Features | Society | South Asia

India’s Free Press Illusion

India proudly proclaims itself the world’s largest democracy. But a lack of real press freedom will ultimately hamper economic growth.

By Abraham George for

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.

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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.

 

While the press in India has from time to time uncovered political corruption, investigative stories have been rare and often short-lived. Meanwhile, it’s unusual for the Indian media to criticize the government’s foreign policy or to seriously question the actions of its leaders, and it frequently shies away from publishing anything that might upset corporate advertisers, even if there’s evidence of serious lawbreaking.

And what about the editors and publishers of most of the influential English-language dailies and network news broadcasters? They’re in denial, and you’re likely to be told that media outlets are free to ‘responsibly report’ what they want. But there’s a difference between reporting responsibly and understanding your responsibilities to the public.

The most recent example of the self-censorship employed by the Indian media was the absence of any prominent coverage of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded this month to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. An event that made global headlines got barely a mention in the mainstream press here as the media acceded to the government’s wish not to annoy the Chinese government. A few days later, The Times of India published an article in effect confirming the collective decision by the Indian press to avoid covering the event, saying it was in the nation’s best interests. It seems unimaginable that such a uniform censoring of a major world news item could have happened without a specific central government directive to the press.

Sadly such obsequiousness is nothing new. During the 1999 Kargil military conflict between India and Pakistan, the Indian media were pressured by the government to exaggerate military successes and to play up the wisdom of a frontal attack up steep slopes occupied by Pakistani soldiers and militants.

Despite heavy Indian losses, the military was forced to stick with the clearly questionable strategy until India was eventually able to regain the territory. But rather than reporting on the folly of the offensive, the press instead substantially undercounted Indian casualties, claiming that in doing so it was performing a national duty in backing government policy at a time of conflict.

More recently than this, the media was found wanting when the government announced an abrupt and remarkable turnaround in Indian policy on Tibet. When Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visitedChina in June 2003, he dropped India’s longstanding position on the issue, and accepted Tibet as an ‘autonomous region of China.’ There had been no prior discussion on this surprising reversal in policy, yet the Indian media expressed little or no concern for this undemocratic way of conducting foreign policy.

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Compounding the problem is the fact that successive governments have been quite willing to harass media outlets through lawsuits, exploiting restrictive laws governing criminal defamation, contempt of court and national security to silence reporters' accounts of corruption.

The treatment of weekly magazine Tehelka back in 2001 is one of the most notorious examples of government bullying, with the publication facing an investigation and threats of government legal action after Operation West End, a sting that exposed the political corruption behind India’s defence contracts. Fearing reprisals, the rest of India’s media was reluctant to voice support for Tehelka, despite the blatant official attack on one of its own.

Two years later, the government of Tamil Nadu filed cases against the Hindu newspaper for ‘breach of privilege,’ in a move widely seen as yet another assault on press freedom. Without any serious debate or prior notice, the Tamil Nadu assembly sentenced five journalists and the publisher to 15 days in prison for breach of privilege articles, while the police carried out the arrests without warrants.

Political parties and religious groups, meanwhile, are more than happy to engage in some media bashing themselves when they feel their interests are endangered, resorting to threats and even violence. Most famously, in 2003, hard-line members of Shiv Sena party (a wing of the then-ruling BJP party), attacked the offices of Outlook magazine in Mumbai over an article describing their leader’s comments about the Muslim community. Sadly this was only one example of many such acts of vandalism, often supported by the ruling party or government.

This isn’t to say that on an individual level there aren’t many courageous journalists in India who are willing to risk their personal safety to expose government wrongdoing. But unless the institutions they represent are willing to stand up for them, there’ll be very little investigative journalism making it onto the pages of the country’s newspapers.

Just as a stable authoritarian government that has little or no press freedomwill likely see its future growth prospects curtailed, so too will a country that is democratic but unstable—and that isn’t properly held to account. And while corruption in China may be rife in the lower ranks of government, in India it’s a worrying reality that it occurs at all levels.

Until India’s press is free—and just importantly feels free—to criticize its leaders and expose wrongdoing, it’s unlikely that this country will be able to fulfill its economic potential and throw off the shackles of corruption holding it back.

 

Abraham George is adjunct professor at the Stern School of Business in New York. The views expressed are his own.