June 10, 2023
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
The state of the Indian media, especially its freedom, remains a serious worry. A few weeks ago, Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, released the 21st edition of the World Press Freedom Index and it didn’t make for good reading. India fell 11 spots to 161 out of the 180 countries ranked. With that, India is among the 31 countries where RSF says the situation for journalists is “very serious”. Even Pakistan fares better at 150, a rise of seven ranks from 2022. What’s more, even Afghanistan, where the Taliban is inimical to journalists, did better with a rank of 152. RSF defines press freedom as “the ability of journalists as individuals and collectives to select, produce, and disseminate news in the public interest independent of political, economic, legal, and social interference and in the absence of threats to their physical and mental safety”. The media and, by extension, our democracy are in serious peril.
RSF is a global NGO that aims to defend and promote media freedom. The annual World Press Freedom Index is considered the standard measure of the state of the media in various countries.
After the latest ranking was released, the Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Press Club of India and the Press Association released a joint statement expressing worry over India’s fall in the index. It said: “For developing democracies in the Global South where deep pockets of inequities exist, the media’s role cannot be understated. Likewise, constraints on press freedom due to hostile working conditions like contractorisation have to also be challenged. Insecure working conditions can never contribute to a free press.”
In its report, the RSF said: “The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in the world’s largest democracy, ruled since 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the embodiment of the Hindu nationalist right.”
The index comprises five variables on which each country is scored: Political, Economic, Legislative, Social and Security.
Possibly the one that should concern us most is the ‘Security’ indicator, where India’s rank was 172 – 11 ranks below its overall standing. So, only eight countries ranked worse on this parameter. Those were China, Mexico, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine and Myanmar. The ‘Security’ indicator evaluates “the ability to identify, gather and disseminate news and information in accordance with journalistic methods and ethics, without unnecessary risk of bodily harm, psychological or emotional distress, or professional harm resulting from, for example, loss of one’s job, confiscation of professional equipment, or ransacking of media installations”.
The RSF noted that an average of three or four journalists are killed in connection with their work every year, making India one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media. The report specifically talks of the online harassment of women journalists and crackdown on the press in Kashmir.
Among the problems the index highlighted was the concentration of media ownership in India. It said: “…the abundance of media outlets conceals tendencies toward the concentration of ownership, with only a handful of sprawling media companies at the national level, including the Times Group, HT Media Ltd, The Hindu Group and Network18. Four dailies share three quarters of the readership in Hindi, the country’s leading language. The concentration is even more marked at the regional level for local language publications such as Kolkata’s Bengali-language Anandabazar Patrika, the Mumbai-based daily Lokmat, published in Marathi, and Malayala Manorama, distributed in southern India. This concentration of ownership in the print media can also be observed in the TV sector with major TV networks such as NDTV. The state-owned All India Radio (AIR) network owns all news radio stations.”
The index goes on to note how several media houses are now blatantly biased in favour of the Modi government. It said: “The prime example is undoubtedly the Reliance Industries group led by Mukesh Ambani, now a personal friend of Modi’s, who owns more than 70 media outlets that are followed by at least 800 million Indians. Similarly, the takeover of the NDTV channel at the end of 2022 by tycoon Gautam Adani, who is also very close to Narendra Modi, signalled the end of pluralism in the mainstream media.”
In addition, we’ve seen how journalists are legally harassed, sometimes through Draconian laws, and accused of sedition and criminal defamation. The RSF report said: “Indian law is protective in theory but charges of defamation, sedition, contempt of court and endangering national security are increasingly used against journalists critical of the government, who are branded as ‘anti-national’.”
This is seconded by global rights crusader Amnesty International, which has said that Indian authorities are imposing unlawful and politically motivated restrictions on freedom of expression. It has said this repeatedly and also pointed to the crackdown on dissent that “has emboldened Hindu nationalists to threaten, harass and abuse journalists critical of the Indian government”.
The Indian government felt emboldened enough to target even the BBC after it aired a documentary critical of Modi and his performance as chief minister during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The government conducted searches at the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai, accusing it of evading taxes. It even banned the documentary from airing in India and used emergency laws to force Twitter and YouTube to delete clips of it.
The Press Club of India said the raid was a “clear cut case of vendetta”.
Press freedom is critical because free journalists uncover the truth. The citizen needs complicated issues analysed and explained, and journalists fulfill that role. Most important of all, a free press holds power accountable. Those in power benefit from the truth remaining hidden. The press needs to be a watchdog but, if the press is not free but beholden to that power, as we’re seeing today, it becomes an extension of that power. Those who refuse to become that extension are threatened and prosecuted. This is what press censorship and suppression look like. So, if you don’t have a free press, you may as well kiss democracy goodbye.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.