India’s Free Press Illusion
Image Credit: Flickr / Pranav

India’s Free Press Illusion


India likes to tout itself as the world’s largest democracy—a place of political freedom where all citizens have the right to free speech. Neighbouring China, in contrast, is typically characterized as a society that’s partly shut, with authoritarian rulers who work to curtail press freedom and political rights.

While both countries have experienced rapid growth over the past two decades, Western observers have often argued that India’s freer society will in the long run give it the edge in sustaining its economic growth. Yet in the past 20 years, China has been able to reduce its poverty rate from more than 60 percent to less than 20 percent, while half of India’s population is still living on less than $1.20 a day (and almost three-quarters live on less than $2 per day).

So why hasn’t democratic India been able to match Communist China’s ability to bring about a more economically equitable society? Freedom is supposed to stimulate thought and creativity, but it’s clear that it doesn’t necessarily assure equity. In addition, the benefits of India’s rapid economic growth are confined to a relatively smaller segment of the population—about 30 percent, or 350 million people—while the rest are either spectators or just hoping that the trickle-down effects will eventually improve their lot in life.

There are numerous and complex reasons for this. India compares itself to an elephant that takes steady but slow steps forward, and its defenders argue that its democratic system simply doesn’t permit quick policy decisions. This fails, though, to explain why the country is experiencing a rapidly widening gap between the rich and the poor, and why so many are being left behind. 

While there are myriad reasons for India lagging behind its neighbour, there’s one explanation that comes up again and again in any discussion of India’s poverty—poor governance. India’s political system favours corruption and inefficiency at all levels of government. The ability to influence economic policy and derive special benefits rests with a few industrialists, while those who hold political power or who have sufficient financial muscle are able to unfairly and often illegally accumulate wealth with scant scrutiny by the press and the legal system.

In a healthy democracy, the public could rely on a free media to step in to expose the countless examples of corruption and abuses of power. Yet most ordinary Indians are hugely pessimistic about the country’s ability to reduce corruption among their politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists—and about the chances of the press playing any meaningful role in exposing wrongdoing. Sadly, they can be forgiven for being gloomy, because the press here has abdicated its rightful role as the guardian of democracy.

June 19, 2013 at 03:37

Btw Abraham sensei, given the monstrous number of pint media, electronic media and the space sized internet media operating in India, it would be God's task to be able to censure and restrict all of these even remotely close to the Chinese. If the Indian goverment is truly pulling off this feat as the author has claimed I take back all my past rants in anger against it. Am like wow!

January 6, 2012 at 18:17

Abraham George:

Your motive is to tell the world that the “free world” with a “free press” should provide greater prosperity. And when it fails, you tell us that India does not have a free press.

Your argument is like those of religious fundamentalists: Islam is a religion of peace. Therefore, terrorists/jihadists are not true Muslims.

Freedoms fundamentalists like you cannot live with the truth. Freedoms fundamentalists are a subset of religious fundamentalists.

Liu Xiao Bo is a non-issue in Asia because he is a NOBODY. Nobody in Asia is interested in a NOBODY who is of no significance in Asia.

Nothing to do with Indian press not wanting to offend China – which is the greatest nonsense because India’s mainstream press insults China everyday.

And India has recognised Tibet as part of China from Day 1 under Nehru, in 1950 by not supporting Tibet’s complaints against Chinese “invasion” in the United Nations. Nehru said that for the past 300 years no country had recognised Tibet as an independent nation, and had always regarded Tibet as part of China.

Check it up, please. You may want to start by reading up online Catholic Encyclopedia 1912 version, and online Britannica Encyclopedia 1911 version, which are untainted by Western propaganda against China rampant for in the past 60 years.

December 20, 2011 at 06:07

The author is helping you raise concern over an existing issue which, if dealt with, can help India grow and progress as a nation.

Stop getting offended and start your no sense quarrels and debates.

December 20, 2011 at 05:29

Completely true. As powerful as media can be, India’s Free Press has never reformed or in the least ever been close to any exploitation. Lack of education on citizen rights leaves the country powerless. Freedom of speech has never been encouraged but only been used as a subtle means of revolt often with fear or fearful consequences. Typical Indian… will defend the nation but never give up their comforts to raise the country.

Fact is.. Indian press will only publish what we already know..

November 11, 2010 at 18:55

I don’t know how closely and clearly Mr. Abraham George can see the India Media from New York, but I know that he has very little understanding about the Indian press. Like the freedom of expression, press freedom is also a relative term. Mr. Abraham George’s article could be a violation of law in some countries.

