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India's Ruling Party Tightens the Vise on JournaIists it Doesn't Like
The police raid on the staff of the Wire for getting a story critical of a BJP figure wrong is an ominous development
About two weeks ago, Wire, an Indian news portal that is a major critic of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, published what it was convinced was a major scoop. It reported that the head of the BJP’s information technology cell, Amit Malyiva, enjoyed special privileges that allowed him to directly report offensive content on Instagram, one of the three properties that Meta owns along with Facebook and WhatsApp, to Meta’s corporate bosses and get the post instantly removed, bypassing the company’s regular content moderation process. It even offered examples of a few anti-BJP posts that Insta had purged.
This was seemingly the flip side of the preferential treatment that Time magazine and Wall Street Journal have previously reported BJP leaders and affiliated groups already enjoy on these platforms. In 2020, the Wall Street Journal exposed that Facebook executive Ankhi Das refused to take action against some Hindu nationalist figures whose rhetoric repeatedly violated the platform’s rules against inflammatory and violent hate speech contrary to the advice of her staff. In one instance, Das did nothing when a BJP leader posted comments saying that Rohingya Muslims should be shot and Indian Muslims are traitors whose mosques should be razed. Her inaction was hugely embarrassing for a company that claims to be committed to promoting human rights and preventing hate speech. A few months later, Das stepped down saying she wanted to pursue public service.
Given all this, the Wire’s scoop was only mildly sensational. But, as it turns out, the news organization had fallen for a bizarre hoax allegedly perpetrated by a freelance reporter who, Wire editors claim, deceived them. It has cut all ties with him, admitted its mistake, retracted its stories, and published a mea culpa—pledging to do better. But that is not enough for the ruling party that seems determined to silence one of the few remaining critics in the Indian press.
Should it succeed, it will be yet another blow to India’s fast crumbling liberal democracy.
The Chronology of a Disaster
Here is what happened:
After the Wire initially published its allegations, Meta vigorously—and publicly—denied that it had handed any such special privileges to Malviya. But the news site doubled down. It published a follow up, this one with an accompanying email written by a senior executive in the wake of its initial exposé. The executive upbraided his colleagues for the initial leak and demanded that Wire reporters be put on a “watchlist.” In retrospect, it was peculiar that the executive circulated something this implicating via email at a time when the company was apparently leaking like a sieve. Another telltale sign was that the email was written in idiomatically Indian English, even though the executive was American.
Meta questioned this story too. But instead of suspecting something fishy, the Wire did yet another story. This time, it published more documents showing that Meta was engaging in an internal cover-up. It further claimed that it had got two technology experts to verify the internal Meta documents on which its stories relied.
However, things began to unravel quickly for the Wire as other tech experts, no fans of Facebook or Meta and broadly sympathetic to the pugnacious portal, questioned its reporting. Meanwhile, fellow journalists raised questions about its process. Why hadn’t the Wire, they asked, tried harder to get a categorical response from Meta?
A week later when Wire’s internal investigation suggested that things didn’t add up, it fell on its sword, a rare move in Indian media. It also reported the freelance researcher to the police.
In a just world, that should have been the end of the story. And for Meta, the primary target of Wire’s investigation, it was. It has neither sued nor humiliated the Wire, probably because as a company responsible to its shareholders it realizes that attacking a spunky, independent news organization wouldn’t be good optics.
Criminalizing a Mistake
But Malviya has no such qualms. As the head of the BJP’s IT cell, he has long attacked “left-leaning” publications—read critics of Hindu nationalism and the Modi government— that are allegedly preventing India from reaching its glorious heights. He blames the Wire of tarnishing his reputation, a laughable claim coming from someone whose party routinely spreads misinformation and disinformation through memes, jokes, unverified claims and who has himself been accused of making all kinds of false assertions.
Malviya has filed a First Information Report with the Delhi police against the Wire for defamation, forgery, cheating, and criminal conspiracy, prompting a raid on the homes of the news site’s senior staff, including its editor, Siddharth Varadarajan (a guest on a recent podcast at The UnPopulist), Jahnavi Sen (who wrote the stories, some of them co-bylined with Varadarajan), and Sidharth Bhatia, one of Wire’s founding editors in Bombay. The police confiscated documents, laptops, phones, and other devices, allegedly without following proper procedures or providing hash values that track when information is lodged in a device, leaving the door open to planting evidence.* This is not an idle worry given that Indian search and seizure laws are vague and open to abuse by authorities. The Editors Guild of India has condemned the raid as “excessive and disproportionate” and warned that it smacks of a “fishing and roving” expedition that could compromise the confidentiality of Wire’s sources.
There is no doubt that the Wire made a grave journalistic mistake. But it is hardly the first one in the annals of journalism to do so. Many great media outfits in the West with far more resources than the Wire’s shoestring budget have made worse errors and yet managed to get past them. The U.K.-based Sunday Times, along with the German magazine, Stern, spectacularly messed up when they published fake Hitler diaries four decades ago. Yet a Sunday Times editor shrugged off the faux pas noting, “Serious journalism is a high-risk enterprise.” Stephen Glass, once a celebrated writer, turned out to be a serial fabulist who not only forged two-thirds of his stories when he was on the staff of The New Republic but also essays he wrote for Harper’s Magazine and numerous other publications. He invented entire characters and dialogue out of whole cloth and yet none of the magazines that published him faced death and destruction. Meanwhile, the Washington Post, which brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974 after it broke the Watergate scandal, nevertheless got duped by Janet Cooke six years later after it printed her entirely fictitious story about an eight-year-old heroin addict that received a Pulitzer before being exposed.
