NEW DELHI - India's home minister has threatened to "stamp out" journalists who have been "trouble mongering" ahead of national polls due by May, underlining pressures on the media during a bitter election campaign.
The comments by Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, criticised by social media and opposition parties, came after a former army chief referred to reporters recently as "presstitutes."
Speaking on Monday, Shinde accused the media of "stirring up trouble" and manipulating news about his Congress party at a rally in the western state of Maharashtra.
"The intelligence wing is under me, so I know from where such activities are launched and I watch them ... Now we have decided to stamp out such trouble mongering mentalities from this country," Shinde said.
The Editors Guild of India on Monday objected to what it called "unsubstantiated charges" against the media, including by anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal who has alleged a nexus between media organisations and Indian companies.
Shinde attempted to clarify his comments on Tuesday, saying he was referring to social media and the spreading of rumours.
"It was not on journalists," Shinde was quoted as saying by news channel CNN-IBN.
Opinion polls predict defeat for Congress at the looming elections, with voters troubled by persistently high inflation, slowing economic growth and a string of corruption scandals.
Kejriwal said on the weekend that Mukesh Ambani, India's wealthiest man who heads the giant Reliance Industries conglomerate, controlled and "bought some TV channels and newspapers."
Kejriwal was hinting at news channel CNN-IBN and other channels of the Network 18 group, one of India's largest broadcast companies, in which the Reliance group holds an indirect shareholding.
"(The) Broadcast media association is very concerned by these kind of allegations (by Shinde) which are unsubstantiated and which are a product of frustration of the political class," said N.K.Singh, general secretary of the Broadcast Editors Association.
The Indian media, a pillar of the country's vibrant democracy, has come under fire over its integrity in the past.
The industry was riddled with corruption that saw journalists report positive stories for cash in a phenomenon known as "paid news," a Press Council of India probe found in 2010.
A parliamentary report on paid news last year slammed the government for failing to tackle the issue and threw a damning light on an industry that is meant to serve as a bulwark against corruption.
Regional newspapers in vernacular languages are the biggest culprits but their national English language counterparts do not escape criticism, the probes said. Even venerable newspapers like the Times of India and Hindustan Times have been in the firing line.