Media a la Modi

This article has been corrected.

Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) candidate for Indian Prime Minister and the current chief minister of Gujarat, remains one of the country's most polarizing figures. His supporters love his strong, decisive hand and his track record of delivering growth in his state after a decade of stagnation and inefficiency under the current Congress-led government. His detractors abhor him for the massacre of thousands of Muslim people that occurred under his watch during the Gujarat riots of 2002. The debate can be boiled down to a single question: Do the pros of electing him outweigh the cons?

With just a few weeks left before India goes to the polls, eminent political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently reframed the question. More crucial than ideology or belief, he says, is the question of whether the leader can tolerate dissent. Mehta draws comparisons between Modi and other political "strongmen": Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Sri Lanka's Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Russia's Vladimir Putin. These leaders also emerged against a backdrop of perceived national crisis, and are known for their decisiveness and achievements in governance. But when faced with challenges, they have reacted, as Mehta puts it, by "subvert[ing] the very democracy that created them." Just this past week, Erdogan has responded to the public outcry that followed allegations of his corruption by tightening his grip on the media -- even going as far as blocking Twitter.

Tolerating dissent has never been one of Modi's strong points. He has famously walked out of interviews and canceled appearances at the last minute because he didn't know what questions he was to be asked. But his love for content control has deeper roots. In 2009, Modi launched a well-known, highly effective PR campaign that successfully whitewashed his image, transforming him from Massacre Minister into Development Guru. APCO Worldwide, who Modi hired for approximately $25,000 a month, stressed Modi's track record of growth in his state of Gujarat and created a global "Friends of Gujarat" circle, forging favorable alliances worldwide, especially in the business community.

In India today, Modi has at his behest a pliable media industry that is willing to silence dissent in return for a generous fee. Together, the two make for a uniquely dangerous threat to democracy.

India ranked 140th in the World Press Freedom Index in 2013, its lowest rating since 2002. That is absolutely shameful for the world's largest democracy. The Indian media industry is in a state of crisis after a series of recent scandals. "Paid news," as it is known within the country, is a pervasive problem. News outlets now each enter into hundreds of "private treaties" with companies, in which journalists provide the businesses with favorable news reports and complimentary editorials in exchange for shares in the company. In the West, this sort of malpractice raises ethical red flags; in India, it's just a part of doing business. Walls between the sales and editorial sides of newspapers are systematically broken down in favor of profits. The proprietors of the Times of India, the widest-circulated English language daily, see no harm in selling their entire front page of the print edition to the BJP for a Narendra Modi advertisement, as they did on March 19. They have gone on record as saying that they see their main business as advertising, not journalism.

Modi stopped paying APCO Worldwide for its services early in 2013. A series of troubling incidents in the news industry over the past few months highlight the problems that result when a political strongman finds common cause with venal journalists. As a senior BJP leader confided to Open Magazine in 2013: "Modi does not need either the party or PR agencies; television news media is doing the job for us."

Corporate overlords of Indian media outlets today tend to be pro-Modi business magnates. Caravan Magazine devoted its December 2013 cover story to how Network18 (a conglomerate that includes two leading TV channels, Forbes India magazine, and has shifted its coverage to the right in the last few months. It mentions a study conducted by the Center for Media Studies, an independent think tank in Delhi, which showed that CNN-IBN gave Modi four times more on-air coverage on average than it gave opposition leader Rahul Gandhi -- a starker difference than at any of the other four channels surveyed. Top Network18 journalists have even taken to Twitter to speak out about the pressure they face within the organization to provide a certain angle in their news.

Open Magazine, known for its trailblazing exposés of corruption within politics and media, quoted several instances of journalists at Network18 receiving instructions from the top on Modi-related coverage. Reporters were ordered to maximize footage of Modi rallies and to minimize anti-Modi coverage. Sadly for Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor at Open, this story was one of the last articles he oversaw at the magazine. He was fired soon after, in November 2013, without explanation -- though Manu Joseph, Open's editor-in-chief, later revealed that the magazine's proprietor had said Bal was "making too many enemies ... political enemies." Bal's replacement at Open is PR Ramesh, who, according to Bal, is "considered close to general secretary of the BJP, Arun Jaitley." Jaitley is known within the BJP as their "bureau chief" for his influence in various media organizations.

