The Indian government’s move to censor and regulate media has been termed authoritarian by many but is actually part of a blueprint that was drafted during the middle of the pandemic. A detailed report released by The Caravan outlines a Group Of Ministers (GoM) who made a report on government communication and controlling critical voices in media.
The report speaks about monitoring anti-government fake news in the same breath as seemingly promoting fake news outlets that suit the narrative.
The Union ministers who wrote this report were Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Smriti Irani, Prakash Javadekar, and S Jaishankar. It also had ministers of state Kiren Rijiju, Hardeep Singh Puri, Babul Supriyo, and Anurag Thakur.
The report essentially details how the government should push out news about its ‘positive initiatives’ to the media. Referred to in the document as the ‘10 big initiatives, this is still a normal governmental initiative. Many governments have action plans to outline their initiatives to the people.
Where the document seemingly takes a sinister note is when it talks about journalists and media criticism about the government. An observation by Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi that also states the core concerns of the report is, “We should have a strategy to neutralize the people who are writing against the Government without facts and set false narratives / spread fake news.”
However, the idea of fake news is not clearly defined in any way, with the only parameter seemingly being that anything critical of the government to be fake news. The same report allegedly had several quotes from journalists who attended the meetings. Nupur Sharma, the editor of Op-India recommended the promotion of online portals like Op-India.
This sentiment was echoed in the report, which stated that to “Promote Online Portals- It is needed to promote and support online portals (like Op India) as most of the existing online portals are critical of Government.”
What is important to note here is that Op India is known for publishing Right-Wing Hindutva propaganda, most of which is often fake or unverified. Therefore, the same document that preaches to battle fake news is promoting fake news that suits its narratives. Therefore, the report only focuses on targeting media portals and organizations that go against the government narrative.
The report also laid down a set of observations made in these meetings by journalists who attended. The report didn’t attribute any individual journalist to this quote, and the collective observations according to the report were:
“Around 75% of media persons are impressed by the leadership of Shri Narendra Modi and are ideological with the party…. We should form different groups of these persons and communicate with them regularly….Interactions with foreign media should stop as it turning out to be counter-productive.” A lot of the statements attributed to journalists have been denied or debunked in this article by Newslaundry.
With all the talk about toolkits by the Indian government, this report should be seen as the government toolkit to peddle their narrative and punish/shutdown critical voices in the media. The government has already taken steps to control digital and social media through the recent Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines And Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 which can now censor OTT and online media platforms.
This report is also allegedly a part of a bigger push to manufacture consent towards the government’s policies and punish critics. It should be viewed along with the trial program launched by the Ministry of Home Affairs where ‘citizen volunteers (read: online vigilantes) can report anything that they find to be anti-national.
This toolkit and its latest tools on digital media have already claimed victims, with ‘The Frontier Manipur’ being the first to be targetted with a notice. However, the notice was rescinded after nationwide outrage. However, if many organizations are targeted, not all of them will be able to avoid the grasp of what’s being perceived as an authoritarian regime.
Some of the other suggestions in the report included tracking ‘50 positive influencers’ and ‘50 negative influencers.’ The process of tracking and neutralizing critical voices also goes deeper. In the report, Nitin Gokhale, formerly with NDTV suggested colour-coding journalists into white (supportive), green (fence-sitters), and black (against).
Hypothetically and the most probable outcome of the government’s use of this data would be to harass, intimidate, or sabotage journalists who don’t tie the line through overt or covert means. In a covert sense, the government, crony capitalist in nature, can easily ask corporations to not give ad revenue to XYZ media outlets.
With media in the hands of the corporates and subject to the whims of the ruling party, free media in India may soon be a thing of the past. I think that media outlets that will be free and unbiased may have to operate choosing their words carefully, and behind paywalls. These paywalls will make unbiased reporting inaccessible to many, who will only have pro-government sources to rely on, which I feel is problematic because it might pave way for hegemony and furthering of some xenophobic, majoritarian, Hindutva, and capitalist ideas.