But in India- As a working journalist, I can say that- it is definitely not. Mr. George’s observations are very much subjective in nature. The much celebrated free press in the United States conveniently “cover “ unpleasant stories, at times under pressure from the authorities. Remember the wiki leaks

Yes , I agree, during the period of emergency, there were censorship. But if you take the history of independent India, by and large the press freedom has not been violated to the extent the author is hard trying to sketch. I think, this is why Indian democracy- in its own unique form- is surviving.

I request the Diplomat Editors to be little more responsible, before publishing something that is totally absurd.


New Delhi

Andrey Davydov
November 3, 2010 at 08:01

total mess of an article composed from wiki and the supposedly unfree Indian press. It started with Indian poverty and did not fail to bring in Tehelka.

I would like to ask writer the question – which country in the world has totally free media?

US? The only media which was given access to Wikileaks Iraq files venerable New York Times was caught in trying to twist and hide the facts. Even moderate commentators had noted that NYT coverage was very much in line with Pentagon. No big wonder because NYT’s London editor is big supporter of Bush’s Iraq war based on lies about WMD.

UK? With Murdoch’s media empire? No words needed when all successive British PMs ask this nasty media baron for an audience.

France? Where three media magnates had met their friend Nicolas, interior minister and decided to make him president of the French republic effectively overselling him by relentless media campaign.

Russia and China are dictatorships according to the West, while the rest of media normally lack financial resources to provide sufficient gloabl coverage.

So I see Indian media is not much better or worse than her counterparts in different countries. It is reasonably free, operates with some limitations, has some drawbacks like sensationalism and obsession with Bollywood instead of covering really significant social problems in the country.

By the way by honesty indicator Indian media is way way beyond all Western media which was roundly discredited by propaganda of neocon wars and lies.

Seifi Abbas
November 3, 2010 at 01:50

There are problems of shelter, electric power and drinking water in India. Nothing will change unless these essential needs of the society are provided.India’s potential is enough to be a rich, clean,advanced and democratic state if politicians want to do work for the sake of people and not for their own pocket. Of course National Willingness and National Help are the must to approach Goals.
Seifi Abbas

November 1, 2010 at 17:24

There are tens and hundreds of articles discussing Liu Xiaobo in the Indian media and all aspects of his case has been discussed.
Hence I believe that the premise of your article is totally false.
I think Indians have a right to decide if Nobel prizes mean much to them or are they just handed out to further Western policy. I would like to remind you that Jimmy Carter is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and he started the Jihad in Afghanistan. On the other hand Gandhi was turned down in 1937. So Nobel Prize is certainly not the hallmark or the epitome or even a symbol of freedom and democracy that it is made out to be by the Western powers. Secondly, you are wrong about Kargil too and you are wrong about investigative journalism in India. Maybe you haven’t heard about the Bofors scandal, Kargil Coffin Scandal, Gujarat Riot coverage, the continuing coverage in Kashmir and the Adarsh Building Scandal are just some examples in ongoing daily investigations. The numerous local papers to aid the effort. Your complaint should rightly be titled as “its unfortunate that Indian press does not bow to Western diktats”. Ever seen the coverage in Australian, British and American press on foreign policy issues? They convinced us that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Has any of them covered the humiliation of Iraqi women who were forced into prostitution as a result of the war there. Why did it take so long for news to break out about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and how New York Times couches the Wikileaks revelations. The Indian Press does not follow the western line on India’s foreign policy because India realizes that the Western imperial powers were all democracies during the colonial rule. Black men and even western women got franchise rights much after all Indians got equal voting rights. India has more people living under the umberella of democracy than all the western nations put together and our democratic tradition goes back many thousands of years. Now that the western world is growing irrelevant, they should re-examine why nobody sheds a tear for them and the lip service they give to freedom and liberty.

November 1, 2010 at 03:17

This article is factually incorrect. The Indian newsmedia did carry out the news of Liu Xiaobao’s Nobel Prize. Here is link from Times of India which the author has incorrectly quoted.

The author makes a second mistake in quoting the Times Of India as saying that the Indian press has collectively decided to boycott the news of Liu’s Nobel. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Times of India in another article on 11th. October states that the Indian government may chose not to congratulate Liu. Here is the link:

Secondly, the Kargil War and its aftermath have been widely covered in the Indian media. The Indian press has been scathing in its criticism of the intelligence failure and many scams including “Coffin gate” were uncovered by the journalists. Infact it was relentless media pressure which pushed the government into ordering a full inquiry into the entire event and a Kargil Commission was formed and a complete report was published on the war.
One just has to go to the website of any newspaper and punch in Kargil War and check out the reults.
I am afraid, the author has not done his homework and has written a totally misleading article.

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