He's not the only one. Siddharth Varadarajan, a vocal critic of both the BJP and the Congress, was appointed editor-in-chief of the Hindu, a 135-year-old, family-owned newspaper, in 2011. Less than two years into his tenure, in 2013, he was removed from his position by the board, who said that they were concerned with his "underplaying of Narendra Modi." A frustrated Varadarajan also took to Twitter to lambast media owners for self-censorhip.

Journalists like Varadarajan have gotten the message loud and clear: Criticize Modi if you insist, but you run the risk of losing your job. Or worse. A little over two weeks ago, the caretaker of Varadarajan's apartment in Delhi was beaten up by an unknown group of men, with a warning: "Tell your sahib ["master"] to watch what he says on TV."

The trail of media casualties extends beyond the national level. Thiru Veerapandian, a regional anchor for Sun TV, lost his TV show in 2013 merely for telling voters that they should think before they vote for Modi. Within his own state of Gujarat, Modi has overseen an even more brazen approach to media suppression. Bharat Desai (Times of India editor in Ahmadabad) and a photographer for a local Gujarati newspaper were charged with sedition in 2008 for exposing corruption in the police force. Manoj Shinde, editor of a local evening daily, was also charged with sedition in 2006 for criticizing the Modi government's flood relief efforts.

Though Modi has wisely steered clear of divisive comments about religion during this election campaign, he has a long-standing association with, and support base within, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist right-wing organization known for its fear-mongering tactics. With the rise of the digital age, RSS has taken to cyberbullying, issuing online threats to Modi critics: intellectuals, journalists, and social media activists alike. In a recent case, Penguin India agreed to pulp copies of Wendy Doniger's recent scholarly book The Hindus, at the behest of a small group of right-wing Hindu campaigners who found its content offensive.* Modi's admirers were quick to voice their satisfaction at this victory. Subramanyam Swamy, a vocal BJP leader aptly described by the New Yorker as "a Hindu-nationalist hybrid of Larry Klayman and Glenn Beck," jubilantly tweeted: "Wendy Doniger buckles before the coming Saffron wave." Saffron is the color associated with Hindu nationalism.

A media landscape built on shaky ethical foundations, marked by a crumbling commitment to free speech and murky deal making, is a threat to democracy, regardless of which party is in power. This, combined with the Modi faction's intolerance, and the growing atmosphere of hostility toward those who speak against him, should be a cause for grave concern. Proprietors of news organizations are already risk averse, and today, criticizing Modi comes with great perceived risk. Dissent is crushed before it even has a chance to be tolerated.

Uzra Khan is a freelance journalist in Mumbai.

*Correction, March 24, 2014: Penguin India agreed to withdraw The Hindus from India and pulp all remaining copies. This article originally misstated that it agreed to publish the book. (Return to reading.)

STR/AFP/Getty Images


The Threat of Civil War in Libya

Over the last couple of weeks, Libya has been rocked by events that have pushed the country to the edge of full-scale civil war. It all began when the eastern Libyan province of Barqa, led by its federalist, self-proclaimed government, succeeded in selling oil independent from the central government. Then, Libya's prime minister, Ali Zeidan, fled the country after the General National Congress (GNC) passed a "no confidence" vote to kick him out of office. Last week also saw the eruption of clashes between Misrata militias, which are loyal to the GNC, and the forces supporting Barqa's federalist government. On Monday, a car bomb detonated at a military base in Benghazi during a graduation ceremony for new recruits. The explosion left more than five dead and at least 14 injured. (The photo above shows the crater the bomb left behind.)

