Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Donald Lu
Donald Lu, a former US ambassador seen here in Tirana, Albania in 2016, has praised India for having a 'free press', But many journalists in India would strongly disagree, pointing to the fact that at least 10 are currently in prison [Hektor Pustina/AP]

Donald Lu is dangerously wrong - India does not have a ‘free press’

The US must stop whitewashing Prime Minister Modi’s crackdown on Indian journalists


There is nothing to praise about the state of press freedoms in India, though America’s Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, a former US ambassador, recently proclaimed otherwise. 

Speaking to the Press Trust of India in April, Lu praised Indian journalists for the work they do to support Indian democracy, adding: “I have such respect for the freedom of the press in India. You have India as a democracy in part because you have a free press that really works.”

At the time of his speaking, the BBC was facing ongoing harassment in India - including censorship, office raids by tax department officials and a summons in a defamation case after releasing a documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that was banned almost immediately in the country. 

Earlier this year, the government created a “fact-checking unit” dedicated to policing social media platforms and internet providers, giving itself the absolute power to take down any posts about “any business of the central government” deemed to be “false or misleading”. At least 10 Indian journalists are languishing in jail - several of them under false terrorism charges. One journalist, Devendra Khare, was recently shot by masked men after reporting on an assault committed by the brother of a member of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“Free” is the last word that should be used to describe the press in India. In fact, just weeks after Lu’s comments, the media watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), reported that India’s rank on its press freedom index had dropped from 150 in 2022 to 161 in 2023. It was a staggering 11-point plunge, placing India lower on the index than Taliban-controlled Afghanistan - and the blame for that falls squarely on India’s government.

Since coming to power in 2014, Modi and the BJP have undermined all aspects of Indian democracy in their attempt to turn India into a Hindu majoritarian state, where religious minorities - particularly Muslims and Christians - are reduced to second-class citizens. But while the BJP is targeting minority rights through legislation, it’s their authoritarian control over the media that normalises and even glorifies the skyrocketing mob violence and bigotry against Muslims. 

Modi’s billionaire friend Mukesh Ambani owns more than 70 media outlets, while another friend, Gautam Adani, recently took over India’s last major independent TV broadcaster, NDTV. 

As a result, mainstream Indian media has become a bullhorn for pro-Modi propaganda, conspiracy theories and hate speech. When COVID-19 first broke out, the media was not only directed to whitewash the government’s botched handling of the pandemic, but also fueled anti-Muslim hatred by claiming “Corona jihad” was responsible for the spread of the virus. When young Muslim women - many of them minors - protested Karnataka state’s ban on wearing hijabs in schools last year, the rightwing channel Network 18 ran coverage referring to the protesters as an “al Qaeda gang”. 

If Biden and Assistant Secretary Lu truly want to see a 'free press' in India, they should use Modi’s state visit as an opportunity to convey concerns about assaults on press freedom


When four Muslim men were tied to a pole and publicly flogged by police in Gujarat state, Network18 senior editor and anchor Aman Chopra spent six minutes of airtime excitedly asking his crew to show a clip of the incident with “good angles and audio”. 

When Israel was bombing Gaza in 2021, Sudarshan News accompanied the story with a doctored image of the Muslim holy city Medina being bombed. Hate speech has become so normalised that the Editors Guild of India compared mainstream Indian media channels to Radio Rwanda, infamously known for broadcasting vitriolic propaganda and hate speech that played a key role in inciting the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Though there are journalists and news portals who continue to push back against this sort of narrative, the cost can be steep. India’s draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), is frequently weaponised against journalists who attempt to report on anti-minority violence and discrimination, charging them as terrorists and making it nearly impossible for them to get bail. 

Muslim journalist Siddique Kappan spent over two years in prison under false terrorism charges for trying to report on the brutal gang-rape of a Dalit teen. In Kashmir, journalists face internet blackouts, raids, harassment from security forces and the threat of indefinite imprisonment.

Even when journalists aren’t facing terrorism charges, it’s the norm to be flooded with online harassment from Modi supporters. Last year, Muslim journalist and Washington Post columnist Rana Ayyub reported that she had received more than 26,000 rape and death threats over social media for criticising Modi. Mohammad Zubair, co-founder of the news site AltNews and well-known for debunking rightwing propaganda, was arrested after a Hindu far-right Twitter account with a single follower accused him of offending Hindus by tweeting an old Bollywood clip. As RSF puts it, Modi’s India is “one of the world’s most dangerous countries” for upright journalists.

All things considered, it’s telling that Donald Lu chose to praise the “freedom” of India’s press just weeks before the White House officially announced that President Biden would be hosting Modi for a state dinner during his official visit to the United States on June 22. In doing so, Lu has validated those who are seeking to dismantle democracy and the institution of the press in India, affirming Indian far-right propaganda and completely whitewashing Modi’s authoritarian crackdown on journalists and critics as a whole. 

If President Biden and Assistant Secretary Lu truly want to see a “free press” in India, then they should use Modi’s state visit as an opportunity to convey concerns about assaults on press freedom, push for the release of all the incarcerated journalists and emphasise the importance of a robust and unrestricted press in a democracy.

