Thursday, June 13, 2024

Interview: “In my 34-year career as journalist, I have never felt as anxious as I do today,” says Samar Halarnkar

In an interview with Maktoob’s Gafira Qadir, Samar Halarnkar, an editor, journalist with over three decades of experience, and founder of the independent media house Article-14, talks about how free the press is in India with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in charge. Samar describes the tough situation journalists are in, facing threats and new laws that limit their freedom. He also talks about how hard it is to report on the government in a critical way. This interview shows the challenges journalists in India face and why it’s important to protect their freedom to report, especially as censorship and repression increase.

Gafira Qadir: How do you perceive the state of press freedom in India under Modi’s regime? 

Samar Halarnkar: In my 34-year career as a journalist, I have never felt as anxious as I do today. To face punitive action from the government for simply doing my job as a journalist–this was supposed to happen in autocracies, not here in the world’s largest democracy, as we so loudly and proudly proclaimed in the past. I speak for many independent journalists when I say our profession has never, since the Emergency, been under such threat. Many journalists have had criminal cases filed against them, and many have been imprisoned. And now, as the Press Club of India recently pointed out, new laws are coming that will effectively end the free press in India. The proposed Broadcasting Services Regulation, the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, the Press and Registration of Periodicals Act, and the Digital India Bill collectively undermine press freedom. It will become tough for the media to operate with any acceptable degree of freedom.

The Central and some state governments have also been using, or misusing, the law to prosecute journalists, These laws include the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) and the PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act), both of which have been freely used to deny bail and keep people in jail. But these are not the only laws. A variety of laws has been weaponised against journalists, from incitement to sedition. India’s press freedom index has fallen 19 places since 2014. There has rarely been a more challenging time to be a journalist.

Gafira: What are the biggest challenges when you report critically on the government?

Samar: The biggest challenge is that the government can retaliate by means insidious and foul. The union government’s attention is constant, towards individual reporters and organisations. While these challenges have spread nationwide, the gold standard for suppressing the media has been Kashmir. Many of our reporters there have faced threats, and intimidation, and journalism there has been, quite plainly, criminalised. As a result, many have stopped writing due to the danger to themselves and their families. This threat is now spreading beyond Kashmir to other regions, especially in but not limited to the North. 

Gafira: Have you experienced any instances of censorship or pressure from the government? Are there any legal challenges that your organization faced recently?

Samar: We have not, but other independent media organizations have. We are on the government’s radar. I won’t go into details, but for specific stories, we have faced problems. We have not yet faced legal challenges, but we do have a dormant criminal case against us, and I often think it is not a question of if but when. 

Gafira: Have you and other independent media outlets encountered financial pressures, such as the withdrawal of advertisements, due to their critical stance? How do they gauge public support for their organizations?

Samar: We don’t accept advertisements. Financial pressure is a way of life. I would say we survive month to month. We don’t have the money to pay full-time salaries. We have only one full-time employee and about five of us work part-time, either supplementing our incomes by working elsewhere or getting by with less or working for free. We are a for-profit company, so we cannot accept donations. However, we have subscriptions, job contracts, research contracts, etc. Through these means, we have managed to get by. We are only ever a month or less from bankruptcy.

Gafira: What do you see as the future of independent journalism in India?

Samar: Many people are invested in journalism that strives to be independent because they believe in what it stands for. They want to succeed, somehow, and are willing to make sacrifices, to do what it takes. Many are trying to evolve a successful business model, which is difficult. Independent media worldwide face the challenge of evolving a successful business model, and India is no exception. We will continue and are not going to fade away, that’s for sure. We may function on the edge of bankruptcy or just about get by, but we will continue like that for sure.

Gafira: How has the current political climate affected the ability to report freely?

