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Independent media in India are banding together to counter eroding press freedom

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today is the last day in India's six-week-long election. The sheer scale of the polls poses a challenge to journalists, especially with press freedom eroding under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But some independent newsrooms are banding together, as Pavni Mittal reports from New Delhi.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK, go on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Supriya (ph), why don't you - why don't you...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

PAVNI MITTAL: There are hundreds of news outlets in India reporting in a dazzling array of languages and increasingly working in a more controlled environment. Recently, advocacy group Reporters Without Borders condemned what it called the oppressive climate for press freedom in India. Independent media outlets say they are facing harassment, but some of them are finding creative ways by pooling resources together to not just survive, but also thrive in this climate.

DHANYA RAJENDRAN: It also makes up any government or any government agency a little bit more wary of touching you - right? - because you have strengthened numbers.

MITTAL: This is Dhanya Rajendran, the editor-in-chief of the digital news site The News Minute. It focuses on reporting news from southern India. Last year, it started partnering with Newslaundry, a nationwide independent digital news outlet. For this election, they're combining strengths to increase ground reporting around issues that are not covered in much detail by mainstream media.

RAJENDRAN: We have gendered polls. We have battleground states. We have something called Idea of India, where our reporters explore what is the idea of India for different kinds of people who live in the country.

MITTAL: These newsrooms are funded by subscribers, and for this year's election coverage, they raised nearly $48,000 through a joint crowdfunding campaign. It's not a lot by U.S. standards, but it gives them not only the financial freedom, but also helps boost journalists' morale, says Manisha Pande, managing editor of Newslaundry.

MANISHA PANDE: I think, A, it definitely makes you feel a little more optimistic when you're with like-minded people. You get to share your newsrooms together. We don't have the luxury of large newsrooms. We're not a reporting team of 50, 60 people. So it's always nice for reporters across organizations to collaborate, learn from each other's expertise, feel a little motivated that there are people out there in the ecosystem who want to do similar work.

MITTAL: The collaboration has resulted in some of the most high-profile stories in recent months, like this one in March.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The Supreme Court has struck down electoral bonds, effectively calling them unconstitutional.

MITTAL: An anonymous political funding scheme now outlawed by the Supreme Court. Three digital outlets - that is Newslaundry, The News Minute and Scroll - joined hands to form a consortium of 25 journalists. The team discovered that many companies donated to the governing party, Janata Party, when they were being investigated by authorities, raising concerns about political corruption, which the BJP denies. Parth MN is one member of the consortium. He says this story is not a priority for many mainstream outlets in India.

PARTH MN: So if you juxtapose the coverage of the mainstream media with the stories that some of us did in the alternate space, you can tell the difference between, you know, independent journalism and journalism that sort of didn't want to question the establishment.

MITTAL: Some collaborations also extend beyond editorial matters, says Anant Nath, the president of the Editors Guild of India, an industry association that also helps newsrooms navigate government crackdowns.

ANANT NATH: For a body, for a media association, it is far easier to take on the government than perhaps an independent media organization. And we have seen in instances where even large media houses, who independently a little wary of taking on the battle - they are reasonably open to taking up the same battle as part of a cohort, as part of a, you know, association because then you're not painting a specific target on your back.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Over the last two months, our teams brought you...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Authentic ground reports.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: And now we are back with elections online.

MITTAL: As India's elections come to an end, five independent newsrooms are coming together to co-produce a big show on results day - which is June 4 - to challenge what they call biased punditry on cable TV and to show a united front in an increasingly challenging news environment.

For NPR News, I'm Pavni Mittal in New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pavni Mittal
[Copyright 2024 NPR]