In Modi’s India, the press is more imperilled than ever

The hounding of media website NewsClick is a form of McCarthyism, writes a former editor of the Hindu

August 24, 2023
Narendra Modi. Image: ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Narendra Modi. Image: ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

The Indian constitution guarantees “freedom of speech and expression” for its citizens. This is a fundamental right. But based on the assault against the free press in India in recent times, you wouldn’t know it.

The targeting of NewsClick—a progressive, medium-sized digital media venture based in New Delhi—marks a new low for press freedom in my country, which has been caught up in a decade-long trend of uninterrupted downsliding in the “new India” of Narendra Modi. We have witnessed a state-engineered McCarthyite campaign of disinformation, scaremongering and vilification against NewsClick, together with the ever-present threat of criminal prosecution for its founder. The world should be watching in horror. 

Founded in 2009, NewsClick, which is owned by a small private company and works on a modest budget, is managed in its day-to-day operations by an editorial collective. Its founder and editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, is an engineer by background, an advocate for various scientific initiatives in the software, power and telecommunications sectors, and an influential intellectual of the Indian left. The news site prides itself on being able to bring its readers, viewers, and listeners “stories from the real India”. It focusses on reporting, analysing, and commenting on movements and struggles at home and in other parts of the world. It regularly presents critical and progressive voices on a range of issues from around India. Apart from this, it offers serious coverage of science and technology and has taken a few strides in the field of data journalism. Unsurprisingly, NewsClick has been opposed to the Modi government’s authoritarian “Hindutva”—or Hindu-supremacist—political agenda, and is critical of the policies that derive from it. 

Access to the reports, analyses, and daily updates is free and the business model, if it can be called that, is based on garnering subscriptions for exclusive subscriber content and perks; sales of journalistic content to customers abroad; and attracting a measure of private investment to support its operations and expand its footprint. What is clear is that this digital media venture, although not a non-profit, is not motivated by profit. 

NewsClick’s big journalistic moment came during the mass protest by Indian farmers in 2020–2021 against three new agricultural laws. Its grassroots-up, comprehensive and sympathetic coverage of the movement and the issues at stake, in Hindi as well as in English, was widely followed. This coverage surpassed the efforts of the big media players—newspapers as well as television channels—and is perceived to have contributed in some measure to the success of the movement and the repeal of the unpopular laws. 

What triggered the Indian government’s McCarthyite campaign was an investigative story by the New York Times that was a curious mixture of fact-finding (some of it interesting), ideologically charged innuendo, and, in places, tall conclusions drawn from seemingly innocuous happenings and mostly thin evidence. Titled “A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a US Tech Mogul”, the story claimed to have uncovered “a lavishly funded influence campaign that defends China and pushes its propaganda”, at the centre of which is “a charismatic American millionaire, Neville Roy Singham, who is known as a socialist benefactor of far-left causes”—as though this were an indictable offence. (I should declare that I happen to know Singham). The article makes two casual references to NewsClick—that it had been raided by Indian authorities and that “Mr Singham’s network” had financed the news site, which had “sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points.” The New York Times is a serious outfit and some of these issues are serious. Its lazy references to NewsClick were not serious.

Significantly, the article does not allege that NewsClick violated any law. Had the investigative journalists probed deeper or contacted the editors or management of the digital news site, they would have been assured that the particulars of the investment by a Singham-financed company had been declared to the authorities in compliance with the law; that there was no question of “money laundering” as alleged by India’s Enforcement Directorate, which had undertaken a politically motivated raid in February 2021 and had come up with nothing; that the High Court of Delhi, finding a prima facie case in favour of NewsClick, had granted interim protection from arrest to Purkayastha and more broadly protected the media organisation from coercive action by the Enforcement Directorate; and that a lower court had dismissed a complaint made by income tax authorities against the organisation on a related matter. Viewed comprehensively, I believe NewsClick’s position looks solid. 

As for the news site sprinkling its coverage with “Chinese government talking points”, the only exhibit the New York Times journalists have been able to come up with is a celebratory and admittedly uncritical video posted by the site in October 2019 to mark “70 years of the Chinese revolution” and the transformations that had been wrought over the period.

But the spark the New York Times story provided was all that was needed by the right-wing political ecosystem that currently prevails in India. The influencers and the “bhakts”, as the fanaticised followers of the Hindutva cause are known, went wild on social media platforms, making fantastic allegations relating to the supposed danger to India’s national security that had been exposed by the US newspaper and baying for the blood of NewsClick and the people behind it. A section of the mainstream media, especially a couple of television channels that are notorious for acting as propagandists for the government, have joined this campaign, putting out misleading information obligingly leaked by the investigating agency. A 250-strong group of retired bureaucrats, retired judges, military veterans and some others have written a letter to the president of India, Droupadi Murmu—with a copy sent to the chief justice of India—demanding action against the “traitors” to the nation. In this charged atmosphere, the Enforcement Directorate has approached the High Court of Delhi, before a new judge, claiming it has fresh material and asking for the interim stay on coercive action against NewsClick to be lifted.  

Fortunately, the campaign of solidarity with this progressive news site is gaining momentum and turning into a wider campaign for media freedom in India. While protesting the vicious targeting of NewsClick, a public statement issued by more than 750 signatories—journalists (including this writer), leaders of people’s movements, a former high court judge, lawyers, scientists, academics, writers, filmmakers, artists and actors—draws out the wider implications of such actions for a constitutional democracy. The number of statements of protest and expressions of concern on a wide range of media-related issues put out in recent months by the Editors Guild of India points to a deeper malaise in the polity than anyone could have imagined even half a decade ago. India’s rank of 161 among 180 countries and territories in the Reporters sans frontières World Press Freedom Index 2023 may shock, but should surprise no one who follows these issues. 

Now the battle lines are drawn, and a number of new voices are speaking up for what is their right—the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right to “freedom of speech and expression”, of which press freedom is an indispensable part.