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‘I Wish I Had Managed the Media Better’: Narendra Modi’s Decade-Long War Against Press Freedom

‘I Wish I Had Managed the Media Better’: Narendra Modi’s Decade-Long War Against Press Freedom

  • India today is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, where they are routinely accused of sedition and terrorism under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and are jailed indefinitely without a trial.

The following are remarks I made at a Panel Discussion on “India’s Economy, Democracy and the Quest for Human Rights” organized by South Asia Perspectives, a foreign policy journal, at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C.

Other panelists were former U.S. Ambassador William Milam; former U.S. Chief Agricultural Negotiator, Ambassador Islam Siddiqui; and Salil Tripathi, author and Board Member, PEN International.


Thank you so much for including me on this distinguished panel. I will be speaking on the state of India’s press freedoms, or rather on the lack of them.

Let me start by quoting India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, from years ago.

Mr Modi shot to global infamy in 2002 for his role in the genocide of 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat state where he led the government. That genocide was perpetrated by Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary supremacist organization that is the ideological parent of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Some years later a BBC TV interviewer asked Mr. Modi if he had any regrets about that violence. “Yes,” Mr Modi responded icily. “I wish I had managed the media better.”

The reason Mr. Modi failed to manage the media was that the news media was largely free at the time. After the genocide, the news media laid deep into Mr. Modi for his failure to prevent the brutal massacre of Muslim children, women, and men.

The then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was from Mr. Modi’s party, publicly chided Mr. Modi standing next to him, advising him to follow “Raj Dharma,” or public duty. The mainstream news media was unified in its condemnation of the scale and brutality of the violence. Weeks after the genocide, India Today, a leading newsmagazine, ran Mr. Modi’s picture on its cover with the caption designating him as “Hero of Hatred.” The blurb said Mr. Modi had divided the nation.

Unfortunately for him, Mr. Modi failed to anticipate how quickly activists would rally the victims and knock on the judiciary’s doors. Over time, the labors of victims, activists, attorneys, and journalists shaped judicial outcomes delivering justice to them.

Citizens for Justice and Peace, an NGO led by journalist Teesta Setalvad, toiled hard to secure convictions of over 160 right-wing killers. In a prominent case brought to court, Teesta directly accused Mr. Modi of refusing to send police to prevent a bloodthirsty mob from burning down a house where dozens of Muslim men, women, and children had sheltered. India’s Supreme Court dragged its feet on the case, eventually delivering a verdict in favor of Mr Modi in 2022, well after he had become prime minister.

In 2007, Ashish Khetan, an investigative reporter with Tehelka, a news magazine, made secret videos of Hindu extremists detailing their involvement in the 2002 genocide. One detailed how he stabbed a pregnant woman’s uterus and took out her fetus. Another claimed Mr Modi had helped many perpetrators evade criminal prosecution.

Last year, the BBC screened a documentary on Mr. Modi’s role in the Gujarat violence. It included these confessions. As some of you may remember, the Indian government immediately banned that documentary and ordered a tax raid on BBC’s India offices. A few weeks ago, the BBC announced it was winding up part of its India operations.

Truth is Mr. Modi’s 12-year rule of Gujarat was a never-ending string of criminal actions. A few months after the Muslim genocide, Mr. Modi’s police began extrajudicial killings of several innocent Muslims falsely accusing them of being terrorists.

Tehelka exposed this campaign by publishing phone call records between Amit Shah – who was Mr. Modi’s close lieutenant in Gujarat and is now India’s home minister – and a group of police officers. Mr. Shah was arrested and his trial was on track. But after Mr. Modi became prime minister the judge was summarily transferred. The next judge refused to dismiss the case and wound up dead within a week. The third judge abruptly discharged Mr. Shah from the case, claiming, without explanation, that Mr. Shah was wrongfully implicated for political reasons. Many of those police officers too were freed.

It would take time to name all victims but one deserves a mention. His name was Sohrabuddin Shaikh. It was alleged that Mr. Shah had earlier hired Shaikh to assassinate a BJP minister who had ratted against Mr. Modi and then decided to “eliminate” him. The police abducted Shaikh and his wife and murdered both.

The news media relentlessly covered such stories. They included Mr. Modi’s protection of the genocide perpetrators and the policemen, as well as intimidation of witnesses, destruction of evidence, and the manipulation of the judiciary.

Such scorching news scrutiny also made Mr. Modi a social and political pariah. No party or politician outside Gujarat would socialize with him. The literati and the glitterati shunned him. The courts went after him. In 2005, the United States and many European countries denied Mr. Modi a visa.

In his own words, Mr. Modi failed to manage the media.

And then, Mr. Modi famously beat the odds and became prime minister, winning his party its first-ever parliamentary majority. Having spent years fighting unsparing news scrutiny, one of Mr. Modi’s first tasks was to bring the news media to heel.

So as soon as he became prime minister, he began dismantling free speech and press freedoms. TV news stations began receiving notices threatening to kill their licenses. The Supreme Court had to restore the broadcast of a network taken off air. Media offices and homes of well-known journalists began being raided. Established media outlets such as NDTV, The Quint, Dainik Bhaskar, and The Wire were raided. Many news proprietors and journalists were raided and charged with financial impropriety.

Much of the mainstream news media soon fell like ninepins. India Today, which once called Mr. Modi a Hero of Hatred, sacked a prominent newscaster, Prasoon Punya Bajpai. Many journalists lost their jobs across newspapers and TV news. Reporters critical of Modi and the RSS-BJP started facing criminal charges and threats of arrest.

Reporters Without Borders, a global press freedoms watchdog, downgraded India’s rank to 161 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index last year. It had ranked India at 140 in 2014 when Mr Modi became prime minister.

