A brief recent history of media self-censorship

BY SEVANTI NINAN| IN Censorship | 20/10/2017
Are media establishments self-censoring more since this government came to power? Or were some equally mindful of the UPA’s sensitivities too?


It is the season for taking on media owners over the censorship they impose on editorial staff. And it is being done on Facebook.  NDTV’s Srinivasan Jain kicked off earlier this week with a post which said that a report by him and a colleague  on loans given to Jay Shah's companies was taken down from NDTV's website because the channel's lawyer said it needed to be removed for 'legal vetting' and that it had not been restored though  the report is based entirely on “facts in the public domain” and "makes no unsubstantiated or unwarranted assertions".

He added that he was treating it as an aberration and would continue to report for NDTV. The programme which was taken down is available here.

That post triggered a considerably less charitable response from TV anchor Barkha Dutt who has not gone on record so far about why she and NDTV parted company at the beginning of this year.  In the course of what can be read as an attack on Prannoy and Radhika Roy, the owners of the channel, what also emerges is that NDTV’s self censorship as a channel not only relates to the current powers-that-be, which includes BJP chief Amit Shah and his son, but also related to the UPA regime when it was in power. These are the examples she gives:

“I was disallowed from pursuing a story on what was called the Jayanti Tax controversy. I was given hell for a story I did on Robert Vadra; the only reason that story was not taken down is because it was already published on the website and at the time the management was convinced that it would draw too much attention to take it down later. Then an innocuous bread and butter interview I did with Chidambaram was taken off air during the aftermath of the surgical strikes.”

Jain’s post also triggered a Facebook statement by another former NDTV staffer

Nitin Gokhale whose interview in 2014 with naval chief Admiral D.K. Joshi who had resigned, was taken down from the channel’s website after being  telecast “at least five times in both Hindi and English”.

Following this, Gokhale quit. The interview is still available here.  Though the good admiral mentions no names, he criticizes the inability of the government to extend timely support to the navy  and the business model that exists for supplying and replacing equipment. The Defence Minister at that time was A. K. Antony.

So NDTV was humouring the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh and is also afraid of annoying the current one. What about everybody else?  The one standout example which goes back to 2010 was the great media blackout when the Radia tapes story first broke. But it is interesting how frequently big media houses begin to mind what they say when the NDA comes to power in May 2014.


Mindful of the NDA's sensitivities

In July, Amit Shah was anointed as the head of the ruling party. Shortly after, in the same month, the Mumbai daily DNA first published a piece on his past record titled "A new low in Indian politics" and then took it down from its web edition. It is, after all, owned by Subhash  Chandra of the Essel Group who has long been a supporter of the BJP and is today a  Rajya Sabha MP. He also owns Zee TV.

"It is interesting how frequently big media houses begin to mind what they say when the NDA comes to power in May 2014"


After Shah was elected here is what happened at another media establishment, CNN IBN, owned by Reliance Industries.  Quartz reported on July 16, 2014,  that after Shah’s election, CNN IBN’s bulletin at night as well as the graphics on air were edited to remove references to the criminal charges faced by him.

It also said the channel had stopped covering the Aam Aadmi party whose leader had, in the run up to the general elections, taken on the owners of Reliance, the Ambanis.

In October that year The Times of India posted an article with a headline “5 months in power sees increase in crorepatis in Union Cabinet: ADR”. After a while, though, the article was taken off the website though this didn’t stop from others from using the information in the press release put out by the Association for Democratic Reform. And perhaps they forgot to take it off the paper’s YouTube channel because it is still there.

Since May 2014 when this government came to power, the 404 error page on media websites is showing up rather more frequently than before. 

In November 2014 the new PM made a speech citing Hindu mythology as proof of the achievements of ancient Indian science and leading newspapers reported it with a straight face, careful not to be irreverent, with a few honourable exceptions.

It’s not only the ruling establishment that media owners are anxious to protect. There is some assiduous self-censorship on behalf of corporate India too. When the Sheena Bora murder case transfixed the country in the latter half of 2015, the multi-faceted coverage of the couple who had owned INX media was careful not to touch upon their earlier links with the Reliance group.

