“You Guys Are Not Immune”: Modi Government Cracks Down on Independent Media Amid Farmer Protests

StoryFebruary 11, 2021
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Indian farmworkers are continuing to take to the streets to demand Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeal three highly contested agricultural laws. Farmworkers say the laws, which seek to deregulate markets and allow large corporations to set prices, threaten their livelihoods. Dozens have died since the start of the protests, with many deaths caused by the harsh winter as tens of thousands of farmers have camped out in the cold on the outskirts of New Delhi and other parts of the country. The Modi government has come under harsh criticism for its response to the uprising as it raided the offices of the progressive news site NewsClick and demanded that Twitter remove hundreds of accounts as part of a crackdown on information about the protests. “The main idea of doing this is to send a warning and a message to the rest of us, the independent media, to say that you guys are not immune,” says P. Sainath, award-winning Indian journalist and founder of the People’s Archive of Rural India. “Independent media is having it as hard as it gets just now.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn now to India, where farmworkers are continuing to take to the streets to demand Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeal three highly contested agricultural laws. Farmworkers say the laws, which seek to deregulate markets and allow large corporations to set prices, threaten their livelihoods.

On Saturday, tractors, trucks and tents blocked traffic around India for several hours. A four-hour railway blockade is planned for next week, as protests show no sign of slowing down. On January 26, India’s Republic Day, a protest in Delhi turned deadly after some people broke off from the main action and breached the historic Red Fort complex. One person was killed, hundreds injured. Last week, farmers held a vigil on the border of New Delhi for the deceased.

PRABHPAL SINGH: [translated] We are holding this candlelight vigil as a tribute to all those who lost their lives in this farmers’ movement. We are also protesting against barricading and putting metal spikes at borders, and for solidarity with journalists who were arrested by the police. We are fighting for everyone and demanding for the Narendra Modi government to listen to us.

AMY GOODMAN: Dozens have died since the start of the protests. Many deaths were caused by the harsh winter as tens of thousands of farmers have camped out in the cold on the outskirts of New Delhi and other parts of India.

The U.N. and rights groups are calling for Indian authorities to respect the right to peaceful assembly and stop its crackdown on the protesters, including internet shutdowns and censoring critics. Twitter has just come under fire after it blocked hundreds of accounts at the behest of Narendra Modi’s government, which Twitter says threatened to lock up its local employees if it did not comply. Meanwhile, earlier this week, authorities raided the offices of progressive news site NewsClick, which has been closely covering the historic farmworkers’ uprising.

For more, we go to Mumbai, India, where we welcome back P. Sainath, award-winning Indian journalist, founder of People’s Archive of Rural India, or PARI. His latest, published in The Wire, is “Rich farmers, global plots, local stupidity.”

P. Sainath, thanks so much for joining us. If you can talk about the crackdown on the very media that’s giving voice to the mass, epic protests around India right now?

P. SAINATH: Well, it’s been on, interrogations, detaining people — I think it’s been on for more than 50 hours. The raids conducted on NewsClick, which, as you described, is a progressive media organization, an independent media organization, noncorporate, they — I mean, this is now being done by the Enforcement Directorate, which is not police, strictly, but bringing in economic offenses, charges which they haven’t made public but plant in the journals of the ruling fraternity, and no one has explicitly said what the charge is. But laptops, servers — I mean, laptops, hard disks, phones have been confiscated. And at least five people are without their phones or their laptops, which have been taken over.

But the main idea of doing this is to send a warning and a message to the rest of us, the independent media, and to say that “You guys are not immune, and that we are going to crack in this way, because, yeah, it might amount to nothing in the courts, it may be thrown out, but it’s going to malign your reputation in public.” So, I call you a money launderer or something like that; none of that is going to stand up in court, but remember that they are backed the greatest proll army in the world — payroll trolls — of the ruling government. So, like, last night, there was a video, which, after a great delay, YouTube and Twitter took down, which named 10 independent media groups, including the People’s Archive, as having been extremely dangerous people who should be jailed immediately, failing which the maker of the video feared for his life. OK? So you’ve got the pressure from the government, and you’ve got the silence and connivance of the corporate media. Independent media is having it as hard as it gets just now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Sainath, could you talk about the mainstream media? You’ve pointed out the mainstream media’s coverage, which you’ve been critical of, and you’ve also said “the mainstream media” is a strange term for news outlets that systematically exclude 70% of the population as it does in India. Talk about how the mainstream media has been covering these historic protests.

P. SAINATH: Well, the newspapers are slightly more sophisticated than the channels. The channels are screamers, and they do pretty much what — I mean, some of them can make Fox News look, you know, moderate. But this is a completely hostile corporate media, completely with the government. You can look at the editorials on the latest budget of the government. One of the more liberal, supposedly pro-underdog newspapers says this is the most historic budget in decades. It’s a terrible budget.

