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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 18, May 4, 2024

How India uses national interest as a smokescreen to muzzle the media | Simran Agarwal

Saturday 4 May 2024


The Indian government is weaponising ‘national interest’ measures to close down reporting it deems critical of the Modi government.

The idea of a squadron of government officials storming a newsroom to shut down news-gathering and seize laptops and phones of journalists would send shivers up the spine of anyone who values a free and open democracy.

However, the current Indian government routinely uses national interest as a smokescreen to raid news houses critical of it.

In 2023, the state launched a series of income tax-related searches and seizures at BBC India [1] after the UK telecast of India: The Modi Question, a documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s involvement in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. The BBC had to shut shop in India [2].

Foreign correspondents, most recently from France [3] and Australia’s ABC [4] have been forced out of the country for their critical reports.

Similar intimidation tactics through the Enforcement Directorate have been used against domestic news media for reporting on state mishaps during the COVID-19 pandemic[[]] and the farmers’ protests [5].

It is no surprise then that India ranked 161 out of 180 countries [6] in 2023 in the annual media freedom index released by Reporters without Borders.

However, this does not seem to worry the Indian government. Invoking ‘de-westernisation’, it is in the process of drawing up its own democracy [7] and freedom indices.

All these overbroad applications of the law beg the question: Is the press a threat to India’s national interest or the government’s interest?

A raft of new policies enables government overreach to "quell dissent", by embedding vague clauses within regulations governing news creation, access, and financial structures.

While revamping existing news policies, in line with the ‘new laws for new India’ campaign to replace colonial-era codes, the government incorporated in them the same coercive regimes of intimidation and control.

The Press and Registration of Periodicals Act, 2023 (PRP Act), revamped after 166 years, was brought in to uphold media freedom [8] by (finally) digitising and streamlining the process of registration of news periodicals.

While the PRP Act waters down some criminal liabilities on news, it extends the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to cancel registrations for publishers who might be involved in “terrorist act or unlawful activity” or “for having done anything against the security of the state.”

Unlawful activity under the UAPA [9] could include anything spoken or written that “disclaims, questions, disrupts or is intended to disrupt the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India” or “cause disaffection against India.”

The inclusion of UAPA in news policies raises alarms given its broad application to raid the offices of NewsClick in 2023 [10].

The rules under the PRP Act, currently under consultation, make provisions for government officials to undertake unannounced physical audits [11] at news premises for verification of documents or upon receiving complaints.

The state also sirens national interest to create barriers to journalists’ access to official sources and events.

The newest Central Media Accreditation Guidelines, 2022 [12] released by the Press Information Bureau, embedded within the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, lays the basis for cancelling journalistic accreditation if they act “in a manner that is prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

Soon after they were released, the Editors Guild of India strongly opposed [13] the addition of these arbitrary conditions and the fact that publishers cannot appeal the decisions.

In the same way, the Digital Advertisement Policy (2023) [14], which aims to spread government messaging, allows the government to decline empanelment to any website (including news) found to be “anti-national, obscene, indecent, anti-social, violative of communal harmony and national integrity or deemed objectionable or unsuitable.”

Revenue from government advertising is vital for small and medium-sized news media in India. Between 2022-23 the government spent 2.22 billion rupees (USD$26.3 million) on advertising in newspapers alone [15].

Therefore, having their empanelment to receive government advertisements revoked due to ambiguous application of "anti-national" and "anti-social" content would exacerbate their financial woes.

Finally, the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, (IT Rules) go beyond the permissible ambits of the parent act to consolidate the government’s power to command online platforms to block access to specific online news content in the name of national security.

These provisions – such as Section 69A [16] of the IT Act – afford the state complete confidentiality over the reasons behind removing news content.

This was evident in the recent notices to block the YouTube channels of the independent news portals National Dastak and Bolta Hindustan [17], as well as the Facebook page of Article 19, a digital news site. Not long ago, the news magazine, Caravan was also asked to take down an article covering civilian tortures in militarised Kashmir under the same provisions [18].

Since the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting gained these powers in 2021, it has blocked access to 174 news posts and channels [19]. Despite the constitutional validity of the IT rules being questioned in the courts, the state is widely applying these censorial controls.

The state also guarantees its powers over the news through the formalisation of the Press Information Bureau Fact Check Unit as the arbiter of truth.

The IT Rules mandate that “false, fake, or misleading” content about the government — as determined by the unit — must be taken down by online platforms.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology hastily notified the Press Information Bureau as the “fact check unit of the government” [20] on March 20, 2024 when the Bombay High Court refused an interim stay on its establishment.

However, the Supreme Court upheld appeals [21] from a stand-up comedian and journalists’ organisations cautioning that the excessive powers it grants the government to filter truth during the crucial period leading up to the 2024 general elections.

While claiming to embark on a “soft-touch oversight mechanism” [22] for the media, the government at the centre continually redirects final decision-making powers to itself. This includes the powers to appoint the Press Registrar General of India, the Central Media Accreditation Committee, and the Inter-departmental Committee and Broadcast Advisory Council to handle grievances from online news.

Most other policies allow the central government to delegate functions in the future by using catch-all terms like “specified authority”, “designated officer”, “authorised agent”, and “as may be prescribed”.

This strategic institution of unclear and open-ended news policies obscures the actual lack of autonomy of regulators and the true intentions of the state.

(Author: Simran Agarwal is a doctoral researcher at the Laboratory of Excellence for Culture Industries and Artistic Creation (LabEx ICCA), Sorbonne Paris Nord University in France. Her research closely looks at the various forms, mechanisms, and impacts of state and platform governance on the digital news landscape in India)

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