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A man stands reading a newspaper in front of a kiosk in Haridwar, India, in November 2018 (Mohit Tomar via Unsplash)

Amid Indian Elections, a Crackdown on Foreign Press

During its 10-year tenure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has clamped down on press freedoms at home and abroad.

Words: Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur
Pictures: Mohit Tomar
Date:

Discernibly confident and donning a saffron jacket, a color associated with right-wing Hindu nationalism in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cast his vote early on May 7, during the third phase of more than a month-long general election. 

Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking a consecutive third term against an alliance of more than two dozen opposition parties. During Modi’s 10-year tenure, critics say, the freedom of press and the country’s democratic values have been increasingly compromised, with watchdog organizations noting a concerning trend of increasing restrictions on media outlets critical of the government.  

While Modi has been increasingly tough on media organizations critical of his rule within India, the government has not spared the foreign press either.

Last month, the South Asia bureau chief of Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Avani Dias, who had been based in New Delhi since January 2022, left the country saying officials asked her to depart over a story critical of the government.

“Last week, I had to leave India abruptly. The Modi government told me my visa extension would be denied, saying my reporting ‘crossed a line,’” she wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on April 23. 

Dias claimed that the Indian government restricted her access to events, issued takedown notices to YouTube for her news stories, and made it “too difficult” for her to continue doing her job. According to YouTube’s Community Guidelines Enforcement report released in March, India had the most video takedowns globally with over two million clips removed from October to December 2023.

Shrinking Space for Reporters

Dias had apparently irked the government with a critical news package on the murder of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada she made for an episode of Foreign Correspondent — ABC’s flagship international news program. The union broadcasting ministry blocked the program on YouTube in India, citing the notorious Information Technology Act, 2000 for its “confidential” order.

Dias is the second journalist to leave the country in the last three months, following Vanessa Dougnac, a Delhi-based French journalist who had resided and reported in India for 23 years. 

This February, the Indian government denied Dougnac permission to work and threatened to cancel her Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card, calling her reports “malicious” and harmful to the country’s “sovereignty and integrity.”

The OCI status functions as a lifetime visa for foreign citizens of Indian ancestry or those married to Indian citizens, among other criteria. Until March 2021, journalists holding OCI cards did not require special permission to work in India. However, this changed when the Ministry of Home Affairs notified in March of the same year that OCI card holders would need to obtain special permission to engage in activities such as journalism and research, among others.

Government Intimidation

Experts observe that Dias’s departure follows a series of escalating restrictions faced by foreign correspondents reporting from India, as the Indian government perceives critical reporting by these journalists as “interference” in the country’s domestic affairs. 

A group of 30 foreign correspondents, including Dias, operating in India sent an open letter expressing their strong objection to the government’s measures against them. 

“Foreign journalists in India have grappled with increased restrictions on visas and journalism permits for those holding the status of Overseas Citizen of India,” the letter read, insisting  that Dias’s case was a “cause for concern.”

The journalists urged the Indian government to uphold the vital role of a free press in the country. “We call on the Indian government to facilitate the vital work of a free press in line with India’s democratic traditions,” the letter continued.

The crackdown on foreign media by the current government is unprecedented, particularly in its scale and manner of enforcement.

– Kunal Majumder

Since assuming power in 2014, the Modi government has frequently denied or shortened visas for foreign journalists who publish stories deemed negative and critical of the government, while also restricting access to several parts of the country, including the conflict-ridden Kashmir region.  

“The crackdown on foreign media by the current government is unprecedented, particularly in its scale and manner of enforcement,” said Kunal Majumder, the India representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a global press freedom organization. “These actions not only violate the rights of journalists but also hinder the public’s access to crucial information and diverse viewpoints.” 

Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a national spokesperson for the ruling BJP, refused to comment on allegations that the government has intimidated foreign journalists , claiming he is oblivious of the situation. “I am not aware of the issue,” he said.

Concern among Media Workers

The situation, however, has spread concern among media workers in the country. S Venkat Narayan, the president of the Foreign Correspondents Club in India, said foreign journalists should not worry about visa renewals while doing their job.

“I am really sad … another foreign journalist has left India,” Narayan added. “Recently, we proposed to the government that the duration of visa[s] for foreign journalists should align with their working period in India.” 

Many of the foreign journalists based in India work for international publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times, Le Monde, France 24, The Independent, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. Inkstick reached out to four foreign journalists, who denied a comment even on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared that speaking out could have negative repercussions.

Pliant Press

India is home to a vast and diverse media industry, including more than 100,000 newspapers and 380 TV news channels. However, the large number of corporate-backed media outlets that support Modi’s government has created a challenging environment, even for independent media houses, to critique the ruling government. 

Experts argue that media polarization is evident in India, with a noticeable divide between Indian nationalist media and those the government and its supporters label anti-national media.

“The government’s targeting of foreign journalists could stem from a desire to control the narrative and limit scrutiny from independent media sources,” Majumeder said. “Currently, with independent journalism largely conducted by either local or international media, the government may be attempting to extend its control beyond domestic outlets,” he added.

Indian journalists and media outlets, particularly those critical of the government, have faced major challenges in reporting during the two previous terms of Modi’s administration, including incarceration on terrorism and money laundering allegations, forced self-censorship, and arbitrary raids on journalists’ homes and offices.

Grim Future

More broadly, foreign news outlets have also faced increasing control over their reporting. Tax authorities raided two BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai February last year after a broadcast that examined Modi’s role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which killed almost 1,000 people, the majority of them being Muslims. 

Modi, who was the state’s chief minister at that time of the riots, instantly banned the documentary from airing in India. 

While polls predict a comfortable win for Modi and the BJP in the ongoing election will conclude the first week of June, media watchdog reports anticipate an uncertain and grim future of journalism in India.

The situation is so dire that India ranked 159th out of 176 countries in 2024 in the World Press Freedom Index published annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). India’s “new position is still unworthy of a democracy,” the RSF report stated. “With violence against journalists, highly concentrated media ownership, and political alignment, press freedom is in crisis in the world’s largest democracy.”

Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur

Jyoti Thakur is an independent journalist based in Delhi, India. She writes on gender, environment, politics, and social justice. Hanan Zaffar is a media practioner and documentary filmmaker based out of South Asia. His work has featured in notable international publications like Time Magazine, Al Jazeera, DW News, Business Insider, Newsweek, and TRT World, among others. He is a media researcher at Jindal Institute of Behavioural Sciences, OPJGU.

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