The government also began to tighten laws and policies governing free speech, especially to criminalize free speech on the internet. Recently, it said it would fact-check digital content and punish “fake news” providing an over-broad definition for it.

Over the last ten years, mainstream news has refused to provide any substantive coverage of the various scams, cons, illegalities, and criminalities of the Modi Administration, or of its various ministers and leaders, several of who have faced allegations of rape, assault, and murder. Two months ago, it was revealed that Mr. Modi’s party had received a billion dollars at least in secret financial contributions. The news media worked overtime to protect Mr Modi’s reputation rather than question him.

There has been virtually no scrutiny of Mr. Modi’s failure to stop China from seizing Indian territory; of Mr. Modi’s failure to create employment for hundreds of millions, or to curb runaway inflation. The World Health Organization said the actual Covid deaths were ten times the number the Modi Administration officially acknowledged. The Indian news media instead largely regurgitated the Modi Administration’s lies on COVID-19.

Mr. Modi’s assault on free speech over the last decade has been relentless.

In 2018, in Maharashtra state, writers, authors, journalists, activists, artists, and educators were arrested merely for giving speeches at a public event that was attacked by pro-BJP troublemakers. Many of those held have spent years in prison.

In 2020, police in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh state arrested Siddique Kappan, a Muslim journalist, before he could report on a rape case. The police accused him of planning to write a story, a “crime” before he had committed it. He spent two years in prison.

The government’s actions have gotten more and more brazen. Last year, police illegally shut down Newsclick, a website, and arrested the editor-in-chief because a New York Times report claimed the website had Chinese investment, which, of course, is not a crime. The editor is accused of terrorism. Thankfully, the Supreme Court released him on bail.

Some of you would remember Sabrina Siddiqui, a journalist with the Wall Street Journal, who was widely attacked on social media last year after she asked Mr. Modi, who was at the White House, a question on Indian democracy and attacks on Muslims.

The world is seeing what’s going on.

See Also

Reporters Without Borders, a global press freedoms watchdog, downgraded India’s rank to 161 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index last year. It had ranked India at 140 in 2014 when Mr. Modi became prime minister.

Last month, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists felt compelled to release a “safety guide” for journalists covering India’s parliamentary elections. The CPJ said its guide contains information for editors, reporters, and photojournalists on how to prepare for the election and how to mitigate digital, physical, and psychological risks.

Global news outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and the New York Times have extensively reported the Indian government’s pressure on social media companies, especially Facebook, to stifle anti-BJP, anti-Modi voices and amplify those in favor of BJP and Mr. Modi. Three years ago, it was reported that a top official at Facebook in India was working in close coordination with the Indian government. She had to resign.

The CPJ writes that increased pressure on journalists, censorship attempts, and limitations on reporting have escalated under Mr. Modi. Data from the Armed Conflict & Location Event Data Project, a global nonprofit, reveals that there is an increasing threat to journalists from physical attacks, mob violence, and violent demonstrations in India.

CPJ said journalists are forced to defend themselves on the digital front with an escalation in social media trolling, online harassment, cyberbullying, and digital surveillance. Newsrooms and journalists are also experiencing mental health stresses. There has been a consistent rise in violence against journalists across India since 2019, with as many as 11 journalists killed since then.

Freedom House, a D.C.-based research organization, has demoted India from free to partly free. In doing so, it has underlined harassment and threats against journalists.

India is now one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Journalists are routinely accused of sedition and terrorism under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), an over-broad law that can jail people without trial and throw the key away.

The National Crime Records Bureau, a government agency that is hardly an honest recorder, nonetheless documented over 30 cases of assaults on journalists during 2019-2021. Half the 28 journalists killed in India since Mr. Modi became prime minister were working on environmental stories. Many died probing the sand mafia who illegally dig sand to feed India’s construction business.

In 2022 alone as many as 194 journalists, including seven women, were targeted according to the Rights and Risks Analysis Group, an independent think-tank in New Delhi. The bulk of these journalists – 103 – were targeted by state agencies.

It was revealed in 2021 that the Indian government had allegedly hacked the mobile phones of several journalists, besides politicians, judges, and activists.

In recent months, at least two foreign journalists were forced to leave India as the government refused to renew their work visas ostensibly to punish them for their criticism of the Modi Administration. Angad Singh, a Sikh American journalist of Indian heritage, was deported from India two years ago because he reported on protests by farmers earlier this decade.

In 2019, the Modi Administration canceled visitation privileges of Aatish Taseer, an Indian American journalist based in New York, because of his critical reporting. Raised in India before moving to the U.S., Aatish has been cut off from his family.

It is the first time in modern Indian history that the prime minister’s office has had no media advisor for 10 years. Mr. Modi’s predecessor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who ruled during 2004-2014, had a succession of three distinguished journalists as media advisors. The day he took office, Mr. Modi scrapped that position.

Dr. Singh himself often addressed press conferences and never shied from taking hard questions as prime minister. In 10 years, Mr. Modi has held not one press conference.

I could stand here all day and speak on the collapse of free speech in India. But I should stop.

Sarita Pandey is an artist, a digital media professional, and volunteers for human rights advocacy groups. She lives in the D.C. area. She posts her art on and tweets about issues she cares about at

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  • Prof Dr Natasha Kaul, a Kashmiri Hindu from UK was invited for a lecture in Bangalore. On landing with a valid visa, she was deported from airport without giving any reason. She was just reminded of an article she wrote against Modi government years back. NDTV, a reputed independent media house was bought over by a pro-Modi businessman; popular journalists like Ravish Kumar had to leave.

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