It’s not only the central government and corporate India that the media are anxious to protect. State governments also intimidate them successfully. In December  2015, Chennai  saw unprecedented floods and the story had reporters converging there from media outlets across the country.

The visiting journalists discovered to their amazement the self-censorship that prevailed in the state then ruled by Jayalalitha. Officials would not answer questions at press conferences; they read out statements invoking Amma every now and then. Their peers in local newspapers told them that to criticize the state government’s handling of the floods was to invite defamation cases.

Through the latter part of 2016, documents pertaining to pay offs allegedly made by corporates to several politicians including Narendra Modi when he was Gujarat CM were leaked to the media and others.

"It’s not only the ruling establishment that media owners are anxious to protect. There is some assiduous self-censorship on behalf of corporate India too"


Two separate sets of papers obtained from income tax raids on two corporate groups - the Sahara group and the Aditya Birla group - were in circulation, but the media chose not to probe them. As The Hoot said then, some scams galvanise the media, others don’t.


2017 has been a busy year

This year has been a busy year for those tracking self-censorship towards the government or corporate India.   The year kicked off with the Indian Express publishing in January its investigation into the Sahara-Birla papers mentioned above and showing how the Income Tax Settlement Commission acted with alacrity in granting Sahara India immunity from prosecution on the basis of just three hearings.

Those named in these papers as recipients of payoffs included Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh; Raman Singh, the chief minister of Chhattisgarh; Narendra Modi when he was Gujarat CM; Shaina NC, the treasurer for the BJP in Maharashtra; and Sheila Dikshit, the former chief minister of Delhi. A total of over 100 politicians are mentioned between the two sets of papers. Blame the defamatory implications of reporting on all this for the fact that the response of the rest of the media was remarkably circumspect.

All kinds of stories annoy governments and invite self-censorship. The story on India having slipped three places in the international press freedom rankings this year is one that several newspapers carried in April. It was based on an index of press freedom report by the global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders which said that journalists are less free under the Modi government due to threats from Hindu nationalists.

The Economic Times had the story with the headline ‘India slips in media freedom ranking: Report’. But the report was taken down.  And TOI removed the story too.  

"All kinds of stories annoy governments and invite self-censorship"


July saw the saga of the Economic and Political Weekly editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta quitting his job after the Board of the Sameeksha Trust which publishes the journal asked for the takedown of a published  investigation relating to Adani Power.  More self censorship. The company had sent a legal notice to EPW.  Did any other publication try to see if this investigation had any merit and do a follow up? No.

But in August, The Guardian published a report containing elements of the same story and citing excerpts from an Indian customs intelligence notice. Newslaundry noted that India’s pink papers did not even curate the Guardian story, let alone pick up from the documents it cited.

September saw the sudden resignation of the editor of the Hindustan Times Bobby Ghosh who had joined the paper barely 14 months ago. The explanation offered was “personal reasons” though there was much speculation. One of these was linked to the Hate Tracker the newspaper had begun in July, to document instances of hate attacks from around the country.

The Wire wrote a story citing an internal memo to HT staff asking that tweeting of items put on this tracker be stopped, and suggesting the owner of the paper might have met the prime minister around this time regarding the editor of the paper, though the PMO denied this as the reason, while confirming the meeting.

October brings us back to The Wire’s own investigation into Jay Shah’s company and the outcry that followed in some quarters, including the political opposition.  It was the NDTV follow up of this story that this article began with. The list of other media which chose not to do any follow up on it  is quite long. Republic TV and Times Now did not rave and rant. Financial newspapers had not, before this,  deemed this to be a story worth doing, though it was based on documents derived from the Registrar of Companies database which can be downloaded for a fee. 

It earned The Wire a criminal defamation suit from Jay Shah but the report has not been  taken down as yet.

Meanwhile, at the Hindustan Times, the tweeting of items from it has stopped, but the Hate Tracker itself continues. One could interpret this as the paper’s way of  mollifying the powers that be while continuing work it thinks is editorially valid. You stop tweeting the Hate Tracker but you continue publishing it. As of now, it continues to record all incidents it classifies as hate crimes. 

We should be grateful for that.


 Note: The Hate Tracker was discontinued a few days after this article appeared and is no longer available in the HT archives..


Sevanti Ninan edits The Hoot.



The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

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