Under the guise of regulating the social media intermediaries , the Narendra Modi government is trying to control the digital media which has been more defiant than the mainstream media, N. Ram, director, The Hindu Group, has said in an interview to Stephen Sackur for BBC’s HARDTalk segment.
He was speaking on the topic “Is freedom of expression under threat in the world’s biggest democracy.”
Mr. Ram said that the new Information Technology (IT) rules brought out by the government were problematic. Former Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad while announcing the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 said they were “soft-touch oversight” mechanisms to deal with issues such as persistent spread of fake news.
Mr. Ram said that the government was exaggerating the narrative of “fake news”. “India has not been bombarded by fake news,” he said. There may be instances of disinformation but there were already laws to tackle that, he added.
“Under the guise of regulating the social media intermediaries, the government is trying to control the digital media who are far more defiant than the mainstream media,” Mr. Ram added. He said that the rules were vague on what constituted “digital media”. Most of the newspapers had digital presence where a lot of the print material was replicated, so the question was would there be two sets of rules for the same content.
He concurred with Mr. Sackur’s assessment that many of the media houses appeared more than willing to toe the government line. “I couldn’t agree more. This is a familiar criticism,” he said.
To a question by Mr. Sackur on Indian media’s coverage of the COVID-19, Mr. Ram conceded that the pandemic had exposed the limits of Indian journalism. “More than 500 journalists have died in the line of duty. Many of them died because they did not believe the numbers put up by the government and went to crematoriums to count the bodies themselves,” Mr. Ram said. Though, he rued that Indian journalism might not have the wherewithal or the data skills required to challenge the death toll. He also appreciated The New York Times for their piece on the under-reporting of the death toll by the government. “We haven’t done a good enough job,” he said.
He was also asked questions on “hounding” Rana Ayyub who contributed for a few Western publications. Applauding Ms. Ayyub’s courage for “fearlessly expressing her opinion” Mr. Ram said not everyone was like her. He added that though what was happening to Ms. Ayyub was not “completely representative” of the situation on ground. “The government’s policy has had a chilling effect. A lot of journalists have held back, self-restrained and self-censored for various reasons,” he added.
On Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who Mr. Sackur pointed out enjoyed the popular mandate, Mr. Ram said, “There are many examples of elected leaders turning autocratic and authoritarian around the world.” This was not the first time, Mr. Ram said, that India had had an autocratic leader pointing at the Emergency imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. But the nature of this autocracy was very different, and all agencies available at the government’s disposal, Mr. Ram said, were utilised to silence dissent. He particularly pointed out the example of English news channel NDTV against whom investigations were going on by the Enforcement Directorate .