By: Mika George PO 333
On October 3rd, New Delhi police raided the homes of journalists working for the news website, NewsClick, an outlet that had been critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his nationalist-led party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Founder and editor, Prabir Purkayastha, and human resources chief, Amit Chakravarty, were arrested, in addition to several journalists associated with the site being detained and their digital devices seized during the extensive raids. Suman Nalwa, a police spokesperson, stated the arrests were made under an anti-terrorism law, in an investigation of whether the news outlet had received funds from China, which NewsClick denies. Nalwa said at least 46 people; current and former employees, freelance and contributors, as well as cartoonists, were questioned during the raids, and their devices, including laptops and cellphones, and documents, were taken for examination.
NewsClick is seen as a rare Indian news outlet willing to criticize Modi and was raided previously in 2021 by Indian financial enforcement officials, after which a court blocked the authorities from taking any “coercive measures” against the website. Indian authorities brought a case against the site and journalists on August 17th, weeks after a NY Times report alleged that it received funds from an American millionaire who had funded the spread of “Chinese propaganda”. India’s junior minister for information and broadcasting, Anurag Thakur, accused NewsClick of spreading an “anti-India agenda” (Saaliq 2023), and of working with the opposition India National Congress party.
In response, On October 4th, journalists belonging to many different media organizations staged a protest at the Press Club of India against the Delhi police’s crackdown on NewsClick under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act is an overbroad anti-terrorist act that allows the central government to designate an organization or individual as a terrorist, and therefore arrest them even before trial. This law, though passed constitutionally, contains no provisions to check government misuse, and the terms “likely to threaten” and “likely to strike terror” are extremely broad and open to abuse as the burden of proof is on the accused. This law is a primary example of stealth authoritarianism as explained by Ozan O. Varol, which he describes as the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends.
The use of an anti-terrorism law against journalists also directly demonstrates Varol’s theories on the effects of libel lawsuits in constitutional democracies. Though the Modi government is not directly suing for libel, because Purkayastha has been arrested, as well as the raids against employees of NewsClick, this creates the “chilling effect” (Varol, 2015) on speech, which thus leads to the self-censorship of critical commentary of the Prime Minister and his government officials. The culture of self-censorship has detrimental effects on the public’s ability to be well-informed on any negative behavior by the established government and therefore tilts the electoral field in favor of Prime Minister Modi. Already, few news media outlets are willing to critique Modi, and many are becoming owned and placed under the control of known acquaintances of the Prime Minister, such as New Delhi Television Ltd (NDTV), when Gautam Adani, one of the richest men in the world and someone who has majorly benefited from the electoral success of Modi, became the majority shareholder. This ownership is noted by Scott Gelbach in Reflections on Putin and the Media, in which he explains how plausible deniability about the extent of state control is maintained by encouraging Kremlin-friendly businessmen to invest in the media. The impact of a newfound owner or large investor is the silencing of news that takes an unfavorable view of the party that those with publishing control have ties with. In fact, Adani taking control of NDTV caused Ravish Kumar, a senior journalist of NDTV, and known critic of Modi’s influence on Hindu-Muslim tensions, to immediately resign stating, “The ecosystem and atmosphere for journalism is being destroyed,”(Wire, 2022). Through this sentiment, Kumar demonstrates how the newfound corporate and political ownership of previously independent news outlets is harming the free press, an absolute core value of democracy.
The censorship of media outlets is extremely demonstrative of democratic backsliding, through the constitutional weakening of a social institution with the sole purpose of creating a well-informed public and acting as a watchdog for government officials. Though Varol specifically points to libel lawsuits as a demonstration of stealth authoritarianism, his larger point is the government silencing of journalists who are critical of the incumbent through constitutional legislation. This is illustrated through his fourth category of stealth authoritarianism strategy: non-political crimes. The cited reason for the raids on the offices and homes of NewsClick employees was the NY Times report stating that the media outlet was receiving financial investment from an American millionaire spreading Chinese propaganda, which fits exceptionally into the application of existing criminal laws that do not overtly concern political opposition, therefore reducing the costs associated with overt repression, which would incite criticism on a domestic and international level. There have been many occurrences of journalists who criticize Modi, specifically for his role in anti-Muslim sentiments, including preventing them from leaving the country to speak about the Modi administration by summoning them for finance misuse, or the raid on BBC’s offices to investigate allegations of tax evasion immediately following a documentary that named Modi complicit in the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots. Rather than simply throwing them in jail directly for speaking out against the government, the Modi administration utilizes a legal system that raises the cost and fear of criticizing those in power, as under the anti-terror law they will face raids and arrests.
By Modi using constitutional legislation to unjustly detain journalists without allowing them due process of the law, not only is he partaking in stealth authoritarianism but also is contributing to the decline of democracy by reducing the presence of institutional forbearance. How Democracies Die, written by Steven Levistky and Daniel Ziblatt, denotes institutional forbearance, a key component to democracy, as “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right” (Levistky & Ziblatt, 2010) in which politicians do not use their institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if technically legal to do so because such action could imperil the existing system. In any democracy, though there are constitutional ways to regulate the press through libel lawsuits, anti-terror and sedition laws, and even the use of surveillance mechanisms, the impact of stripping the media of its independence and ability to critically report on the government happenings is not only harmful to the wellbeing of the citizens but also detrimental impacts the future of democracy and pluralism in India. The general rule is that so long as each party and society plays by the democratic rules they have equal right to exist and compete for power. By the BJP using each of its institutional prerogatives through financial investigations and anti-terror laws, they are eroding the free press and not partaking in mutual tolerance by prosecuting oppositional journalists and infringing on their rights to exist and critique the government.
Prime Minister Modi and his government’s attempts to control the press and only allow media to exist that supports his administration is a direct threat to democracy in India. Journalists must be protected legally from facing unjust raids and investigations from reporting on matters independently. The need for a vast media filled with pluralist views and opinions creates a well-informed public, which is intrinsically necessary for electing a democratic leader.
“Amidst Adani’s Takeover, Senior Journalist Ravish Kumar Resigns From NDTV.” The Wire, thewire.in/media/amidst-adanis-takeover-senior-journalist-ravish-kumar-resigns-from-ndtv.
Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
Dhillon, Amrit. “Indian Journalist Prevented From Flying to Europe to Speak About Intimidation.” The Guardian, 30 Mar. 2022, www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/30/indian-journalist-prevented-from-flying-to-europe-to-speak-about-intimidation.
Gehlbach, Scott. 2010. “Reflections on Putin and the Media.” Post-Soviet Affairs 26
Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 1
Saaliq, Sheikh. “NewsClick: Indian Police Arrest Editor and Administrator of Independent News Site | AP News.” AP News, 5 Oct. 2023, apnews.com/article/india-press-freedom-newsclick-arrest-raid-3faa0830e9f3bcd4e75f1b7df404f432.
Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100