But even at the best of times, coverage of rural India and farmers is — about rural India as a whole, let alone farmers, is 0.67% of the front page in an average — in any Indian national daily. Now, these newspapers, their inside pages, I mean, crime and entertainment get more space than all — than all the social-sector beats, from environment, housing, poverty, development, farming, agriculture, climate change — put together, don’t make the kind of space that crime and entertainment make.

The same media has shed more than 1,500 journalists, using the pandemic as an excuse. And you can guess which types of journalists get shafted. Since April last year, using the pandemic as an excuse, some of the, you know, most cash-rich media companies in Asia, or perhaps the world, have thrown out more than 1,500 journalists and thousands of nonjournalist media workers, who I think are extremely important in the entire process of information generation. So, you’ve got that on the one hand.

Since April last year, the government and the police have arrested journalists under extraordinary provisions. You’re all familiar with arrests of Indian journalists on charges of sedition. They’ve arrested them, filed FIRs, or first information reports, on charges under the Epidemics Act — OK? — under the Disasters Act, spreading demoralization, blah, blah, blah, blah. So, anyone — I mean, those who dissent — I mean, the message is clear: Dissent, and you’re doomed. There’s between 70 and 80 first information reports filed against journalists. Journalists have spent one month in jail without being able to meet their lawyers, because they’re being arrested under extraordinary laws, like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and you name it. I mean, this government has just completely gone berserk in its treatment of media. So, those elements in the corporate media, the good journalists, are themselves intimidated and facing action.

But now they’ve decided NewsClick, in particular, gained incredible traction in readership and viewership because of its coverage of the farm protests. Now, I know from our own experience of the People’s Archive of Rural India, our numbers have doubled and trebled because we cover farmers. We have published more than 50 stories on just the protests at Delhi and surrounding areas since November. Now, NewsClick, which is based in Delhi, has had something like 40 million views of its YouTube channel in a single month. That was unacceptable to the government. Since the corporate media are not giving them any information, those who need something are going there.

The corporate media’s approach to the farmers, one, “Oh, these are all rich farmers.” By the way, I put out the figures of what these farmers earn from Punjab, the richest farmers in the country. Their monthly household — and a household has more than five people in Punjab — monthly household income is 18,059 rupees, which is about $250. OK? It’s about $250 a month, for five people, which means a per capita income for each farmer of that farm household of around $50. And look at who directors of the IMF, etc., are writing, condemning: “These are rich farmers.” Guys are writing on Twitter — I mean, these guys are writing on Twitter and Facebook. These guys earn more in an hour than an entire family household of farmers earns in a month, and they are trashing the farmers as “rich farmers.”

So, you’re looking at the greatest troll army in the world, a hostile corporate media, and a government out to crack independent media. In NewsClick, the problem — I mean, it’s always been a thorn in the side of authority. It has really angered them with its coverage of the farm protests. So, this is the media scenario. And yeah, the media, the main media or the big media, cozy up to the government.

By the way, you should know that the richest Indian in the world, the richest media owner in India, is also one of the two or three biggest beneficiaries of these farm laws: Mr. Ambani. So, how are — then those media that he does not own, he is very often the biggest advertiser. So, why do you expect better from them?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sainath, we have just a minute left. Talk about where negotiations about these laws stand now. There is a Supreme — the Supreme Court appointed a committee to negotiate with the farmers. What’s happened?

P. SAINATH: The committee could not negotiate with itself. Before its first meeting, one-fourth of the committee, meaning one member — it’s a four-member committee — resigned because his own farm group expelled him. OK? That committee cannot talk at the end of — at the end of two months, its mandate. It’s got a two-month mandate to provide solutions. The only thing I can think of that happens in two months in agriculture is the maximum lifespan of pollinator insects, OK?

Now, this group, it cannot talk to the farmers. The farmers, the protesters won’t talk to them. They don’t take them seriously, and quite correctly so. So, nothing much is going to happen by way of the committee. As I said to you the last time, the tactic is what I call death by committee. I declined, when my name came up in the open court, to be part of this process.

So, nothing — the negotiation — look, they have tried and tried and tried to break these protests, to disperse those farmers.

AMY GOODMAN: Sainath, we have 10 seconds.

P. SAINATH: They’re getting stronger. The protests are spreading wider. They are not stepping back.

AMY GOODMAN: P. Sainath, we want to thank you so much for being with us, award-winning Indian journalist and founder of People’s Archive of Rural India, known as PARI. And we will link to your article.

That does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe. Wear two masks.

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