Indian opposition slams public broadcaster’s deal with BJP-backed news provider

India’s public broadcaster has signed a two-year contract with a news agency backed by the ideological parent organisation of the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The move by broadcaster Prasar Bharati has again increased concerns about the country’s shrinking press freedom, apart from triggering severe criticism from opposition parties.

The accusations have come as the country slips in press freedom rankings over consistent attacks, arrests and killings of journalists and amid a widespread row over the censorship of a BBC documentary critical of prime minister Narendra Modi’s role during the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Prasar Bharati is a statutory autonomous body under India’s federal information and broadcasting ministry that was established through parliamentary legislation.

It operates the radio and television media arms of the federal government – Aakashvani All India Radio and Doordarshan respectively.

On Sunday, The Wire reported that the public broadcaster had signed an exclusive deal with Hindusthan Samachar for its daily news feed.

Hindusthan Samachar is backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent organisation of the ruling BJP.

The move to use Hindusthan Samachar’s feed comes three years after the federal government terminated its subscription with the Press Trust of India (PTI), India’s largest and oldest news agency.

In October 2020, Prasar Bharati cancelled its subscription to both PTI and another news agency United News of India.

While Prasar Bharati said the move stemmed from commercial considerations, it happened months after the broadcaster threatened to cancel its PTI subscription, alleging its coverage was “detrimental to national interest” and undermined India’s “territorial integrity”.

In June that year, PTI had interviewed the Chinese ambassador to India and the Indian ambassador to China in the aftermath of the hand-to-hand combat between troops of the two countries in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh.

The new deal has been met with heavy criticism from opposition parties who have lashed out at the Modi government.

Pinarayi Vijayan, southern Kerala state’s chief minister and senior member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said the deal was “an attempt to saffronize news and silence dissent”.

Prasar Bharati CEO Gaurav Dwivedi defended the decision to sign the deal with Hindusthan Samachar, saying it was the only news wire service offering content in multiple Indian languages, reported Indian Express.

“We had a prior contract with Hindusthan Samachar, which was renewed this month,” he was quoted as saying to the outlet.

According to its website, Hindusthan Samachar was established in 1948 and at present operates out of 600 locations.

The website further states that it was established by Shivram Shankar Apte to create fertile ground for an Indian nationalistic perspective amid an environment of Western influence.

Apte was a senior RSS member and one of the key architects of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation that has close ties to the BJP.

He became the VHP’s first general secretary in 1966.

Opposition members said the move to bring Hindusthan Samachar on board has turned the broadcaster into the BJP’s mouthpiece.

“Prasar Bharati is now ‘mann ki baat’,” tweeted Ramshetty Vishnu, who is in charge of the opposition Congress party in Karnataka state, referring to Mr Modi’s monthly radio show of the same name.

Thomas Isaac, another senior CPM member, said Mr Modi’s government had decided to bring Prasar Bharati “under RSS heel (sic)”.

“Finally. Best to merge Prasar Bharati and BJP,” tweeted Jawhar Sircar, a former Prasar Bharati CEO and critic of Mr Modi.

The Modi government has consistently been accused of attacking India’s press freedom.

According to the World Press Freedom Index released in May last year, India’s ranking dropped to 150 out of 180 nations, from its last-year ranking of 142.

Earlier this month, India’s tax officials conducted raids on BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai after the British broadcaster aired a documentary that held Mr Modi “directly responsible” for the 2002 Gujarat riots.

In January, the Indian government issued a draft proposal that will ban any piece of news deemed to be “fake” by the fact-checking arm of a federal government nodal agency that shares news updates – the Press Information Bureau (PIB).

PIB has been criticised in the past for being the state’s mouthpiece, issuing denials on behalf of the government on critical and investigative news stories by online publications.