BBC Survey: What Modi Govt's Nationalism Over Journalism Means for Press Freedom

The BJP is increasingly prone to equating Modi with India and any criticism of him as an attack on the country.

5 min read

As Income Tax authorities carried out their search/survey on the premises of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) office for the second day, speaking in a panel discussion on the subject, I said in a moment of cynical candour, "Nationalism has triumphed over Journalism."

Patriotic fervour is sweeping India so much that there are ruling party supporters and sundry others openly accusing the BBC of corruption, taking Chinese money to make a controversial documentary on the Gujarat riots of 2002, and generally equating the media company as an "anti-India" entity and not as a news organisation focussing on issues that matter.

Soon after I finished the panel, I received a WhatsApp message on the issue from a retired civil servant friend suggesting the forgotten fiasco of a conglomerate popularly linked with the Modi Govt. "Mission accomplished," it said.


How the IT Search At Media Offices Infringe Journalistic Rights

There is so much hot air blowing in New Delhi this February that it feels less like early spring and more like a torrid summer of politics. We need to study the intersection of journalism, nationalism, big business, the Constitution of India, and the democracy it tries to uphold to get a real hang of the situation.

While those who are in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's dispensation are emphasising on "No one is above the law" principle to justify the taxman's search, there are several unusual factors in the act that suggest that the surveys are not a routine act to catch violators of financial rules as claimed.

The biggest of them all is that only recently the BBC dug up the 2002 riots all over again ahead of an election year in India and that too when Modi is proudly flaunting India's Presidency of the G20 group of elite nations as something of a personal achievement.

Such a tit-for-tat perception apart, what is intriguing is that the smartphones and laptops of journalists seem to have been searched, and possibly cloned in the said survey. Given that transfer pricing concerning irregular financial earnings is the core issue, why are journalists being searched in a manner that might compromise the confidentiality of the documents or sources they deal with?

That sounds like an infringement of three fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution: Freedom of Expression, Freedom to practise any profession and the recently recognised Right to Privacy. This makes the BBC surveys much larger than financial irregularities that are more often than not civil violations under complicated laws. BBC is not a for-profit entity and prolonged searches on its premises are questionable.


Crackdowns, Media Trials: Times When BBC Was Caught in the Eye of the Storm

The bigger question is whether there is a pattern in all this in the face of raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax authorities, and the local police in cases allegedly concerning opposition politicians, business groups alleged to be in cahoots with them, media entities and opposition-ruled state governments.

There appears to be a weaponisation of civil services that cries out the need for an independent judicial review but the politics in the era of friendly TV channels and fluffy Breaking News headlines is such that a raid or a search plays the role of a conviction in optics.

You could, thus, say the documentary on Gujarat as well as the surveys on the BBC are both acts of optical politics outside the normal purview of courts that act only on presented evidence.

The Modi government and its spokespersons and supporters routinely point to the Emergency rule imposed by then Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 when she shut down the BBC and jailed opposition leaders as some kind of a justification for a crackdown on the BBC.

Or, they cite how the BBC itself was targeted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in its own country. That is ironic. Journalistically, it would be a badge of honour for any media organisation if it stood up to the government that funds it to be an autonomous entity.


How Modi Govt's Treatment Of The BBC Exposes Its 'Anti-Criticism' Stance

It must also be remembered that the BBC aired a controversial video interview with the late Princess Diana, suggesting that even the British monarchy was not sacred or out of bounds for the BBC.

To equate such an organisation with conspiracy or colonialism without sufficient evidence would potentially boomerang on the Modi government. The New York Times described the IT surveys as a "thin-skinned" response but the BJP is increasingly prone to equating Modi and itself with India and any criticism of it as an attack on the country.

This tactic has been tried before during Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi's days. It didn't work then. It may not work now, even if there are friendly media entities to whip up frenzy.

Media entities including the NDTV, Dainik Bhaskar, Newsclick, Newslaundry, and the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation have been subject to "surveys" by law enforcement agencies in the past few years under the BJP rule. Civil society groups, NGOs, and human rights groups have also been in the crosshairs of the agencies.

All this suggests that a ruling party in love with ancient culture frowns on the idea of modern democracy that involves robust public scrutiny of governments, and often equates it with "foreign" or "colonial" influence.

In 1987, when the Rajiv Gandhi government faced investigative reports in The Indian Express on Bofors arms deal payoffs, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence searched the newspaper's offices alleging violation of customs, foreign exchange and import regulations. The BJP then called it an attack on the freedom of the press. Congress is now saying the same thing about the BJP.

You get the picture. In politics, short-term convenience often trumps long-term consistency and there are different rules for different parties and different times. This is precisely why we need an independent judiciary and media organisations to look under and see through political posturing.


What BJP's & Its West-Inspired Autocratic Model Does to Press Freedom

What is clear is that the BJP government seems to take more inspiration from China, Turkey and Russia than the western democracies in line with its love of things ancient rather than modern. It is natural for such a mindset to see argumentative Indians as 'anti-national' or mocked on social media as has-beens.

But it is business as usual for the same government when it comes to dealing with the governments of the US or UK on Boeing and Airbus jets as it happened this week. "Bijness is bijness" is a popular saying in Gujarat, after all. Aircraft are fine as imports, but ideas are not. Oh, well.

Also, there is a seemingly unconnected development in India's telecom entities lobbying the government against US-based platforms like WhatsApp as threats to national security and seeking some regulation. Coming in the backdrop of the government's attempts to regulate fake news that apppears like another way to deny freedom of content creation and transmission.

But freedom of expression has little meaning where there is no free flow of ideas, perspectives and information. Regulation may only be a fashionable euphemism for control unless there are institutions clearly independent of political control.

A cynic like my good friend who messaged me may argue that the Modi government used the BBC raids to divert attention from allegations that it unfairly helped a beleaguered business group mint billions of dollars. A fellow cynic may say fighting the BBC will give it a better shade of patriotism that works in an election year than allegations of corruption, given that the BJP under Modi itself came to power on the plank of fighting corruption.

Ifs, buts, and speculation are common to both political and economic stock markets. The twain seem to meet often these days. Between nationalism, journalism, and crony capitalism, there are fascinating puzzles waiting to be resolved.

India's go-to slogan to mark its G20 presidency has the slogan "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" (Earth is a family). That does not sit easily with a view that sees any dissent or alternative perspective as 'foreign' or 'Western' or 'colonial'. Xenophobia should not be confused with nationalism.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity.)

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