naqvi-. Please remember one thing; that from the time Shri Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India, India had the most expensive election ever in its own history according to documents filed in the Election Commission of India. So, where does all this money come from? All the parties have ensured that there is complete opaqueness about political funding. Then, in 2017 they bought something called electoral bonds. More than 95, to 98% of electoral bonds go to BJP, again, assures anonymity to the donors. Who are these donors who are making sure that India has the costliest election in the world, who are they? The real story actually, away from the communalism and the hate crimes of the age is that the Hindutva is actually financed by big corporates. And that is the story nobody is allowed to do because half these guys own half the media, and the other half are broke and the pushback is very severe. All this is based on data and not my opinion. Look up a Bloomberg article that reports that the 2019 election in India, was more expensive than Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Have you seen this story prominently covered in the Indian media?

Prannv– Yes. Ma’am, related to that, there is a question. So, the Supreme Court has recently observed that the TV channels should not communalise issues disproportionately that impact international standing of the country, and we saw the way communalisation happened in the whole Tablighi Jamaat issue and that has become a reality. It has become a regular issue. The cases are filed and nothing happens. So, what do you think is the right balance to strike between free speech versus social stability, secularism, communal peace. How does one actually go about restraining this rabid Islamophobia, that we see probably not just on Times Now but like on Sudarshan TV and that sort of thing? What exactly is the response to that sort of hatred?

Ms. Naqvi– So, if we wanted to apply the law, there are enough sections of the law against hate speech inciting hatred and all but they are not applied if the perpetrators are from the many extremist Hindu groups that have mushroomed today. So, let me just put it this way, those people who are committing hate crimes or openly abusing Muslims are the Ku Klux Klan version of the right-wing of the Conservative Party who will back the conservative Donald Trump campaign. So, the extremists may not formally be BJP members but are backers and foot soldiers of the same enterprise. Just as Donald Trump could not really speak out against racism, here the rulers in Delhi cannot speak out against communalism as it facilitates their politics. There was a case when recently somewhere in Delhi one inspector got very tough with people bullying a Muslim guy. It was captured on camera but later I read that the policeman was transferred on some other grounds. Even those who want to be fair-minded like the police or the law enforcement agencies, today, they’ll be looking over their backs when punishing Hindu mobs attacking Muslims.

Prannv– So there’s like a disincentive to be secular.

Ms. Naqvi– Yes, there’s a disincentive. Just sit quietly, don’t protect the Muslims or other minorities. Certainly, don’t file a case against those who are bashing him up, unless somebody in power tells you to do so for a day in some state as a face-saving device. Now, the issue is not about the law, to answer your question, it’s about those who are imposing them and the pressures on them.

Prannv– So, there was a study by Oxfam on the lack of representation in the media industry. We just spoke about savarna media and why is that. In other countries, they have ensured quota systems or other diversity and inclusion policies to ensure that even the public sphere, as a representative public opinion. What do you think can be actually done to make public opinion more representative?

Ms. Naqvi– I think the media is one of the last remaining outposts of the higher castes. You have entire bureaus in newspapers where every member will be a Brahmin. It’s extraordinary to my mind that the media that holds forth on the world does not reflect on its own structures. How do you tell the stories of all the people if a narrow clique of some people constitutes the media? It’s something for all of us to reflect on.  What is happening now is the emergence of entirely separate Dalit media with lively platforms such as  National Dastak, Dalit camera, and so on. They created media of their own because they were not given space in mainstream media.

Prannv– There’s also Milli Gazette, it’s an old newspaper.

Ms. Naqvi– Muslims still had some presence in Indian media but Dalits and Tribals have traditionally had none.

Vidhi Srivastava (Editor, LSPR) provided editorial assistance for this interview.