Safa Ahmed is an independent Indian-American journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance


More Articles

How Latin American media echoes Israeli discourse in reporting Gaza news

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Critique of German media's handling of Gaza Conflict: Biased reporting and controversial journalistic stances

The German media's coverage of the Gaza conflict has been criticized for being biased, presenting a distorted view of the conflict, focusing only on the Israeli perspective, and downplaying the suffering of Palestinians. This biased reporting undermines the media's role as an objective source of information and fails to provide a balanced view of the conflict.

AJR Contributor Published on: 16 Nov, 2023
Colonial legacy of surveillance: hidden world of surveillance technology in the African continent

African nations’ expenditure on surveillance technology from China, Europe and the US is a direct threat to the media, democracy and freedom of speech, and an enduring legacy of colonial surveillance practices.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 14 Nov, 2023
How the New York Times fuelled a crackdown on journalists in India

Vague reporting and a piece ‘laden with innuendo’ by the New York Times gave Indian authorities the excuse they needed to crack down on news website Newsclick

Meer Faisal
Meer Faisal Published on: 31 Oct, 2023
Journalists feel the pain, but the story of Gaza must be told  

People don’t always want to hear the historical context behind horrifying events, resorting even to censorship, but the media must be free to provide it

Aidan White Published on: 30 Oct, 2023
Queen Rania is absolutely right - Western media’s double standards on Gaza

Why does international media use loaded and dehumanising language about the Palestinians when reporting on the Israeli bombardment of 2.2 million people in Gaza?

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 27 Oct, 2023
'War propaganda' - Brazil’s media has abandoned journalistic standards over Gaza

Brazil’s mainstream media, in its unwavering support for Israel, is out of step with public and social media responses to the bombardment of Gaza

Bruno Lima Rocha Beaklini Published on: 25 Oct, 2023
‘Emotional truth’ is not a cover for fabricating stories

Comedians who engage with the news should not be free to ignore the rules of ethical journalism

Akanksha Singh Published on: 16 Oct, 2023
Get this straight, Western media: Palestinians aren’t sub-human

Dehumanisation of Palestinians is as central to Israel’s war strategy as the deadly missiles it wields

Andrew Mitrovica Published on: 10 Oct, 2023
Victims of the Mediterranean: ‘Migrants’ or ‘Refugees’?

The term ‘migrant’ insufficient to describe victims of the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea; it dehumanises these people and is a failure of journalism

A picture of the author, Mohammad Ahdad.
Mohammad Ahdad Published on: 2 Oct, 2023
Why is a Western news organisation funding propaganda in India?

ANI, the world’s largest source of Indian news, receives funding from Thomson-Reuters, despite widespread condemnation for its misinformation about Muslims

Morley Musick Published on: 18 Sep, 2023
How do we determine 'newsworthiness' in the digital age?

The relentless flow of news in the digital age has re-shaped the parameters by which we decide what is 'news' and what is not

Muhammad Khamaiseh Published on: 11 Sep, 2023
‘Focus on the story, not the storyteller’ - the dilemma of a diaspora journalist

When reporting on their homelands, diaspora journalists walk a fine line between emotional connection and objective storytelling

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 4 Sep, 2023
Why does Arab media fail so badly at covering refugee issues?

Arabic media discourse on refugees and migrants frequently aligns too closely with the Western narrative, often spreading fear of migrants while emphasising the burdens of asylum

A picture of the author, Ahmad Abu Hamad
Ahmad Abu Hamad Published on: 28 Aug, 2023
What does Zimbabwe’s new ‘Patriot Bill’ mean for journalists?  

As Zimbabwe heads into elections this week, a new law dubbed the ‘Patriot Bill’ will further criminalise journalism

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 21 Aug, 2023
Verify everything: What I learned from covering the Qatar World Cup 

Last year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar was not the flop so many in the Western media predicted it would be. It taught me one thing - verify everything!

Noe Zavaleta Published on: 8 Aug, 2023
How do we determine ‘newsworthiness’?

Digital media and the algorithms used by platforms to determine the news they send out to their audiences have fundamentally changed the face of news planning

Mohammed Shazly Published on: 24 Jul, 2023
What Zimbabwe’s news rooms must learn from global media closures

A flourishing media needs more than just capital and a few good ideas - it needs innovation  

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 13 Jul, 2023
Journalists beware! The silly season is upon us

With parliaments on recess and all the movers and shakers off on their holidays, journalists can find themselves scrabbling about for any old news to report. But be careful what you resort to

Ilya U Topper Published on: 3 Jul, 2023
Guatemalan media needs to talk about the consequences of corruption

The media in Guatemala has a responsibility to demonstrate how corruption affects people’s human rights

Jorge Sagastume Published on: 26 Jun, 2023
Sudan shows us why Africans must tell their own conflict stories

Africa lacks freedom of expression because its stories are told by others

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 1 Jun, 2023
What happened when I asked ChatGPT to write my article

It got quite a lot right, and quite a lot very, very wrong

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 22 May, 2023
Shireen Abu Akleh’s forgotten murder

Over the past year, many in the media profession in the US have deliberately chosen to forget the assassination of their colleague

Andrew Mitrovica Published on: 11 May, 2023
The correspondent's job: Ask people, don't tell them

Should foreign correspondents and their media organisations ever take a stand on another country’s political divisions?

Ilya U Topper Published on: 8 May, 2023