Indian media companies are facing tough times through a combination of declining interest in news, lower trust, and falling revenues. Meanwhile human rights groups say press freedoms have become increasingly threatened.
India slipped to its worst position on record in the Press Freedom Index this year (161 out of 180 countries), published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).1 The report notes that the press in India is facing challenges regarding journalists’ security and undue political influence. Independent journalists and media owners who carry out investigative work or those that have been critical of governments (both central and state) face physical threats as well as online harassment and legal charges.
Even foreign media were affected, with the offices of the BBC surveyed amid suggestions of tax irregularities in February. The surveys at the BBC came just a few weeks after the broadcaster released India: The Modi Question, a documentary series critical of Prime Minister Modi and his role in the Gujarat riots in 2002, when he was the state’s chief minister. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry responded by ordering social media platforms YouTube and Twitter to take down links and tweets on the documentary under the new IT rules, with officials in the government claiming the content lacked ‘objectivity’.2 Similar investigations on NGOs and think tanks have led independent media bodies to criticise these surveys as a form of intimidation.
The central government is further modifying the IT rules by setting up a fact-check unit under it, to identify ‘fake, false, or misleading’ information concerning the government, which intermediaries need to remove from their platforms. This has been widely criticised for overreach and endangering freedom of speech – as well as for contradicting earlier procedures laid down by the Supreme Court for blocking online content.3
Some relief, however, came last May when the Supreme Court of India suspended the controversial and colonial-era sedition law, directing the government to review it. Further, in the case of TV channel Media One, where the government revoked its licence, the top court noted that being critical of the government cannot be considered ‘anti-establishment’ and refusing security clearance to operate will create a ‘chilling effect’ on press freedom.4
Legacy brands in broadcast and print, NDTV 24x7, BBC News, Republic TV, and Times of India, were the top news sources attracting viewers online and offline. Dainik Bhaskar, a Hindi daily, featured among the top ten legacy brands accessed both online and offline by survey respondents, indicating a strong presence for the local language press even among English news readers.
But across different sources this year, our Digital News Report survey finds steep falls in both the consumption and sharing of news. There was a sharp decrease in access to online news (12 percentage points lower than last year), particularly through social media (-11pp), the main sources of news for a predominantly younger audience. Television, popular among a large section of the population, also saw a 10pp decline as a news source with our younger and more urban-based sample. These falls in news use can be attributed, in part, to the reducing impact of the pandemic, with lockdown restrictions withdrawn in April last year.
NDTV, considered an independent voice in the polarised television news space in India, was taken over by the Indian business conglomerate Adani Group’s AMG Media Network in August 2022. The takeover was another addition to a host of media organisations now owned or controlled by big business conglomerates in India. In January, the Adani group faced the heat after a report by US-based Hindenburg Research alleged that the company had committed ‘accounting fraud’ and ‘stock manipulation’ along with being on ‘precarious financial footing’ because of heavy debt.5
In a news environment characterised by reduced levels of trust, The Wire, an independent non-profit website, faced a severe credibility crisis for its investigative series on Meta in October. In its articles, it was alleged that special privileges were provided to a senior functionary in the ruling BJP government through Meta’s XCheck program. The allegations were strongly denied, and The Wire eventually retracted its stories after it found evidence that the central thrust of the story was fabricated and misleading. The Wire lost some audience trust (-5pp) in our annual brand trust ratings.
Digital-born brands, while not as popular in reach as legacy media brands, are attracting dedicated and engaged audiences. Among these are bilingual independent brands like NewsClick, as well as brands owned by traditionally strong regional players like Catch News (of the Patrika group), affirming a strong preference for news across languages for our survey respondents.
Research Associate, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai
These data are based on a survey of mainly English-speaking, online news users in India – a small subset of a larger, more diverse, media market. Respondents are generally more affluent, younger, have higher levels of formal education, and are more likely to live in cities than the wider Indian population. Findings in this online poll will tend to under-represent the continued importance of traditional media such as TV and print.
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Despite a small decrease (3 percentage points) in overall trust in news, public broadcasters and legacy print brands retained relatively high levels of trust. Public broadcasters DD India and All India Radio (and the BBC) are among those with the highest levels of trust while popular and sometimes partisan commercial broadcasters tend to have lower levels. Independent outlets that report critically on those in positions of power are often actively distrusted by some respondents and subject to coordinated harassment, so scores should not be seen as a measure of the quality or trustworthiness of the content itself.