India’s press is more craven than Pakistan’s

27 Oct

THERE is no question that India’s democracy is stronger than Pakistan’s. It is less prone to coups and violence. Its minorities are more secure. And, most Indians assume, their media are freer. When Cyril Almeida, a Pakistani journalist, revealed earlier this month that he had been banned from travelling abroad after writing a story that embarrassed Pakistan’s security forces, India’s tabloid press gloated.

The Schadenfreude proved short-lived. To general surprise, Mr Almeida’s colleagues rallied in noisy support. Pakistani newspapers, rights groups, journalists’ clubs and social media chorused outrage at his persecution. The pressure worked; the ban got lifted.

Mr Almeida had been reporting on tensions between the Pakistani army and civilian leaders over the border crisis with India, which began last month when infiltrators from Pakistan killed 19 Indian soldiers. On the Indian side of the border, however, there has not been much critical examination of the government’s actions. Instead, Indian media have vied to beat war drums the loudest.

When an army spokesman, providing very few details, announced on September 29th that India had carried out a retaliatory “surgical strike” against alleged terrorist bases along the border, popular news channels declared it a spectacular triumph and an act of subtle statecraft. Some anchors took to describing India’s neighbour as “terror state Pakistan”. One station reconfigured its newsroom around a sandbox-style military diorama, complete with flashing lights and toy fighter planes. A parade of mustachioed experts explained how “our boys” would teach Pakistan a lesson it would never forget.

Such jingoism was predictable, given the fierce competition for ratings among India’s news groups. Disturbingly, however, the diehard nationalists have gone on the offensive against fellow Indians, too.

This month NDTV, a news channel with a reputation for sobriety, advertised an interview with Palaniappan Chidambaram, a former finance minister from the opposition Congress party. Mr Chidambaram was expected to say that previous governments had also hit back at Pakistan, but with less fanfare than the present one. Abruptly, however, NDTV cancelled the show. An executive sniffed that it was “not obliged to carry every shred of drivel” and would not “provide a platform for outrageous and wild accusations”.

Arnab Goswami, the anchor of a particularly raucous talk show, has declared that critics of the government should be jailed. Extreme nationalists in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, have urged filmmakers to ban Pakistani actors. One party has threatened to vandalise cinemas that dare show a Bollywood romance, “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil”, due for release later this month, which features Fawad Khan, a Pakistani heartthrob. The film’s director, Karan Johar, has aired a statement declaring his patriotism, explaining that the film was shot before the current trouble and promising never again to work with talent from “the neighbouring country”. One commentator described his performance as akin to a hostage pleading for mercy.

Why, asks Mr Chidambaram, are the media toeing the government line so slavishly? Some answer that they have become ever more concentrated in the hands of big corporations, many of which carry heavy debts and so are wary of offending the party in power. Others ascribe the shrinking space for dissent to the unchecked rise of chauvinist Hindu-nationalist groups. Repressive colonial-era laws on sedition and libel also play a part.

Happily, India’s press still brims with multiple voices. Critics of Mr Modi may worry about internet trolls, but they do not fear assassination by terrorists or shadowy government agencies, as those in some neighbouring states do. The Indian public is, in fact, tired of endless brinkmanship with Pakistan and yearns for stronger, more effective government. Of course, to be truly strong and effective, governments need to tolerate and even heed critics.

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