Samar: As India cracks down on dissent against the government, most reporters in the mainstream media avoid being critical of the government. The current political climate of conflating criticism of the government with treasonous behaviour greatly restricts the ability to report freely because of the ever-present threat of criminal action, intimidation, and imprisonment. Even reporters who can cover many of these issues (critical of the government) often feel apprehensive. For example, in many northern states, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir, as well as in Manipur, it is almost impossible to get an official reaction when you are reporting–something that was simple enough in the past. Government officials used to speak more freely, but now many are afraid to say anything. Some are afraid someone is watching or listening. Others simply do not want to jeopardise their careers by the simple act of speaking to the media. Intimidation is not exclusive to regions run by the BJP or directly from Delhi. It also happens in Tamil Nadu, in West Bengal, in Kerala and other opposition-ruled states–but in general the situation isn’t as threatening.

Gafira: Is there any self-censorship in the media?

Samar: There is self-censorship, as I said, mainly in the mainstream media, which is a hotbed of censorship, done internally or externally. Many columnists in the mainstream media self-censor. There is no question about that. Different columnists in different media know the sensitivities of their owners and avoid writing on issues that they know will either be questioned or not published. While it is far less common in independent media, we are not immune. We drop bylines of reporters, we hesitate to cover certain stories or soft-pedal, sometimes, on issues that may bring us directly into conflict with the State or the law, as it is deployed these days. Reporters themselves self-censor. They may request a photo or fact be held back, a source protected or a change made to a headline. 

Gafira: The big media houses are working not only as propaganda tools for the ruling regime but also as vehicles of hatred. How do you view these dangerous trends?

Samar: It is inaccurate to say all large media houses provide platforms to hate speech or are propaganda vehicles. I mean, there are those who, you know, are just normal–if not courageous–media. There are biased media or media aligned with the State. Some media are nakedly majoritarian or Islamophobic. Those aligned with the government, especially television news channels, are scarcely considered credible any longer. They survive and flourish because they are patronised by the State. It is terrible and unfortunate that many of our colleagues have turned into Islamophobes, fake nationalists, and think nothing of encouraging or actively spreading fake news and disinformation. I never thought I would see colleagues plunge to this nadir. The great tragedy is that journalists who have gone to the dark side know they are tearing India’s multicultural society apart and threatening the very existence of their nation, but they keep doing what they are doing. Being part of the howling mob now appears to be an addiction many journalists and the people they work for cannot shake.

Gafira: There is a case study suggesting that the ‘love jihad’ law and the resulting imprisonment of hundreds of Muslim youth are due to a brutal media campaign and their fabricated stories about ‘love jihad’. Is the media enabling the genocidal politics of Hindutva?

Samar: Many in the media are certainly complicit in becoming vehicles for the worst kind of politics.  These kind of media encourage and normalise Islamophobia and other prejudices against minorities. There’s no question that they have become participants and enablers. We have seen the dangerous role of the media in driving genocides in other countries. Now we see the rise of our own Radio Rawandas.

Gafira: As an editor, how do you view the diversity of newsrooms in India? Even though there are independent media houses, a major portion of their editors and reporters are from upper-caste Hindu communities. Do you see any signs of change?

Samar: I think there is awareness, there is no doubt about that. Some newsrooms actively try to recruit those from minority communities. For example, I know Scroll has gone out of its way to recruit Adivasi reporters and has done some really good work with them. Similarly, News Minute has been particular about employing people from traditionally disadvantaged castes and minorities.

So, there is awareness. However, I can’t say that things have changed, because that kind of change requires a lot of effort, commitment and time.

Gafira: What do you think will happen in this election?

Samar: I have no idea. That’s speculation. We’ll have to wait until the end of the elections. But overall, I think the ruling coalition won’t get as many seats as they expect. Of course, nobody can say for sure. And no one is really clear what role a compromised Election Commission will play in the final results. We’ll have to wait.

Gafira Qadir
Gafira Qadir
Gafira Qadir is a journalist based in Kashmir, covering human rights, gender, and education.

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