Q: How free is India’s “free press” if it has to depend on government ads to survive after the Coronavirus? A: Don’t even ask that question, or else.

In mature democracies around the world, the news media goes out of its way to underline its independence to the outside world—to convey that they are credible businesses not beholden to governments, businesses or other vested interests for their survival and journalism.

#CoronaVirus seems to have blown away even that little figleaf in the world’s largest democracy.

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi‘s suggestion to the Narendra Modi government to consider a two-year freeze on government advertising in the media has been met with a barrage of criticism that only confirms the longstanding suspicion that governments in power use advertisements like a tap to shape coverage—turning it on to gain good press, and turning it off to punish the naysayers.

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The Indian Newspaper Society, which had nothing to say for days when Kashmir’s media was throttled, expressed “disbelief” at Sonia Gandhi’s proposal in double quick time. The amount of money that the government will save by stopping ads is “very small”, it says, and claims such a proposal tantamounts to “financial censorship”.

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How much is “very small”?

In its first term in office, the Modi government spent Rs 5,726 crore on publicity: Rs 2,604 cr on TV ads; Rs 2,379 on print ads. Print adspend shot up Rs 170 cr after #Demonetisation in 2016.

In election year 2019, the Modi government starved funds to state-owned DD and AIR, while the lesser watched private channels flourished.

The numbers tell the tale.

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The News Broadcasters’ Association (NBA) called Sonia’s move “highly demotivating”.

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The Indian Express leads the charge amongst the newspapers with a news report and an editorial that doesn’t beat around the bush.

In language that is borderline tendentious, the Express editorial ignores the other salient points Sonia Gandhi made to cut wasteful expenditure and focuses only her proposal to starve media of government ads, calling it “badly timed, insensitive, dangerous and completely shocking”.

Astonishingly, Express, which like many newspapers relies on government advertisements and tender notices while keeping up the pretence of keeping tabs on it, suspends any pretensions to nuance or balance, and sees Sonia Gandhi’s COVID proposal in line with the Emergency, introduced by her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, and the Defamation Bill moved by her husband Rajiv Gandhi.

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The Hyderabad-based Deccan Chronicle thankfully takes up all of Sonia Gandhi’s proposals but concludes her suggestion on ban government ads will ensure that “only the big fish with corporate backing will survive”.

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There is no denying that Indian media is headed for tough times thanks to an economic collapse compounded by the outbreak of the CoronaVirus pandemic. Some help is in order, especially for the small players in the languages.

There is also no denying that Congress has a bad record with the press in the past and its current state governments have not been innocent of courting the media with ads bought by taxpayer money.

But this is the season of a pandemic, when even the PM is reduced to holding the bowl for donations to deal with its havoc

For the fatted calves of the print media to demand that taxpayers’ money come to them as a matter of right takes the breath away. Especially when there is near-unanimity about the Modi government’s fraught relationship with the media.

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