By The Editorial Board
The misuse of their powers to intimidate, censor, silence or punish independent news media is an alarming hallmark of populist and authoritarian leaders.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has fallen squarely into this camp, and his actions to suppress freedom of the press are undermining India’s proud status as “the world’s largest democracy.” Since Modi took office in 2014, journalists have increasingly risked their careers, and their lives, to report what the government doesn’t want them to.
India ranks 11th in the “global impunity index” of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a tally of reporters whose deaths remain unsolved, and in the annual press freedom index published by the organization Reporters Without Borders, India fell to 150 in 2022, its lowest-ever rank out of 180 countries. The United States is 42; Russia is just below India at 155, China 175.
As a result, self-censorship has spread, along with a shrill Hindu nationalism in news reports that echoes the government line.
The latest manifestation of the government intolerance for critical reporting was its invocation of emergency laws last month to block a BBC documentary titled “The Modi Question.” The documentary revived damning questions about Modi’s role, when he led the government of the Indian state of Gujarat, in a horrific episode of violence in 2002, in which more than 1,000 people — most of them Muslims — were slaughtered over several weeks.
While many salient facts about the Gujarat rioting are well known, the BBC documentary revealed, among other things, a hitherto unknown British government report from 2002 that found Modi “directly responsible” for the tense environment that enabled rioting and that accused the Gujarat state government of leaning on the police not to intervene as Muslims were beaten, raped and burned to death. Modi has long denied any responsibility for the violence, and an investigative team appointed by India’s Supreme Court ruled in 2012 not to charge him because there was not enough evidence.
Modi, who was reelected in 2019 with a substantial majority for his Bharatiya Janata Party, remains extremely popular. But two decades later he has not been able to shake persistent questions about his role in the violence, especially as the government has suppressed an open discussion of his brand of Hindu nationalism. Instead, as a recent Human Rights Watch report noted, “the B.J.P.’s ideology of Hindu primacy has infiltrated the justice system and the media, empowering party supporters to threaten, harass, and attack religious minorities, particularly Muslims, with impunity.”
The two-part BBC documentary challenged all that. Though there had been no plans to air it in India, key portions promptly began circulating on social media. The government reacted with what has become its signature fury. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting blocked videos and links sharing the documentary, calling it “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage,” with a “colonial mindset.” It added that YouTube and Twitter had complied with the order.
BBC said in a statement that the documentary was “rigorously researched according to highest editorial standards.”
Preventing circulation of even snippets of the film had the predictable effect of creating far more interest in it than there had been. Human rights groups inveighed against what one opposition lawmaker in India called “raging censorship.” Student and opposition groups set about organizing viewings, triggering efforts to block them. At Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the administration shut off electricity and internet access to block a screening of the documentary, but students watched it anyway on their mobile phones.
What began as a potential embarrassment for Modi has thus escalated into a furor over press freedoms — and into a test for the rest of the world. Modi has been actively seeking a greater role in world affairs, and he has been actively courted by leaders in the United States and Europe, whether for support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, on which Modi has been ambivalent, or as a counterbalance to China’s rising economic power. Apple, for example, has announced it will start producing its iPhone 14 in India in what analysts viewed as a gradual turn from its reliance on China.
Britain’s government has emphasized the independence of the BBC but stopped short of condemning the blocking of the documentary. When questioned about the film and about Modi’s responsibility for anti-Muslim violence by an opposition lawmaker, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak affirmed Britain’s general stance against persecution but added that he was “not sure I agree at all with the characterization that the honorable gentleman has put forward.” Reuters reported that the White House is holding discussions with India on a possible state visit by Modi later this year; New Delhi will host the G20 summit in September.
India is a major power and a critical player as Russia and China work to change the balance of forces in the world. But in their necessary dealings with Modi, American and European leaders should remember that it is only as a democracy, with a free and vibrant press, that India can truly fulfill its global role. As Modi’s own party knows firsthand — the BJP was suppressed and many of its leaders jailed in the dark days of emergency rule from 1975-77 — when populist leaders invoke emergency laws to block dissent, democracy is in peril.