With nearly 400 television news channels, an expanding newspaper market driven by regional languages, and the second highest number of internet users in the world, journalism in India can appear vibrant and thriving. But amidst the din of breaking news alerts, voices of critique and quality independent journalism grow fainter in the face of aggressive nationalism and robust state and corporate power. News outlets here need more than just financial stability and legal support; they need greater credibility with their readership.
Since the election of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in 2014, news media in India must contend with an increasingly hostile climate. Journalists are more frequently threatened, detained or arrested. Some journalists known for their investigative work or criticism of right-wing Hindu extremism have been killed. These attacks are conducted in an atmosphere in which state actors denigrate journalists with terms like “presstitutes” and coordinated online trolling to shout down voices critical of the government as “anti-national.” Terms like “presstitutes” indicate the gendered nature of the abuse, especially directed at female journalists, but other marginalized identities such as Muslims are also frequent targets
The BJP government has been accused of trying to strong-arm news media that has questioned or contradicted the Modi regime—an English-language news channel was raided by the country’s top investigative agency in 2017, and more recently the signal of a Hindi-language news program was reportedly blocked. The state frequently reaches for the colonial-era sedition law to stifle dissent, and the evergreen pretext of national security to justify internet shutdowns and control the flow of information. The most common tack to chill speech and discourage investigative reporting employed by both politicians and corporations are lawsuits that claim defamation—a criminal offense in India.
As the defamation lawsuits indicate, journalism’s problems in India precede the ascendance of Modi’s star, and are rooted in the political economy of the industry. The market liberalization of the 1990s that led to a dramatic growth of the sector also created the conditions for a more commercialized media that far too easily succumbs to sensationalism and theatrics, particularly on television. Media ownership is also increasingly concentrated in a few hands, and those hands—be they large corporations consolidating or media power political players gaining a propaganda arm—guide coverage to their best advantage.
Some of these challenges and failures have motivated a shift to digital media, and a number of digital news startups have contributed to a growing sector. These startups are trying to carve out their own niche in a crowded space: A few are general news sites, some are verticals focused on one sector such as the technology industry, and some platforms are pursuing a specific genre of journalism such as data journalism or citizen journalism. At the same time, many of these platforms are also focused on fact-checking “fake news” or the politically motivated disinformation that circulates online.
Some of these startups have secured venture capital funding and are banking on the growth in digital advertising for their revenue and are actively experimenting with new business models. Those that are attempting subscription models range from outlets that place all content behind a paywall, to a membership model that asks committed readers for support, to a “freemium” model that offers bonus content for its subscribers. A few of the startups are nonprofits and rely on grants. The most prominent funder is the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF), founded in 2015 with the mission of supporting public interest reporting.
It is worth noting that these sites are accessible to only about 30 percent of the country that has internet connectivity. Further, the majority of these sites are in English which reinforces the “split public” of Indian media, where English media speaks to the elite and vernacular media to the masses. With a rise in regional language internet users, regional language media is also growing, although it remains more vulnerable to repression and reprisal. Mainstream media in India is also largely upper-caste and urban, and the reporting reflects the identity of the reporters.
Some digital outlets are focused on the voices of the marginalized. For instance, Khabar Lehariya, a feminist rural newspaper publishing in Hindi, has gone online. A number of anti-caste platforms such as Dalit Camera and Round Table India are creating their own content and countering mainstream discourse. These outlets operate in the same environment where aggressive nationalism and rampant misogyny thrive, making Indian digital media a contested space—where critical and independent voices persist through entrenched power structures in an effort to be heard.
Financially supporting these outlets, and the more mainstream digital news outlets, must be a largely domestic effort. The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act of 2010 prohibits foreign funding to journalists, news outlets, politicians and government officials, and has been used to cancel the registration of thousands of NGOs receiving foreign funding.
Despite these challenges, the dynamism of the sector in India intersects and connects with innovations in journalism globally. Startups of all stripes are watching and learning from outlets in other contexts—monitoring the progress of subscription models, the responses to different styles of journalism, and taking heart in how others also persevere over impossible challenges. Collaborations and networking across borders among these embattled voices would be a possible avenue of support—productive for their individual work and for solidarity in pushing back against the tide of rising illiberalism the world over.
By Revati Prasad, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication
This essay appears in Global Media Philanthropy: What Funders Need to Know About Data, Trends and Pressing Issues Facing the Field. With so many pressing issues affecting the media funding space as well as specific regional considerations around grantmaking strategies and priorities, Media Impact Funders turned to experts from the field and asked them to share insights across a range of media issues. Listening to those working on the ground is essential for understanding challenges and opportunities in a global context, and these essays offer critical insights that funders need to understand in the global media ecosystem. Opinions offered by essay authors are their own.