No journalists, please: Narendra Modi's 'no media' policy may prove to be a mistake

The day Narendra Modi was sworn in as the Prime Minister of the country, the official website for the country's Prime Minister underwent a swanky makeover to reflect the Modi brand. From the website's clean user-friendly interface to the addition of sections like RTI and 'Quest for Transparency', every aspect of the website was clearly designed to draw more people to it for information about the government and governance, and right from the horse's mouth, to repeat a cliche.

In the section 'Message from the Prime Minister', Modi spelled out what the government's intention: "I envision this website as a very important medium of direct communication between us. I am a firm believer in the power of technology and social media to communicate with people across the world. I hope this platform creates opportunities to listen, learn and share one’s views."

Narendra Modi at the Brics summit where he refused to take along a media team. AFP.

Narendra Modi at the Brics summit where he refused to take along a media team. AFP.

However, what no one had envisaged right then was the fact that 'direct communication' with the citizens meant Prime Minister Modi would also leave the media out in the cold. Unlike his predecessors, he doesn't have a media advisor, he has refused to take journalists along to important diplomatic tours and his ministry has been strictly forbidden from interacting with the media. An editorial on The Economic Times argues that the move could be dangerously counter-productive for the Prime Minister and his team.

"... There is a vast difference between discouraging unscrupulous influence-peddling journalists and media proprietors from misusing their access to corridors of power and a concerted policy to marginalise the media. A relatively free and combative media have remained one of the few tangible highlights of Indian democracy. Any hasty step to diminish this role would certainly not be in the interest of the country," Ajoy Bose writes on ET.

An article on Hindustan Times had noted that the advent of social media and Team Modi's talent in exploiting it makes traditional media less relevant to him than his predecessors. The article observes:

"Moyukh Chatterjee, a Phd scholar at Emory University in Atlanta, who has worked extensively on politics in Gujarat, says, only half in jest, “I have stopped reading newspapers. I go straight to Modi’s Twitter account. That is where you journalists pick up your information. Who needs intermediaries now?”

However, Bose begs to differ, pointing out that while making use of social media is a good idea, it's not an effective tool to convey policy decisions to the general public given its limitations in reach. Most Indians, after all, are not Twitter. He adds that not having 'sympathetic interlocutors' when the government is in troubled waters could be a dangerous flip side of Modi's ban on media.

Bose, however, doesn't point out that cutting out journalists also means being able to exercise complete control on the message. An announcement on social media is a one-way communication that allows the government to engage with the public, but at its own will. However, letting journalists accompany a government entourage on a diplomatic meet or making announcements in a press conference come with the added burden of answering critical questions from the media.

The Prime Minister's disdain for the media is not a new phenomenon. in his public rallies, he repeatedly slammed the media as corrupt and compromises. Early on his campaign trail Modi had mockingly declared that if all the articles critical of him were to be compiled, they would fill up a big auditorium. But this doesn't mean that Modi doesn't care about media coverage. In his public rallies, he would exhort the crowd to chant slogans so that 'media waalon' could capture their support for Modi on their cameras. Recent newspaper reports noted that the new PM insists on being kept in the loop on all reporting on him and his ministers. Modi is notoriously image conscious, andfrom his clothes to his sound bytes to his media-friendly events like the Varanasi nomination, his every public gesture is designed to control and enhance his media brand.

But while Candidate Modi had a vast PR strategy to shape and encourage press coverage, PM Modi knows that the media have no choice but to cover him as the leader of the nation. Hence, he can now dictate who speaks to and when -- a list that no longer includes journalists.

Modi's team and the BJP by and large, notes an article on BBC, too seem to have adopted his media policy. "Mr Modi's attitude is now percolating to his council of ministers who were once media friendly, but are now avoiding journalists," senior journalist Kuldip Nayar told BBC.  And the bureaucracy too seems to have caught on the anti-press bug. The same article quotes journalist Rahul Bedi as saying, "Somewhere, it is the journalist - so used to spoon feeding - who is the biggest victim. He no longer has the access. And lost in this let-us-play-safe game is trust. Bureaucrats and politicians are not trusting reporters anymore."

But silence, however expedient, can prove expensive. It leaves a vacuum that is filled inevitably by speculation, as Firstpost senior editor Sandip Roy notes:

Firstpost's senior editor Sandip Roy observed, "Modi’s silence might be a signal that he is above the fray. But it is also allowing room for all kinds of interpretations, some clearly mischievous. Modi was lambasted for not speaking quickly and unequivocally on the Pune techie murder by a mob allegedly involving the Hindu Rashtra Sena fringe group." Firstpost's editor-in-chief R Jagannathan also opined pointed out how Modi suffers from a 'Muslim perception deficit' and his government's silence only helps strengthening it.

Silence is not always be golden when you are the leader of the world's biggest democracy -- a job that includes occasionally facing the Fourth Estate.

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Updated Date: Jul 28, 2014 13:48:49 IST

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