New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the list of 37 heads of state or government that the global body Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has identified as ‘predators of press freedom’. The entry against Modi notes how his “close ties with billionaire businessmen who own vast media empires” has helped him spread his nationalist-populist ideology through continued coverage of his “extremely divisive and derogatory” speeches.
India is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index. RSF is the world’s biggest NGO specialising in the defence of media freedom, which is regarded as a basic human right to be informed and to inform others.
Modi joins the likes of Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Myanmar’s military head Min Aung Hlaing and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, along with 32 others who “trample on press freedom by creating a censorship apparatus, jailing journalists arbitrarily or inciting violence against them when they don’t have blood on their hands because they have directly or indirectly pushed for journalists to be murdered.”
This is the first time since 2016 that RSF is publishing such a list. Seventeen of the heads identified as ‘predators’ are new entrants. Thirteen of the 37 in the list are from the Asia-Pacific region.
Seven of the list’s world leaders have been a part of it since it was first published in 2001 and include Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Ali Khamenei, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko. The latter has gained credence as a ‘predator’ since the dramatic rerouting of a plane to capture critique and journalist Roman Protasevich.
Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina and Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam are the two women identified as ‘predators’.
For each of the predators, RSF has compiled a file identifying their ‘predatory method,’ their press release notes.
The list also highlights how each ‘predator’ censors and persecutes journalists, and their ‘favourite targets’ – the kinds of journalists and media outlets they go after, along with quotations from speeches or interviews in which they ‘justify’ their predatory behaviour.
Modi’s entry notes that he has been a “predator since taking office” on May 26, 2014 and lists his ‘predatory methods’ as ‘national populism and disinformation’. His favourite targets, RSF says, are ‘sickulars’ and ‘presstitudes’. The former is a word which the Hindu rightwing and supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party use to slam viewpoints that are ‘secular’ – a word which is also in the Preamble of the Indian constitution – and not ostensibly rightwing Hindu-adhering. The latter is an amalgamation of ‘press’ and ‘prostitute’ – intended to indicate with the help of misogyny that media critical of Modi is a sellout.
The following is how the RSF describes Modi’s impact on the free press:
After becoming Gujarat’s chief minister in 2001, he used this western state as a laboratory for the news and information control methods he deployed after being elected as India’s prime minister in 2014.
His leading weapon is to flood the mainstream media with speeches and information tending to legitimise his national-populist ideology. To this end, he has developed close ties with billionaire businessmen who own vast media empires.
This insidious strategy works in two ways. On the one hand, by visibly ingratiating himself with the owners of leading media outlets, their journalists know they risk dismissal if they criticise the government. On the other, prominent coverage of his extremely divisive and derogatory speeches, which often constitute disinformation, enables the media to achieve record audience levels.
All that is left for Modi is to neutralise the media outlets and journalists that question his divisive methods. For this, he has a judicial arsenal with provisions that pose a major threat to press freedom. For example, journalists risk the possibility of life imprisonment under the extremely vague charge of sedition.
To round off this arsenal, Modi can count on an army of online trolls known as “yodha” (the Hindi word for “warriors”), who wage appalling hate campaigns on social media against the journalists they don’t like, campaigns that almost routinely include calls for the journalists to be killed.
The note also points out the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, in 2017, was a significant victim of Hindutva, “the ideology that spawned the Hindu nationalist movement that worships Modi.”
It also notes like women journalists like Rana Ayyub and Barkha Dutt, who have been critical of Modi, receive the brunt of virulent attacks, including doxxing and call for gang-rapes.
As a rule, any journalists or media outlets that question the prime minister’s national-populist ideology are quickly branded as “sickular” – a portmanteau of “sick” and “secular” – and are targeted by “bakht,” Modi devotees who bring lawsuits against them, defame them in the mainstream media and coordinate online attacks against them.
Recently, RSF had been critical of the “absurd charges” of “criminal conspiracy” brought against The Wire, Twitter India, and journalists Rana Ayyub, Saba Naqvi and Mohammed Zubair in connection with tweets and reports on an attack against a Muslim elderly man in Ghaziabad.