When Journalism is Sold: Lessons from India

newspapers

In today’s India, there are only two positions you can take. You are either a “nationalist” who limits their criticisms and stays with the majoritarian sentiment or an “anti-national” subject to local propaganda and international conspiracies. Those who criticize the government are accused of “selling India.”

Such divides among the people that the ruling elite benefit from is not exclusive to India. Declining democracies and an erosion of civil structures have been common for most countries in recent years. It is the collective action of us people that can prevent politicians from using us as pawns in their games.

In this article, I explain this further by looking at the state of news media. Because the topic is vast, my detailed analysis is limited to India as a wake-up call for Indians. However, towards the end of this article, I extend a global understanding and calls to action so we can preserve compassionate civil and political systems and stay vigilant against predatory media and political practices.

global democracy index

Source: The Economist.

Table of Contents

  1. The State of Indian Media
  2. Who Owns Pro-Government Channels?
  3. Acquistion of NDTV
  4. “Nationalists” Sold India. We Need to Buy it Back
  5. Lessons from the World and Next Steps

The State of Indian Media

A state’s media is an essential element of a functional democracy. Independent and non-aligned media is a sign of a healthy democracy. Political alignment leads to cherry-picked news and misinterpretation, and lack of independence creates news that seeks to satisfy owners with vested interests, violating journalistic ethics.

Indian media is largely non-independent and politically aligned. It is no surprise then that India:

Unfortunately, it is easy for “nationalists” to disregard these reports and claim that they are biased, conspire, and lie. So, I offer other substantial evidence that should eliminate all support for these media houses and make us reevaluate and reflect.

On Acquisitions… Who Owns Pro-Government Channels?

Overview on Media Objectivity

People commonly argue with one another regarding the authenticity of news sources. Presently, “credibility” has become subjective. Credibility is not defined by objective metrics; rather, “if this source agrees with me, it is authentic. Otherwise, it is propaganda.”

Globally, media houses and even “moral” industries (education, healthcare…) succumb to profit maximization and stakeholder pleasing.

Although it is possible to convince people that one side is more objective (although not totally) than the other, it is tedious. Hence, we can scrutinize the origin of the information rather than the information itself.

News Media in India

In India, the media landscape is worse. How can we expect media houses to publish objective news when those who own these houses have no interest in doing so? Most pro-government media houses are partly, directly, or indirectly owned and influenced by the ruling party (BJP) or close aides.

“Left-wing” media and other sources opposed to the BJP are neither free from these biases nor economic incentives. Before 2014, India’s media business model was seen as susceptible to being pro-government because media houses relied on government advertising. However, post-2014, the situation has only worsened as the BJP strengthens its hold over favorable media and stifles its opposition.

In some cases, we may justify opposition governments funding media houses; the current party’s actions and influence have caused many opposition channels to lose funding pathways. Subsequently, it becomes easy for opposition parties to fund their work as they have reason to keep those channels thriving. Thus, while it may not be ideal that it is the case, the funding is seen as a consequence of the BJP’s actions and not necessarily an inherent propaganda strategy in “left-wing” politics.

Besides, BJP’s funding for right-wing and nationalist channels is larger and more problematic. The table below outlines some prominent news channels and their connections.

godi media
Channel Owned/Led By ConnectionSome Issues, Among Others
Zee NewsSubhash ChandraReceives political backing from the BJPBlaming Muslims for COVID-19, etc.
Republic TVArnab Goswami and Rajeev ChandrasekharGoswami is known to be right-wing and pro-government. Chandrasekhar (BJP) is the current Minister of State for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship and IT. Biased reporting, stifling dissent by yelling at speakers, spreading false and Islamophobic news
Stakes in Asianet News Network, Suvarna News, Kannada PrabhaRajeev ChandrasekharAn email on behalf of Chandrasekhar was sent to the employers of his news channels to hire people who are pro-government. While the email was retracted later, the effects are not completely reversible.
Times NowShivshankar (Editor-in-chief)Shivshankar can be found openly accepting his hardline pro-BJP stance and holding reductionist claims, not based in nuance, about the opposition publicly on Twitter.Former channel of Goswami, similar concerns of extremist nationalist content.
News24Promoted by Anurradha PrasadPrasad is the sister of BJP member and former Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.
India TVRajat SharmaSharma was a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)–a right-wing student nationalist organization affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)–which is connected with the BJP.
Aaj TakIndia Today GroupThe owner Sanjay Sharma has celebrated Savarkar (as seen on Twitter) like many other “nationalists.” Savarkar pioneered Hindutva ideology and is a controversial figure for reasons such as supporting Hitler’s nationalism. Described as “godi media” (lap dog of the government) by Wikipedia and many commentators.
TFIPostDirected by Ashok Kumar GuptaAssociated with RSS and campaigns for BJP.Misleading and factually inaccurate articles written to enrage gullible “nationalists”
OpIndiaKovai Media Private Limited (KMPL), Nupur Sharma, Rahul Roushan. KMPL also owns pro-government right-wing magazine Swarajya. Rahul Roushan is a self-identified Hindutva-backer (Sanghi). The BJP had also requested Facebook to allow OpIndia to receive advertisement revenue, validating their ties and economic incentives.Extremist right-wing. At least 14 counts of misinformation and 25 counts of fake news. Content is divisive and is hate speech.
News18Reliance Industries Limited (RIL)RIL is a corporate conglomerate. Conglomerates generally have a pro-government stance, irrespective of ideology, as it favors business interests. Perceived as pro-government, dished out news harmful for the common public during the Farmer’s protests
Table Showing Prominent Pro-Government Media Houses by Ownership