On Friday, March 7, the GNC ordered the armed forces to seize a North Korean-flagged oil tanker that ignored government threats and docked at the rebel-held port of Essidra. On March 10, GNC President Nuri Abusahmain went a step further and ordered the army to send in a task force to take back the oil terminals from the armed groups that have been blockading them since summer 2013. The forces they sent were not a national army, but were made up mainly of militias from the city of Misrata.

The decision was hasty and made without careful consideration of the possible consequences of such a direct offensive. The two rival militias met near Sirte, a port city; causalities have already been reported. Luckily, attempts to deescalate the situation and resolve the issue peacefully seem to be gaining momentum. However, this will not be the last time that armed groups resort to direct confrontation, simply because Libya lacks a comprehensive political deal between the different factions. Each group aspires to run the country -- or at least its own affairs -- however it sees fit.

The Barqa government had repeatedly threatened to sell oil on its own if the central government continued to ignore its demands, which include the establishment of oversight and investigative bodies for the oil industry and the revival of an old profit-sharing mechanism for the oil industry. The federalists insist that they are selling oil independently in order to secure resources and funds to support the national army and police in eastern Libya to address the deteriorating security situation, after the central government's flagrant failure to do so. The federalists also insist that Islamists and extremists are currently running the show in Libya, and that these factions see the national army and police as a political threat. These extremists have used their influence and partnerships with militias to push their political agenda through the GNC and dominate the central government. Prime Minister Zeidan corroborated these claims in his first interview after being voted out.

Nevertheless, Tripoli continues to insist that it does not recognize the Barqa government and considers the groups blockading the oil terminals to be criminals. Rather than managing the threat to Libya's democracy, the authorities in Tripoli employed a "wait and see" approach -- a tactic that led the Libyan government to lose an estimated $10 billion in oil revenues. The long wait also gave the Barqa government and its supporters the space and time to organize and form alliances with key players in eastern Libya, thereby strengthening their position and widening their support base.

Now, the central government's overly aggressive move has only galvanized support for the Barqa government. Previously, the Barqa government had mainly recruited fighters from one tribe in the east, the Magharba tribe. Since the GNC's mobilization, members of all of eastern Libya's tribes are joining the federalists' forces. Threatened by this vast mobilization of fighters, the GNC has already extended its ultimatum another two weeks, in the hopes that the two sides can still find a peaceful solution.

Many in Libya, however, were already questioning the GNC's legitimacy after it voted in December to extend its mandate by another year, contradicting the transition plan set out by the country's constitutional declaration. Protesters across the nation called on GNC to end its mandate on Feb. 7, its original end date. It is odd that the GNC would act on the crisis in Barqa now, after months of hesitating -- but there's no doubt that this new threat has successfully diverted the public's attention from questioning the GNC.

The crisis in Libya also advances the interests of another group dominating the GNC's and now the government: the Islamists. Though Islamists lack wide popular support in Libya -- as the 2012 GNC elections showed -- Islamist groups, such as the Justice and Construction Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's arm in Libya), have grown more and more influential. The sacking of Prime Minister Zeidan only highlights that influence. They have used this new power to outmanoeuvre their less organized opponents and push through controversial legislation, such as the political isolation law, which neutralized opponents like Mahmoud Jibril. On another occasion, they even manipulated of votes in GNC.

The Misrata militias have ties with the Islamists, so they are not likely to win the support of the eastern Libyan community -- which will give the Barqa federalists the opportunity to continue growing their support base. They may argue that creating strong regional governments (like the Barqa government) would protect Barqa and its people from the domination of Islamists or any other group.

It would not be surprising, then, if Libya's never-ending political conflict shifts to these two opponents: local tribes and Islamist forces. The problem is two-fold: the trust gap between competing factions is only growing larger, and all of the parties look at Libya as a zero-sum game. While the Islamists fear that Libya will follow in Egypt's footsteps, their opponents accuse them of hindering the building of a strong national army and police force, saying that they use their militias to dominate the security sector and manipulate the political process. As they are busy hashing it out, ordinary Libyans are losing faith in the democratic process, and begin to doubt its ability to make the changes they hoped to see.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.