As India marks 71 years of Independence on August 15, its media is going through a serious crisis with voices of first-rate journalists like Karan Thapar muzzled for questioning the government.
NEW DELHI — On a humid and cloudy afternoon in Delhi last week, I arrive to meet Karan Thapar, one of India’s most prominent television journalists. Known for his aggressive interview style, his office, located in the city’s upscale Safdarjung Enclave neighborhood, is dotted with images of his interviewees from the various TV shows he's been a part of.
The pictures of former heads of governments like Tony Blair, Manmohan Singh, Benazir Bhutto share space with Bollywood stars Anupam Kher and Sanjay Dutt. Dressed in a striped T-shirt tucked firmly into his blue trousers, Thapar talks about "Devil’s Advocate" – his memoir, named after the show he anchored on CNN-IBN for eight years, in his British accent. But throughout our conversation, I couldn't stop gazing at a photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from an 11-year-old interview with Thapar, an interview that didn't last for more than three minutes.
Thapar today finds himself out of television and out of favour with the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, mainly due to that fateful encounter. He spoke about an upcoming book launch that he was invited to moderate and which a “very senior BJP minister” was supposed to attend.
“When he was first invited, he readily accepted,” Thapar told TRT World. “But when he learnt that I, Karan, would be moderating the discussion [at the book launch] he opted out, and rang his host to say, without any inhibition, that the reason was Karan doing it.”
On August 15, India marks 71 years of Independence. One of the key pillars of its democracy has been a free and vibrant media that has held the government to account. But in 2014, as Narendra Modi became prime minister, this pillar has begun to crumble under political pressure. Nowhere is this more visible than television news, where most primetime anchors peddle the ruling party’s Hindu nationalist agenda, night after night, via rambunctious panel discussions, broadcast live, without any advertisement breaks, the speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Thapar finds no space in this claustrophobic climate.
According to Thapar, on that October afternoon in 2007, he landed in Ahmedabad city in Gujarat state, ready to conduct his latest battle of wits. Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat state who was weary of letting the Cambridge-educated journalist go very far with his probing interview style. Thapar opened the interview by invoking the communal riots of 2002 in Gujarat state that, it was believed, Modi had failed to contain. On his watch as chief minister, 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims lost their lives during the pogrom.
Thapar said, that despite media reports of him being an able administrator, Muslims saw him as a “mass murderer.” “Do you have an image problem?” he asked. Modi responded by saying that it was only a handful of people who thought so and that it wasn’t the “people’s voice.” Thapar persisted with this line of questioning, invoked a supreme court observation that called Modi a modern-day "Nero" and asked why he hadn’t done enough to allay the "ghosts of 2002."
The expression on Modi’s face became dour and the look in his eyes, cold. He said he didn’t think it was necessary to answer questions about 2002 in 2007. Modi then said he wanted to rest and asked for a glass of water, which Thapar soon realised, was his way of saying he wanted to terminate the interview. He said he wanted to maintain friendly relations and, despite the heated exchange, plied the stunned journalist and his crew with tea and sweets.
Thapar spent an hour convincing Modi to re-shoot the interview but the chief minister declined. “Modi kept saying that his mood had changed,” Thapar writes in "Devil’s Advocate," his memoir named after the TV show he anchored and for which he interviewed Modi. “He said he would do the interview some other time.”
Between that day and 2018, Modi’s political journey has taken him to the zenith of power in India. In contrast, Thapar’s career as a television show host has hit a brick wall. His contract with CNN-IBN, the English-language channel where he hosted "Devil’s Advocate" ended in 2014 after which he anchored discussions and interviews for India Today, a rival news network. Towards the end of 2016, Thapar writes, ministers of Modi’s government stopped giving him interviews. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP)-designated spokesmen or women declined to come on panel discussions moderated by him. Thapar’s fear that he was being boycotted was confirmed when Ram Madhav, the powerful general secretary of the BJP told him, that his party would be unhappy that if he agreed to an interview.
In April 2017, Thapar’s contract with India Today expired and both parties chose not to renew it. Thapar confirmed to TRT World what was until now an open secret in Delhi’s media circles that the India Today management was “concerned” about the boycott and that it was a “critical determining factor” to their decision.
The popular TV anchor, who has interviewed presidents, prime ministers, Nobel laureates and movie stars, today has to “take a break” from television. And although he does interviews for digital news startups like TheWire.in and The Quint, his absence from a medium that’s watched by 64 percent of the country, illustrates how systematic political pressure can intrude upon journalism.