In cases where a direct link between a media house or its editors cannot be found with the government, they are seen as openly supporting controversial ideologies, sharing shallow and reductionist claims, and supporting BJP. Can we really expect these individuals to be able to create a divide between such strongly displayed biases and their work? The news reporting clearly suggests: No. We cannot trust a media house to give nuanced and meaningful news if its anchors and workers have shallow and biased political views in addition to their problematic past and present that they also confidently flaunt.

The table is not a poor conjecture. Ownership directly influences reporting. For example, Amit Gupta, the COO of Jupiter Capital, wrote to editorial heads in 2016 clarifying that the chairman Chandrasekhar wants editorial talent hired based on the following tenets, without which they would not qualify: (1) right-wing ideological leaning; (2) pro-India; (3) pro-military; (4) nationalist and “aligned with the chairman’s ideology [pro-BJP].”  Besides that, biased news reporting seeks to plant opinions among the common public. This is harmful in a democracy.

As the central government began a crackdown in Kashmir, the managing director of Times Network sent his editors a directive, “we are India’s leading news broadcasters. It is important that we stay firmly with the national government at this juncture instead of focusing on finding faults.”

godi media caricature supporting government

Other individual “news” anchors and “journalists” hop around pro-government right-wing channels and have ties with the government or are biased in their favor. For example, the senior executive editor and anchor Anjana Om Kashyap has been seen as “establishment-friendly” and has been in controversial situations. She celebrated the BJP-led demolitions of housing in Jahangirpuri, going against Supreme Court orders. She was seen riding a bulldozer, calling on the viewers to watch live how the crane demolishes “an illegal construction.” Yet, these people do not get in trouble with “contempt of court” accusations or spreading hate. At the same time, innocent political opposition suffers in jail for crimes they never committed. But that’s another tangent for another day. 

Conglomerate Adani Group Acquires Opposition News Channel, NDTV

Recently, a popular Indian news channel, ‘NDTV,’ was acquired by the wealthy Adani Group at a 55% share. The move is highly controversial given the position of NDTV as a critic of the ruling party (BJP) and Adani as a close ally of the BJP Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Consequently, the two initial founders and a popular anchor, Ravish Kumar, resigned immediately. One of the last-standing strong pillars of independent media critical of the government has been knocked down. Nationalists either do not bat an eye or rejoice at the resignation, titling the channel, its speakers, and viewers as anti-national, liars, or foreign propagandists.

Over time, analyses of Indian media have shown a decline in the diversity and plurality of news and opinions. The co-founder of the Free Speech Collective independent organization said that the resignations from NDTV “indicate how the space for independent opinion has shrunk further. For a democracy, this is a very alarming situation.”

“Nationalists” Sold India, We Need to Buy it Back

We don’t have to agree with a news channel to respect its existence. We may and should oppose the existence of channels that publish fake or misleading news. However, that is largely not the case with NDTV. Meanwhile, that does stand true for almost every pro-government channel whose record is smeared with fact-checking and warnings. 

In addition to media houses being owned and swallowed by pro-government individuals, the influence is wider, and one could write a book on the subject alone. For example, Modi has also urged news executives to publish positively about the government during COVID-19 and pushed the Supreme Court to enforce that news channels only published “official versions” of developments.

Besides, this is not surprising coming from a government whose Minister of Home Affairs boasts about the party’s ability to spread any news, true or false, as they please. Unfortunately, it hasn’t always worked out as BJP officials have increasingly been called out by many state police searches, Twitter, Instagram, and other agencies for spreading false or misleading information. Clearly, there is one side in journalism and politics that is more biased and dishonest than the other.

Fortunately, in some cases, news anchors have been brave in coming out and admitting that the news reporting was unfair. Rajdeep Desai admitted that the Kashmir story was covered without justice and that “we [news anchors] should have gone out there and reported the situation from the ground aggressively and independently.”

Yet, it is not enough. The damage caused by pro-government media is hard to reverse. “Nationalists” will believe in what they see, but alternate news and fact-checking sources will not reach them as they reinforce echo chambers by simply not following them. In other cases, “nationalists” develop unfalsifiable beliefs seeking bizarre justifications to continue supporting the media house(s) and the government. Unfortunately, the government has succeeded in creating an ecosystem where to be nationalist, you have to be pro-government. Today’s “nationalism” means licking the ruling elite’s boots, not serving the people. That needs to change. 