Indeed, over the seven short years since the Wire was founded with the express mission of holding the government accountable and sticking up for India’s endangered religious minorities and liberal commitments, it has developed a reputation for scrupulousness. It has done ground-breaking investigative work and is the Indian participant in the international consortium of publications that have exposed the use of Pegasus, an intrusive surveillance software developed in Israel, by authoritarian governments to hack into the phones of opposition figures and dissidents. Wire’s work implicated the Modi administration too. And although the administration neither confirmed nor denied its findings, a lot of circumstantial evidence corroborates them.
The Death of India’s Adversarial Press
The role of a free press in a democracy is to challenge those in power, hold them accountable. But India’s corporate media has become a cheerleader—lapdog in local parlance—of the Modi government. With the notable exception of NDTV (which is currently trying to fight off a hostile takeover by a Modi acolyte), major networks such as Times Now, Republic TV, Zee TV—are more preoccupied with questioning the patriotism of opposition parties than asking tough questions of the government. They are so vitriolic and outlandish that they make Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson look like wise owls. One of the more cringe-worthy images in recent years was of Indian journalists jostling with one another to get a selfie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They rarely ever say or do anything to disrupt the official national narrative, namely, that India is a Hindu nation that must assert itself and reclaim its imagined position on the global stage.
In such an environment, against enormous odds, a few brave web portals, including, but not limited to, the Wire, Scroll, Article 14, News Laundry, People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), and Khabar Lahariya are trying to soldier on and fulfill the role that an independent press is supposed to in a democratic republic.
They are doing so in the face of the BJP’s “take no prisoners” approach toward critics. The Modi government has imposed all kinds of restrictions on journalists to stop them from investigating uncomfortable events or just as payback. It reportedly put Kashmiri photo-journalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo on a “no fly list,” even barring her from traveling to receive her Pulitzer for her work depicting the ravages of COVID in India. It likewise stopped author Aakar Patel, who headed Amnesty International’s now-closed India office, from traveling overseas. The BJP-led government in the state of Uttar Pradesh arrested Siddique Kappan, a Muslim journalist from the southern state, Kerala, when he arrived to investigate the rape of a dalit (untouchable) child. Many other writers and journalists have faced intimidation or arrest. Once arrested, it takes them forever to get bail. (Kappan got bail in that case but remains in jail for others.)
The Proper Locus of Accountability in a Free Society
All of this barely scratches the surface of press repression in India, which is why V-Dem, the Swedish initiative that monitors democracies, has downgraded India to an “electoral autocracy.” Meanwhile, Freedom House has dropped the country’s ranking from free to “partly free.” In other words, instead of being the world’s “largest democracy,” India is now the world’s most populous country that periodically holds elections.
In addition, the Indian government is increasingly cutting off funding sources for independent entities that it can’t directly control. It has blocked foreign contributions to thousands of local civil society organizations. Meanwhile, the regulations governing foreign donations are so onerous that many media portals seek donations only from Indian citizens who too have become wary of supporting such outfits out of fear of being targeted by tax authorities.
Wire itself subsists to a large extent on voluntary reader contributions, which is one reason why it is outrageous that some fat cat news organizations have abandoned solidarity with their beleaguered sister. Instead of asking the BJP to back off, they are lecturing the Wire about the journalistic process and ethics.
The Wire has humbly apologized and pledged to do better. In a free and functioning country, it would be up to its readers to look at the entirety of its record and decide whether it continues to deserve their support. But Malviya and the BJP were waiting precisely for a misstep in order to go on the offensive and replace such market accountability with a government crackdown.
Unless Malviya withdraws his complaint, which is highly unlikely, India’s notoriously slow judiciary is likely to tie up the Wire for years in expensive and time-consuming litigation. (The portal has been defending itself in myriad other cases filed by businesses and individuals close to the government, although some have since been withdrawn). Regardless of the final outcome, Malviya is pressing ahead knowing full well that the process itself will be the punishment. His actions might not be illegal, but they are calculated to send a chilling message to the media that if they raise their voice, they’ll face a robust response.
Such criminalization of error will further diminish the space for open debate and discussion in India. Outfits like the Wire are canaries tracking the health of Indian democracy. If India’s vindictive authorities manage to choke this canary, it’ll be a profound tragedy not just for the country but for liberalism everywhere.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.
*Addendum: Other Wire staff members were also targeted by the raid including founding editor M K Venu. In addition, the police whisked away the hard disks from the computers of the Wire’s accounts department as well as taking other devices. The home of Wire's business manager too was reportedly raided, and another reporter's devices were taken. Devesh Kumar, the freelance contributor whom the Wire reported to the police, says his equipment has also been taken.