Thapar, however, isn’t the only journalist to have been ill-treated by the government and the BJP. Since 2014, India’s free press has come under constant attack from them and members of its larger, Hindu-nationalist network. Whenever a media organisation publishes or airs reports critical of Narendra Modi, its reporters and editors have had to face the wrath of the state.
In July 2017, officials from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided the offices of New Delhi Television (NDTV), one of India’s oldest news networks, and the house of its founder, Prannoy Roy. At the time, the CBI said the reason to conduct the raid was a bank fraud. But the exercise was seen as an attempt to muzzle the network, which has not shied away from criticising Modi.
“The government is calling our advertisers and sponsors and telling to them to back off from us,” a senior editor at NDTV told me, on condition of anonymity. “As a result, we’re in dire straits, financially, and have had to lay off 25 percent of our employees,” he said.
In September 2017, Bobby Ghosh, editor-in-chief of the Hindustan Times newspaper resigned from his position. According to local accounts, Ghosh's exit was a result of political pressure since he was instrumental in launching a Hate Tracker – a crowdsourced database of hate crimes in India since 2014.
A report on TheWire.in, detailed how the government was upset about the initiative, and how that cost Ghosh his job (he declined to comment for this story). That same month, Gauri Lankesh, editor of the Kannada-language Gauri Lankesh Patrike, was shot dead in Bangalore.
One of the arrested suspects reportedly told the police that Lankesh was killed because she was “anti-Hindu.”
In October that year, TheWire ran a piece which mentioned the incomes of Temple Enterprises, a company owned by Jay Shah, son of the BJP president Amit Shah, exponentially increased after Modi assumed office. In response, Shah filed a $14.2 million (Rs 100 crore) civil defamation suit, as well as a criminal defamation suit, against the website in response to the piece.
The latest victim of this systematic attack on the media was the ABP News channel. In July this year, the channel ran a report about Chandramani Kaushik, a village woman from Chattisgarh state who, a few days earlier, had told Narendra Modi during a teleconference that her income had increased, due to his government’s policies. When ABP News decided to interview her and fact-check her claims, it emerged that Kaushik’s income was only one-fourth of the minimum wage prescribed by the Chattisgarh state government. Worse, the report also quoted Kaushik as saying that officials from the agricultural department in Delhi tutored her to say what she did to the prime minister. The report was enough to make the powers-that-be in Delhi seethe.
A few days later, social media was abuzz with reports the Masterstroke, the channel’s 9pm show on which the report was aired, was being blacked out on direct-to-home (DTH) platforms. On August 3, Punya Prasun Bajpai, the show’s anchor and Milind Khandekar, ABP News’s managing editor, resigned from the organisation.
Abhisar Sharma, another senior anchor, was taken off air for 15 days after he reportedly questioned the management’s decision to not criticise Modi on his shows, according to a report on TheWire.in. The report added that Amit Shah, the BJP president, told journalists in Parliament that he planned “to teach ABP News a lesson”. Bajpai did not respond to calls seeking comment and Khandekar declined to be interviewed for this story.
In a first-person account published on TheWire, Bajpai narrated how the management of ABP News repeatedly asked him to neither name Narendra Modi or show his image on the screen, while critiquing his government’s schemes and policies. In the piece, Bajpai recalled a phone conversation with an official from the information and broadcasting ministry, who claimed that a team of 200 people monitored prime content on news channels each night. “A separate report is prepared on your Masterstroke,” the official told Bajpai. “And after what you have shown in your report today [July 9], anything can happen. Be vigilant.”
Modi hasn't decided to boycott all TV stations and newspapers, however. Over the last four years, he has given interviews to CNN-News18 and Times Now. During those conversations, the journalists have not asked incisive or pressing l questions, providing him a platform to criticise the opposition. It’s a throwback to 1975 when Indira Gandhi, the then-prime minister, put India in a state of emergency, suspended civil rights, muzzled the free press and made it subservient to her.
At the time, LK Advani a prominent opposition leader said of the press that when editors were asked to bend they chose to crawl. “We’re in a new kind of emergency,” said senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, where “senior journalists and editors have been crawling without being even asked to bend.”
The message from the government is thus pretty clear: media platforms must be compliant and muzzle any criticism of the top leadership, lest they face the same fate as Karan Thapar and the editors of ABP News.