Vague amendments to the IT laws, broadcasting rules, and BJP’s stronger foothold on regulatory authorities and abuse of systems have made it difficult for opposition journalism to survive. A common consequence is getting slapped with a draconian law, detention, jail, or killings. In cases where this becomes difficult, the victim is suddenly involved in financial controversies. These descriptions perfectly fit NDTV, among other channels and individuals. Often, these cases do not prove true immediately and often end in acquittal. Yet, the lengthy and costly process punishes them and serves as a warning to those who speak against the government.

Read Also: The BJP government is misusing draconian laws to shut down and scare political opponents. Learn more in ‘The Need to Abolish or Amend Sedition and UAPA Laws

It is baffling that despite all the information and signs available, people support the current ruling party and think that the right-wing news environment is honest. It has become clear that it is “nationalists” whose naivete has allowed the strategically-planned and executed work of the ruling party to abuse their insecurities and use them as political pawns. It is hard to use institutions to hold the government accountable as they strengthen their hold. However, through our democratically guaranteed rights, we must reverse the harm, wake up, and redefine nationalism to serve each other, unite, and stand firm against parties that wish to gain power by dividing us. We must reclaim what it means to be a nationalist and protect our society and integrity as the constitution outlines it, not in draconian and oppressive interpretations. Hindus, Muslims, and all communities in India are meant to live together in a pluralist society, not in a divided one that politicians are creating by misusing our identities and religions.

nationalism and patriotism

Source: Kottke.org

Read also: A detailed breakdown on why and how to ‘Redefine Nationalism.’

Lessons from the World And Next Steps

I write this article targeting a general audience, although the detailed analysis is critical for Indians. The decline in democratic principles is not unique to India. It is a global phenomenon. In my article, “The Cost of Being Apolitical,” I call upon readers to hold political opinions and be alarmed at the trajectory nations are taking. An excerpt from that post highlights the need for this:

“Global observations prove this. More than 110 countries have faced around 230 protests since 2017 (as of May 5, 2021. The number is likely to increase following mass protests in solidarity with Palestinians, Columbia, and others). In 2019, global protests even changed several regimes. Yet, the following year saw more protests than 2019 did, with higher predictions for 2021. The United Nations is also considered failing at many levels.” In addition, a 2022 publication by the Global State of Democracy Initiative claims that “global democracy weakens.” The headline states, “half of democratic governments around the world are in decline.”

In cases where democratic freedoms may not be a concern, political strategies have divided the people. Even in today’s America and Europe, the people are polarized. They also match the description of “authenticity” I outlined earlier, where they consider “real” what agrees with their beliefs and “propaganda” what doesn’t. Even when we account for the existence of fake news, the consequence is undeniable: people are polarized and distant. The RSF’s World Freedom Index also reports that “media polarization fuelling divisions within countries, as well as polarization between countries at the international level.” They criticize “democratic societies” for growing divisions and the spread of disinformation, along with criticism of social media structures.

left wing and right wing polarization

Source: The Cartoonist Group

Therefore, this post is a call to all readers, irrespective of where they live, to the following:

  • Refrain from holding news and social media to a high standard where you blindly believe what you find.
  • Question news sources, especially those that align with your political alignment.
  • Know who the stakeholders of media houses are, and what incentive do they have in reporting what they are saying?
  • Use a mix of sources to get your information. If possible, spend time reading good content, especially accessible scholarly articles from scholar.google.com searches rather than simple google searches.
  • Read books from experienced people who don’t have the incentive to misreport. I recommend Shivam Shankar Singh’s “how to win an Indian election.” He has worked for BJP and other parties’ election campaigns. He offers significant insights into how elections are a marketing strategy and connect very little with objectively accurate or helpful matters.
  • Talk to people with opposing beliefs and experiences with ground realities empathetically and without preconceived notions. I can’t emphasize enough the amount of times some “nationalist” has ranted against me over matters where their opinion came from an OpIndia article as opposed to my, my family’s, and friends’ lived realities.
  • Engage in debates and disagreements respectfully, targeting the substance of the discussion, not assumptions. People frequently assume that I get my information from NDTV, Scroll In, Quint, or The Wire. Those channels form about 0.1% of my information source. I have my issues with them. Most of my information doesn’t even come from mainstream media. I rely more on organizations, reports, experts, and studies than on news media. If I have to use news media, I’d want to see several links and reflect over time before forming an opinion. 

The crisis may not seem urgent now. However, it is too late and difficult to prevent and reverse the harm when it becomes urgent. Act. Reflect. Reshare this.


Unfortunately, unlike nationalist claims, Congress, Islamic, or foreign entities do not finance my work to “destroy Indian society” and I operate running this website on financial loss. Feel free to support my work via donations below and share this article so it reaches others. We cannot let the state divide us.

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